Saturday, March 12, 2016

#2,035. The Petrified Forest (1936)

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 appearing together in Of Human Bondage, Leslie Howard and Bette Davis reunited for The Petrified Forest, which also featured Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. And despite Davis’ and Howard’s typically excellent performances, it was Bogart, playing a hardened criminal, who stole the show.

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 and fight off the advances of Boze (Dick Foran), a former college football player who works at the gas station.

Then, out of the blue, Alan Squier (Howard) walks into her life. A British writer who now spends his time 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.

But someone else also turns up at the diner that day: Duke Mantee (Bogart), a criminal on the run, wanted for bank robbery and murder. Figuring it will be a safe place to hide, Mantee and his men hold Alan, Gabby and a handful of others hostage, promising not to hurt anyone who cooperates. But with a gangster as volatile as Duke Mantee, odds are that, sooner or later, the bullets are gonna start flying!

Taking a breather 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 to be his finest performance, and his laid-back approach, coupled with very memorable dialogue, gives The Petrified Forest a complex hero who is prepared to face any eventuality (“All this evening”, Alan says to Gabby at one point, “I've had a feeling of destiny closing in”).

Though he had played 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 role of Duke Mantee. They wanted Edward G. Robinson. 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 though he’s occasionally stiff (especially when walking). Bogie brings a fiery intensity to the role of Duke Mantee, transforming the character into a villain that audiences both fear and respect.

A precursor to the films noir 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.

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