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They Drive By Night (1939)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

A policeman walks past a newsstand saying 'Allen Execution Today'. 'Shorty' Matthews, a recently released convict, talks to Allen's brother outside the prison before the bell signalling Allen's execution tolls.

Shorty goes to meet his ex-girlfriend, Alice, only to find her lying on her bed, dead. He leaves her flat in a panic, and after he is gone her landlady discovers her body. Shorty hides in a local news theatre, but when he leaves he sees the front page of a newspaper connecting him with Alice's death.

Shorty catches a bus to go north of London, but when it doesn't take him far enough, the driver suggests he go to the nearest all night café and try to hitch a lift with a lorry driver.

In the café, Shorty befriends a driver, Wally, but has to start a fight with someone when they seem to recognise him from the paper.

Once in the lorry, Wally confronts him and Shorty admits his real identity, protesting his innocence. Wally tries to get him to hand himself over to the police, but Shorty grabs the steering wheel and crashes the vehicle, knocking Wally unconscious in the process.

Taking control of the lorry, Shorty arrives at another café and stops off to get some aspirin for Wally. Inside, he meets another ex-girlfriend, Molly, who is also hitching a lift with a lorry driver. She gets in the lorry with her driver and they leave.

The driver pulls over to the side of the road and tries to rape Molly. She gets out of the cab and runs, but the driver catches her. Shorty drives up to them in his lorry, stopping to fight off the other driver. He puts Molly into his lorry and tells her why he is on the run. All three go to the café run by Wally's wife, so that Shorty can drop them off and continue with his escape.

At the café, the police arrive, putting Molly in a car for questioning, while Shorty escapes through the window. Shorty manages to steal the car, ditching it and Molly further up the road before running away. As he leaves, Molly tells him where she is working in London in case he ever needs her.

Molly returns to work at a dance club. Shorty comes to meet her there, and she takes him to a deserted old house so that he can use it as a hideout. Shorty asks her to question people at the club, because he suspects that it was one of the regulars who killed Alice, who had worked there.

Back at the club, Molly meets Hoover, a criminal psychologist with an interest in Shorty's case. He tells her that he thinks Shorty is innocent, before secretly following her to his hideout.

At the hideout, Shorty tells Molly he is going to give himself up and, when they find the real murderer, marry her. Suddenly, he notices Hoover spying on them through the window, and chases him, before knocking him to the ground.

After questioning, Hoover tells Shorty that he thinks he is innocent, and invites him to stay at his house while they try to catch the real killer. Reluctantly, Shorty agrees, although he suspects Hoover of being the real killer.

Shorty looks through Hoover's book collection at his house, and confirms his suspicions when he discovers a scrapbook that Hoover has been keeping, consisting of newspaper clippings from the Alice's murder.

While Shorty is looking at the scrapbook, Hoover locks the door and goes downstairs to Molly. He attacks her, but she manages to scream, alerting Shorty, who breaks down the door and runs downstairs. He manages to wrestle Hoover off her and knock him unconscious.

Some time later, a policeman walks past a sign saying 'Hoover Execution Today'. Shorty and Molly are waiting outside the prison, and hear the bell toll to signal his execution.