The Petrified Forest (1936)
The Petrified Forest (1936)

Genre: Film Noir and Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 22 min.

Release Date: February 8th, 1936 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Archie Mayo Actors: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Genevieve Tobin, Joe Sawyer, Porter Hall, Charley Grapewin, Paul Harvey

 


 

T

he Petrified Forest Bar-B-Q service station is the last opportunity to fill up on gas for what seems like an untraversable distance (200 miles to the Phoenix hotel), located out in the middle of nowhere, along a blustery, dusty road (in an area called Black Mesa in Arizona). Proprietor Jason Maple (Porter Hall) runs the place, while his daughter Gabrielle (Bette Davis) tends to the tables and the kitchen, and chatterbox grandpappy Maple (Charley Grapewin) pesters the patrons with gossip and tall tales. And footballer Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran) pumps gas, having recently been hired for various tasks around the place. However, his mind is primarily occupied with making aggressive advances at Gabby. But the only thing on the minds of the men sipping coffee and snacking inside the building is the rumored arrival of the notorious criminal Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) and his gang, responsible for the recent Oklahoma City Massacre, which claimed the lives of 6 men.

Hitchhiker Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), who formerly prided himself as a writer, happens along, immediately intriguing Gabby, who seems anxious to meet any suitable man other than Boze. After straightening her hair and dress, she joins Alan at his table, explaining her upbringing in France and her longing to return one day, before then reciting poetry to the distinguished intellectual. Soon, they’re trading stories about their journeys, hers from Bourges to the unforgiving desert, his from Europe to America. “I suppose i was looking for something to believe in.”

Despite a short running time, “The Petrified Forest” spends a considerable amount of time building up the main characters, largely through philosophical discussions and poetic observations about human nature that turn flirtatious. “Alan, there’s something very appealing about you.” He’s a worldly wanderer, she’s a bright-eyed girl itching for adventure. It’s actually a terribly amusing bit of romance, even though the story shifts direction rather suddenly when Mr. Chisum (Paul Harvey) and his wife Edith (Genevieve Tobin) turn up, offering to give Alan a lift to Phoenix. Expectedly, Mantee makes an appearance a short way down the road, hijacking their vehicle and driving right back to the Petrified Forest.

Bogart is merely the villain, and his screentime is rather limited, but he immediately provides a striking presence, boasting a piercing stare and an odd gait, as if his arms are unable to relax at his sides. It’s evident even before he makes his first stone-faced demand that he’ll be a formidable opponent, without needing to wield a gun; his strength comes from his ability to command goons who have their own guns. As grandpa Maple continues his ceaseless yapping, Boze defiantly insults the gangsters, trying the patience of Mantee, who brilliantly maintains a certain composure that makes him all the more menacing. Fascinatingly, Bogart’s baddie bears a notable resemblance to Edward G. Robinson in “Key Largo” years later, in which the roles would be reversed; and the plot itself is entirely comparable.

“You’re a mean, contemptible thief.” As tensions soar, a hint of perverse comedy arises, challenging the conventions of gallantry, while the lawless, self-destructive qualities of society are scrutinized. The film even has something to say about familial obligations, individualism, liberation, true love, existential pondering, and survival of the fittest. Some of these players face major problems with weapons instead of principles, but toward the conclusion, as brains combat brawn, audiences are treated to the bullet-riddled showdown that has been brewing for so long; bloodletting ironically trumps happiness and righteousness. It may not be the greatest of the early, pre-noir gangster flicks, but “The Petrified Forest” is thoroughly original.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10