Humphrey Bogart’s movie career was officially launched with Archie Mayo’s The Petrified Forest (1936): a frank and powerful indictment of America’s seismic fascination with the criminal element. Playwright Robert E. Sherwood never set out to write a socio-political piece, although viewed today it is impossible to forgo the kernels of wisdom or ‘message’ in the melodrama. Few stars have made as iconic a debut as Bogart in the role of the quietly crazy Duke Mantee; a morose and morbidly cynical desperado whose face is both a road map, radiating paralytic darkness from within, and a haunted death mask of all the victims he has thus far killed. But Bogart’s meteoric success is even more impressive when one considers the exceptionally fallow period preceding it. Bogart was 37 in 1936 – an age when most actors have already begun to crest in both their prowess and popularity with the paying public. Certainly, he was well beyond the status of matinee idol. And yet the calculus of success had eluded Bogart entirely. Furthermore, it seemed as though the movies had little use for him, his two-bit character parts downright banal background fodder that in no way established even a glimmer of his preeminence as a leading man that was to quickly follow.
Bogart had come from a wealthy family to pursue an acting career. By the late 1920s he had even gained considerable appeal as ‘the male beauty’ on Broadway. But by 1936 there had been enough hard knocks peppered in along the way, including the death of his beloved father, two failed marriages and several crippling bouts of alcoholism, to unsettle his good looks. By the time cinematographer Sol Polito began lensing close ups on The Petrified Forest Bogart’s visage had already begun to yield to these ravages; his eyes sunken yet piercing, his sallow skin revealing a remorseless ruggedness from the mileage added by time and that tally of flawed false starts. All of this bode well for the character of Duke Mantee however – a Dillinger-esque and uniquely American gangster/villain. Mantee effectively marks the break between that once courtly, polished and more gentile era of the robber baron and the severity and grit into which American society had been instantly plunged following the Great Depression.
Yet Warner Brothers had very little faith in Bogart’s ability to carry the part. In fact, he would not have made the film without playwright Robert E. Sherwood’s insistence. Sherwood owned the movie rights and refused to sell them to the studio unless Bogart was signed to reprise his role; a sentiment echoed by co-star Leslie Howard, then the biggest name in the cast and who absolutely refused to commit to the project without Bogart – a kindness that Bogart never forgot. Howard’s career on both the stage and in films had been a smashing success. He seemed to effortlessly bounce from one hit play to another, interspersing his time spent on the stage – both in New York and in his native England – with star turns in some very high profile movies throughout the 1930s; usually reprising roles he had made famous in the theater. Howard’s magic touch had been just as instrumental in resurrecting another Petrified Forest co-star Bette Davis’ sagging movie career when the two appeared in Of Human Bondage (1934).
Howard could afford to be gracious. A man of impeccable charm and class, he had been ensconced as a British matinee idol and formidable thespian in London’s West End seemingly without even trying. It was, of course, all smoke and mirrors with Howard dedicating his life to his craft and consistently striving to improve his prospects by committing whole-heartedly to some very good solid work along the way. And yet, in viewing The Petrified Forest today it is not Howard’s Alan Squier – the effete and impoverished, though high-minded intellectual, standing up for his outmoded ideals and dying for his moral code in this Arizona bone-yard – that yields the film’s tragic richness, but Bogart’s defining turn as the soulless and quietly tortured antithesis of those ideals, so nicknamed by Alan as ‘the last great apostle of rugged individualism’ that sets the screen afire. “You may be right,” Duke begrudgingly concurs. “Sure I am,” admits Alan, “What good does it do me?”
