Judge Jesse Ataide ponders how the presence of Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis would liven up his long drives home through the California desert.
"Let there be killing. All this evening I've had a feeling of destiny closing in."—Alan Squier
Though it's somewhat a stretch to label The Petrified Forest a gangster film, it features one of the most memorable gangsters in all of cinema: Duke Mantee, as played by a young Humphrey Bogart. The film adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's Broadway smash hit, it retains Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind) and Bogart from the play's original stage run, and adds the sensational Bette Davis (All About Eve) into the volatile mix.
Facts of the Case
In the middle of Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, several characters meet in a lonely diner run by Gabby Maple (Davis) and her eccentric grandfather (Charlie Grapewin). An aspiring artist and romantic dreamer, she quickly falls for the philosophical musings of failed author and self-described "intellectual" Alan Squier (Howard) who wanders through the door, and exits again just as quickly.
Fate has a different plan, however, when Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his band of thugs hijack the car Squire has hitched a ride in. In a desperate attempt to alert Gabby of Mantee's presence in the area, Squier races back to the dusty diner but arrives too late, joining several other characters being held hostage while the Mantee gang plot their next move.
At the time it was being made, Howard was considered the major star of the film, and he would quickly follow his role in The Petrified Forest with star performances in Pygmalion, Intermezzo, and of course, Gone with the Wind. But when viewed today, the most interesting elements of the film are the very early performances given by Bogart and Davis, both who were still relative unknowns in the business at the time of film's release.
Much of the power of the film derives from the original play as the film's inevitable staginess develops a brooding sense of claustrophobia that drives much of the narrative action. As the law closes in on the diner, personalities clash, gunshots are fired, and a feeling of impending doom descends on all the characters involved. As the hostages attempt to remain calm and reason with the increasingly tense Bogart, confessions of love ensue, secrets are revealed, and ultimately, sacrifices made.
The Petrified Forest is considered a precursor to the film noir movement, and it serves as an interesting transition film between the romanticized gangster flicks of the 1930s and the hard-edged noirs of the '40s. This tension is best demonstrated through Howard and Bogart's respective characters. Howard is the dreamy intellectual who recognizes that he is living in a world that has no use for him; Bogart's growling sneers and silent brooding serves as a representation of the increasingly cynical and world-weary public developing in light of the international conflicts that would eventually lead to WWII. Is it by accident that Howard, star of Gone with the Wind and other romantic classics of the 1930s, is forced to give way to Bogart, the man who went on to define wartime masculinity in films like The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and The Big Sleep?
Of course, one can't review The Petrified Forest without examining how the role of Duke Mantee laid the foundation for the rest of Bogart's iconic Hollywood career. After failing to make an impression in several forgettable films in the early 1930s, Bogart had hit a critical time in his career, and he rightly regarded the role of Duke Mantee as his last opportunity to secure a future in film. After nearly losing the part to Edward G. Robinson, Howard finally stepped in for his stage co-star and insisted on Bogart's casting as the hardened criminal. The rest of the story has become Hollywood history, as the role of Duke Mantee ended up making a deep impression not only on the studio heads, but with critics and audiences as well. It led to Bogart being typecast as a tough guy that he never was quite able to shake off over his industrious career, but it does serve as the prototype for such remarkable performances as Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and even Fred C. Dobbs.
Viewing the performance today, it is impossible not to place it in the context of Bogart's entire career, and in comparison, he lacks the effortless swagger and tough edge that defines his best characterizations. He's jerky and stiff at times, and his movements are constantly unnatural (which is most likely the carry-over from his stage work), but ultimately, it isn't his actions or even his gravelly line readings that makes the impact—it's the subtle acting he does with his eyes. With every close-up, Bogart pierces the camera with his distant and world-weary stare, saying more about his character in a single glance than any line possibly could.
Much of the same can be said about Davis's performance: Capitalizing on the thrust provided by her frantic breakthrough performance in Of Human Bondage the year before, she barks out her lines with a marked lack of subtlety and nuance. Though she gets by thanks to the undeniable freshness she brings to her lines and the overwhelming spunk and personal charisma she displays before the camera, it's a performance miles away from her (comparatively) restrained work that would follow several years later in films like Jezebel and The Letter.
Through the combined efforts of the actors, a solid (if rather didactic) script, and an overpowering sense of atmosphere, The Petrified Forest remains a class act even when viewed today. And much to their credit, Warner Brothers gives the film the treatment it deserves. The picture has been restored, and the audio track greatly enhanced, and both are definite improvements of the VHS copies of this film floating around. While a few visual defects appear throughout the film (several thin vertical white lines appear on the image for several minutes, for instance), when taking the age of the film into account, the transfer is overall terrific. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The extras are plentiful. Leonard Maltin hosts a feature called "Warner Nights at the Movies 1936," an attempt to put the film into a historical context through news clips, film trailers, a musical short, and a charming satiric cartoon called "The Coo Coo Nut Grove." A new featurette called "The Petrified Forest: Menace in the Desert" provides some historical background and critical perspective on the film. The commentary track by Bogart biographer Eric Lax is packed with information but occasionally lapses into droning mode. A radio adaptation of The Petrified Forest starring Bogart, Tyrone Power, and Joan Bennett suffers from poor audio quality but demonstrates how indispensable Howard and Davis are to their roles, as Powers and Bennett are markedly lackluster in comparison (Bogart manages to save face). Rounding out the bursting extras menu is the film's theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If anything, The Petrified Forest suffers from a short running time. At 82 minutes, it seems to abruptly halt as soon as it gets going. It is rather remarkable, however, to note how much the film is able to pack into such a short amount of time.
While it may not seem to be the revelation is was upon its first release, The Petrified Forest remains an interesting and entertaining film deserving of its classic status.
If Duke Mantee allows it, The Petrified Forest is free to go. If not, the court will wait riveted until the final shot is fired.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Eric Lax
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