The Petrified Forest (1936)

Synopsis:

Vagabond Alan Squier (Leslie Howard, Of Human Bondage) stops at a rundown diner in the Arizona desert where he forms a special bond with waitress Gabby Maple (Bette Davis). That same day, gangster Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca) arrives at the diner and holds everyone hostage, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“All this evening I’ve had a feeling of destiny closing in.”

Surprisingly well-directed by Archie Mayo (It’s Love I’m After), The Petrified Forest is talky and static, but it makes its points without pushing them down your throat. The film also benefits from the great performances of a small but well-chosen cast.

The film is based on Robert E. Sherwood’s famous 1935 stage play of the same name. Screenwriters Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves (Jubal and A Summer Place) adapted the play. This is a faithful adaption of Sherwood’s philosophical play — the movie preserves the story’s themes and situations. Sherwood’s juxtaposition between realism and idealism seems more relevant today than ever before.

The Petrified Forest is best-remembered as the film that reintroduced Humphrey Bogart to movie audiences. Bogart’s electrifying performance as Duke Mantee (he originated the role on Broadway) revitalized his moribund movie career in films. Even today, it’s easy to see why Bogart received so much acclaim for the role of the charismatic and vicious gangster. The legendary “tough guy” had to wait a bit longer for true stardom, but the film clearly put him on the path to success.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are equally effective in less showy roles. It was the second (and best) of the three films they made together, and although Howard and Davis were cool to each other in real life, they clearly had a strong screen chemistry. Howard underplays beautifully and Davis, who is deliberately cast-against-type, proves that she didn’t have to run on all cylinders to be effective. The understated work of Howard and Davis contrasts nicely with Bogie’s raw energy.

Apart from the main plot, the narrative offers some extra nuggets. Most interesting is the exchange of the two African-American characters (played by Slim Thompson and John Alexander) in the film. The back-and-forth between two very different men is provocative to say the least. You don’t get to see this kind of thing in other films from Hollywood’s Golden Era. It’s just one of many elements that make this movie so watchable.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Anyone looking for a visually dazzling film needs to look elsewhere: The Petrified Forest is an overly faithful adaptation of a stage play. However, this is a powerful and very interesting movie that takes gangster clichés and cleverly inverts them. It really belongs alongside the greatest gangster films of the ’30s. B&W, 82 minutes, Not Rated.

3 responses to “The Petrified Forest (1936)

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