It did not take producer Hal B. Wallis very long to recognize Bogart’s talent – the virtual unknown whose reputation had been discounted to bargain basement bedrock was obviously running away with the picture despite being aligned with such heavy hitters as Leslie Howard and WB’s own rising star, Bette Davis. Viewed from our own presently bankrupted moral storehouse of lost ideals, Bogart’s performance seems even more the obvious one to watch – chilling in its motivations, brilliantly enigmatic in its execution; a prelude to all the anti-heroes yet to follow, though arguably never to recapture the essence of this vacantly utilitarian killing machine. Of course, Sherwood, and screenwriters Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves had written to Bogart’s strengths. But Bogart infuses Mantee with something more – a scurrilous insolence reaching well beyond mere contempt for humanity. Bogart’s killer doesn’t merely supplant a way of life already well into its own death throws. He buries the hatchet deep into this seemingly indestructible heritage, forever severing its roots. With the death of Alan Squier, Duke Mantee symbolically advances the America tradition from its affinity for corseted manners and Victorian bric-a-brac. Only the new dawn on the horizon is neither assuring nor celebratory; the winds of change growing stark, bitter and without escape; dragging the stragglers from this other time, both bloodied and battered into an era that promises nothing – not even survival – in return.
The Petrified Forest begins with penniless drifter Alan Squier (Howard) walking along the open road through northern Arizona’s famed landmark en route to California – actually Red Rock Canyon near Mojave – and coming upon the Black Mesa Barbeque - a remote diner/gas bar run by Jason Maple (Porter Hall). Jason is a failed dreamer grown bitter and cynical with time and age. But his daughter, Gabrielle (Bette Davis) remains a bright-eyed idealist, who reads poetry and aspires to be an artist. Her grandfather (Charley Grapewin) is a notorious – but lovable – lush; a fragile stick of kindling who’s only real pleasure comes from regaling infrequent visitors to the café with his story of once coming in contact with the infamous outlaw Billy The Kid. Hired hand Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran) – a failed football star – fancies himself Gabrielle's blue-collar boyfriend; an unrequited ambition she decidedly does not share. For Boze - like Gabby’s father and grandfather, is a relic as fossilized as the craggy rock formations that surround the café. Gabby wants something better for herself, not out of conceit or even expectation that she deserves more out of life, but because she understands so well that the world beyond is more than this life at the café has thus far revealed.
Gabby daydreams of moving to Bourges to become an artist; aspirations not unlike her own estranged mother’s, who was a WWI bride madly in love with Jason but who left him to brood and has lived in her native France ever since from whence she continues to send her daughter poetry. Yet, this world of fiction has clouded Gabby’s good sense. She imagines a sort of undiluted escapism from her current mundane life, despite being naïve and unknowing of what lies beyond. Gabby becomes fascinated by Alan, much to Boze chagrin. Alan represents that spark of culture and class Gabby so desperately craves. He politely regales the eager young waitress with tales of his own European exploits, not with braggadocios but a genuine compassion to preserve her schoolgirl fantasies unlikely to ever be experienced firsthand. Moreover, Alan takes an interest in Gabby’s art. She shows him her paintings and reads to him her most-prized Villon poem.
Boze is jealous of Alan – a man who hasn’t even the money to pay for the meal he has just enjoyed and who finagles a free ride for the last length of his journey to the coast from wealthy tourists Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm (Paul Harvey and Genevieve Tobin) who have paused a moment to refuel their automobile. As the car pulls from the station Gabby and Alan’s eyes lock in a sort of quiet desperation and sad farewell; one short-lived when the Chisholms and Alan are carjacked by Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his posse. Racing back to the café on foot to forewarn Gabby and her family of Mantee’s proximity, Alan too late discovers that the café and its unfortunate guests have already been taken hostage. While the others are understandably terrified of Mantee and his men, Alan takes the situation in stride.
The middle act of the play and the film belongs to a spirited banter between Alan and Mantee; each coming to a disturbing, though genuine, mutual respect for the other. Alan can admire Mantee for his proactive determination to get what he wants at any price; while Mantee reasons that the selflessness of that dwindling age to which Alan so clearly belongs has had its merits for which the present realm of possibilities and circumstances cannot and will never be able to fully comprehend or appreciate. Boze and Jason regard Mantee as a menace. But grandpa basks in his presence, perhaps reliving his encounter with Billy the Kid vicariously through his own sycophantic admiration of this rank hoodlum.
