The Petrified Forest (1936)
Directed by Archie Mayo
Produced by Hal B. Wallis
Written by Robert E. Sherwood (play), Charles Kenyon, Delmer Daves
Cinematography by Sol Polito
Edited by Owen Marks
TCM Greatest Classic: Gangsters – Humphrey Bogart DVD (1:22)
The Petrified Forest has achieved lasting fame as a precursor to film noir and for providing Humphrey Bogart with the career-launching role of gangster Duke Mantee. The film was based on a play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood, which also starred Bogart and Leslie Howard. Howard plays Alan Squier, a drifter who wanders into a ramshackle diner in the Arizona desert town of Black Mesa, near the Petrified Forest. There he meets Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis, just 28 at the time), daughter of the owner of the diner.
Gabrielle is instantly drawn to Alan and the story of his past as a former writer, someone who understands her love of poetry and painting. She longs to visit France, where her mother lives and sends Gabrielle poetry from time to time. Alan tells Gabrielle that he once lived in France, which draws her even closer to him. She’s never met anyone like Alan, at least not in Black Mesa, and we clearly see what’s going to develop. But Alan isn’t a typical potential romantic drifter.
Maybe I haven’t seen enough films from the 1930s, but The Petrified Forest contains far more richness and depth than I would’ve expected. Alan’s philosophy is not only explored but put to the test the moment Duke Mantee’s gang arrives to hide out at the diner. (I’m instantly reminded of Key Largo, which must’ve taken a page or two from The Petrified Forest, but with Bogart on the other side of the equation.) Pay close attention to the philosophies and worldviews of Alan, Duke, and Gabrielle’s grandfather Gramp (Charley Grapewin), who can’t stop reminiscing about the glory days of the Old West. This examination of worldviews was interesting stuff in 1936 and it’s still interesting 80 years later.
It’s been said that Bogart modeled Duke Mantee on “Public Enemy #1” John Dillinger in his walk and mannerisms. Although Bogart as an actor and screen icon hadn’t yet fully emerged, we have the advantage of knowing what Bogart achieved after this film. Oddly enough, Bogart seems more like Dillinger here than Bogart. But the moviegoing public knew there was something special about Bogart. Leslie Howard knew it, too. He had acted with Bogart in the play and when the producers wanted Edward G. Robinson for the part of Duke, Howard stated that if Bogart didn’t get the part, he’d walk. Bogart got the part and the rest is, as they say, history.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Petrified Forest has one foot in melodrama, but it’s got at three or four toes in it. Yet the presence of melodrama doesn’t detract from the film’s impact in any way. The performances are good, even if some of the supporting roles are a bit weak (especially Duke’s gang). Some of the light comedic touches work while others don’t. As good as the Alan/Gabrielle story is, the film really belongs to Bogart. The film contains many great scenes including one in which an entitled man and his wife try to buy Duke off, which is classic Bogart. Also Alan plays a clever verbal cat-and-mouse game with Duke that’s so good and so clever you can’t imagine anyone being able to pull it off today.
I watched the TCM/Warner DVD, which looks and sounds pretty good, but the film is also available on Warner Blu-ray, which seems to have ported over all of the supplements from the DVD. Better yet, see if you can find a copy of the Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics Blu-ray box set, which includes this film, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, White Heat, and the 2008 documentary Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film.
Photos: Film Reviews from a Cinephile, The Bogie Film Blog, Dr. Macro