Directed By: Archie Mayo
Starring: Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis
Tag line: "AGAIN THEY TRIUMPH!...The stars of 'Human Bondage' in a picture greater than the play!"
Trivia: The character of Duke Mantee was mainly inspired by bank robber John Dillinger
Two years after they appeared together in Of Human Bondage, Leslie Howard and Bette Davis reunited for The Petrified Forest, a very different kind of movie that also featured Humphrey Bogart. And despite Davis’ and Howard’s typically excellent performances, Bogart, playing a criminal on the run, almost manages to steal the picture away from them both.
Gabby Maple (Davis) waits tables at a roadside diner / gas station situated in the middle of the Arizona desert. Owned by her father, Jason (Porter Hall), and her grandfather (Charley Grapewin), the diner doesn’t get many visitors, giving Gabby ample time to read poetry books and fight off the advances of Boze (Dick Foran), a former college football player who also works at the gas station.
Then, out of the blue, Alan Squier (Howard) walks into her life. A British writer who now spends his days roaming the American Southwest, Alan regales Gabby with stories of his days in Europe, and how the open road has given him an entirely new perspective on life and death. But someone else also turns up at the gas station that day: Duke Mantee (Bogart), a criminal on the run wanted for (among other things) bank robbery and murder. Figuring it would be a safe place to hide out, Mantee and his men hold Alan, Gabby and a handful of others hostage, promising not to hurt them if they cooperate. But with a gangster as potentially violent as Duke Mantee, odds are that, sooner or later, the bullets are going to start flying.
Taking a break from the strong-willed, devious characters she portrayed in movies like Of Human Bondage and Fog Over Frisco, Davis here plays a wide-eyed innocent who longs to visit her mother in France, and falls in love with the mysterious Alan moments after meeting him. As the philosophical Alan, Leslie Howard delivers what I consider one of his finest performances, and his laid-back approach, coupled with very memorable dialogue, gave The Petrified Forest a complex hero who is prepared to face any eventuality (“All this evening”, Alan says at one point to Gabby, “I've had a feeling of destiny closing in”).
Despite the fact he had portrayed him in the stage production (The Petrified Forest was based on a hit play of the same name, written by Robert Sherwood), Humphrey Bogart was not the studio’s first choice for the part of Duke Mantee (they wanted Edward G. Robinson instead). But Leslie Howard, who had also appeared in the play, threatened to drop out if Bogart wasn’t cast. Sure enough, Howard’s faith in his Broadway co-star paid off, and even though he’s occasionally stiff (especially when walking). Bogie brought a fiery intensity to the role of Duke Mantee, transforming him into a villain audiences both fear and respect.
A precursor to the film noirs of the 1940s, The Petrified Forest is a tough, unflinching crime flick. But more than this, it’s the movie that made Humphrey Bogart a star.