The situation grows perilous as Mantee and his men learn from the radio that the police are closing in. As the café prepares for an all-out showdown, Alan comes to a tragic inspiration. Unbeknownst to Gabby, he signs over an insurance policy he has been carrying in his back pocket, making her his beneficiary before encouraging Mantee to shoot him so that she will be able to collect on the policy and escape this drab existence. “It couldn't make any difference to you, Duke,” Alan explains, “Living - I'm worth nothing to her. But dead I can buy her the tallest cathedrals, and golden vineyards, and dancing in the streets.” Mantee obliges Alan before charging to his own death into the police who have surrounded the café. In the final moments Gabby is seen coddling Alan’s dead body in her arms, reciting a favorite passage of poetry from heart; her wide-eyed innocence replaced by a doleful, reticent understanding that in life there are no truly happy endings.
The Petrified Forest was a gamble for Warner Bros., running over schedule and budget but delivering rich returns to the box office; the public absolutely lapping up the movie and making Bogart an instant overnight sensation. In retrospect, The Petrified Forest seems to also foreshadow the movement that would eventually become ‘film noir’ – its narrative structure and focus on the deification of the anti-hero adding to the already claustrophobic atmosphere inside the Black Mesa Diner. In fact, after the film’s preliminary shots we are entirely confined to the indoor cyclorama inside Warner’s stage 8; the tumbleweed and cacti quaintly artificial but adding to the brooding atmosphere of ever-constricting melodrama. As already mentioned, Bogart is the standout; a wan ghost of his former ‘pretty boy’ self, his face a chiseled façade corroded by hard times and the even harsher reality that if he didn’t make a success of this movie his career in Hollywood was likely finished.
Bette Davis and Leslie Howard make an amiable romantic couple; her doe-eyed optimism rekindled in Alan Squier’s vaguely sadness, perhaps realizing Gabby’s dreams are in conflict with the reality he knows too well to be true. Viewed in this light, Alan giving up his own life to procure a future for Gabby beyond the Petrified Forest seems oddly less self-sacrificing and perhaps even tinged with a tad of cowardice. For having recognized the fragile weakness in his own makeup, his inability to accept or even face the future on whatever terms it has in store for him – rather than the other way around – Alan has doomed the cockeyed optimist who touched his heart with her dreamy understanding of the world as both of them might have wished it to be – all but guaranteed to shatter these preconceived notions once Gabby has left the dust of the Arizona desert far behind.
The Petrified Forest remains a class ‘A’ effort from Warner Bros. with a very fine cast giving it their all. The film’s success proved the necessary springboard, not only to launch Bogart’s career, but also to propel Bette Davis’ ambitions for more meaningful parts at the studio. For Leslie Howard, it was one of his finest efforts; adding to his already impressive repertoire of on-screen achievements. Today, Howard’s performance seems an ominous precursor to the fateful last act of his own life; Alan Squier’s fatalism and frankness about death a haunting reminder of how little time Leslie Howard had left on this earth. But if anything The Petrified Forest unequivocally proved – at least for the studio – that crime does pay.
The Petrified Forest arrives on Blu-ray in a much improved 1080p dual-layered transfer. Out of all the Warner gangster movies released to hi-def this one sports the biggest improvements. The B&W image is considerably brighter; sharper too and with an impressive amount of film grain previously unseen on home video. Age-related artifacts have been eradicated for a smooth visual presentation with good solid contrast and more information present on either side. Viewing The Petrified Forest in comparison to the other titles released it becomes rather immediately apparent that Warner Bros. poured all of their money into remastering this title at the expense of some of the others. The audio is DTS mono and adequate. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, including an audio commentary, brief featurette, vintage shorts and theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)