The Petrified Forest was a hugely successful stage play in the early 1930s. The story of a diverse group of people held hostage one night by an escaped gangster at an Arizona road stop, it seemed a perfect candidate for transformation to celluloid.
So Leslie Howard, who drew raves on Broadway, signed to reprise his role as the pacifist drifter who winds up at the café that night. Bette Davis, a 27-year-old who had already won an Oscar, was cast as Howard’s romantic interest—the waitress with wanderlust and dreams of being an artist. And, for the role of fugitive con Duke Mantee, Warner Brothers hired Edward G. Robinson, as reliable a tough guy as there was in Hollywood.
Except that Howard balked. He threatened to drop from the film if his Broadway costar, Humphrey Bogart, was not brought along to continue in the gangster role. Warner Brothers executives were not keen on the idea, since Bogart hadn’t made much impact in his first dozen movies. But Howard had clout, so the studio heads relented.
That turned out to be the best thing—for the movie and for Bogart. The Petrified Forest became a critical and box-office success, in large part because the fifth-billed member of the cast stole the show as the brooding desperado with the simmering anger.
It also jumpstarted Bogey’s stalled career. Before this movie, Bogart told friends that he was frustrated and considered quitting the business. After The Petrified Forest, he became, at age 37, a rising star. Five years later, another movie in our countdown—High Sierra—would further elevate his Hollywood status.
Watching The Petrified Forest you can see Bogey developing his craft. Riffing off of John Dillinger, he holds his arms at a curious angle, like he is about to reach for a gun. (For decades, Bogey impersonators would ape that posture.) Bogart studied films of Dillinger and tries here to recreate the famous bank robber’s battered facial expression and insolent demeanor. His clothing and hairstyle in The Petrified Forest are designed to make him look more like Dillinger. Even the setup for the plot (a daring bank robber escapes from prison and kills four in a shootout) is patterned after Dillinger’s 1933 breakout from a jail in Lima, Ohio.
On a side note, Bogart never forgot how Howard helped his career, later naming his daughter Leslie in tribute. Howard, who went on to play Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, died in 1943. His camouflaged plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by German fighter aircraft.
In truth, Howard’s character of failed writer Alan Squier is the center of this movie’s story. It’s just that Bogart’s morose and menacing mobster overshadows him.
The story largely takes place at a café/gas station on the edge of Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Gabrielle Maple (Davis) lives there with her father and grandfather. It’s not much of a life. Dad keeps reminiscing about his glory days in World War I (even donning the old uniform for a VFW-like meeting) and Gramp keeps repeating yarns of the Old West and his time spent running with Billy the Kid. There’s also the station’s gas jockey, an oaf named Boze who won’t stop hitting on Gabrielle.
Into this world steps Squier, the self-described intellectual (“brains without purpose”). He’s wandering the earth after his first novel sold just 400 copies. He’s fatalistic, he’s been to Europe and he quotes poetry. What girl wouldn’t fall for that?
Over the next few hours, the road stop is overrun with various characters, all with a good story. The plot is based on a stage play (written by Robert Emmet Sherwood). Everyone gets to speak at length, and The Petrified Forest is guilty of getting a little chatty. But in a very short time, you get to know each of the people who wander into the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q.
The payoff comes a half-hour into the film. Barging through the doors with guns held high comes our escapee and his gang of three. “This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer,” announces the henchman Ruby (Adrian Morris—who looks like a 1930s version of John Candy). “And he’s hungry.”
Mantee’s got a plan to carry out—well, after he fills his belly. He’s going to hole up at the Black Mesa, waiting for his moll and the rest of his crew. Then they’ll use the nine hostages in attendance as human shields to escape to Mexico.
Squier has a plan as well. He’s got a $5,000 life insurance policy in his backpack, which he signs over to Gabrielle. Then he asks Duke to shoot him (“What’s one more murder? They can’t execute you twice.”), so that the frustrated girl can use the money to go to France and really learn how to be an artist. This guy knows how to win over a woman.
There’s some terrific dialogue here, as you’d expect from an adapted play. The pace moves slowly and there’s not much action, but The Petrified Forest runs just 82 minutes, so you’ll never get bored.
The script’s undercurrent themes of existentialism, classism, pacifism, women’s liberation and black pride have had critics atwitter for more than 75 years. But, hey, we’re not here to teach a film class. We’re just recommending a solid, entertaining movie.
HIT: The Petrified Forest differs from most movies in this book in its desert setting. And Bogart’s take on the gangster as a resident of the Old West, rather than a big city, gives it a unique spin.
“He ain’t no gangster,” argues the sympathetic, albeit jingoistic, Gramp at one point. “He’s a real old-time desperado. Gangsters is foreigners and he’s an American.”
MISS: We understand that the original play was largely set inside one claustrophobic room. But a film called The Petrified Forest should have made at least some use of the beautiful Arizona outdoors. In the few external scenes, the cacti are clearly made of plywood.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “There should be a large measure of praise for Bette Davis, who demonstrates that she does not have to be hysterical to be credited with a grand portrayal; and for Humphrey Bogart, who can be a psychopathic gangster more like Dillinger than the outlaw himself.”—Frank S. Nugent, New York Times
GOOF: Toward the beginning of the film, Boze the masher tells Gabrielle he has never been married. That would have been more believable if someone had told actor Dick Foran to remove his wedding ring.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: At 82 minutes, sure, why not.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Being held hostage—and already through with the world—Squier decides to have Mantee kill him so that Gabrielle can cash in his $5,000 life insurance policy. He explains this to Mantee while Gabrielle is out of earshot.
“Dead, I can buy her the tallest cathedrals, golden vineyards and dances in the streets,” he rationalizes. “One well-placed bullet will accomplish all that. And it will earn a measure of directed glory for him that fire it.”
Holding up his insurance policy, he adds, “This document will be my ticket to immortality. It will inspire people to say, ‘there was an artist who died before his time.’ “
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Hanging on the café’s wall is a Native American headdress highlighted by buffalo horns. Several times in the movie, the shot is framed so that the horns appear to be coming out of Duke Mantee’s head like the devil’s horns.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: As low as any movie on our list. You might, however, get talked to death.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Nearly every Depression-era movie had a happy ending, so Warner Brothers executives were concerned how audiences would respond to this film’s downbeat finish. They filmed an alternate happy ending. When they tested both with audiences, the unhappy ending always scored higher. So it was left intact, much to director Archie Mayo’s relief.
BEST LINE: Squier: “So tell us, Duke, what has your life been like?”
Mantee: “You know the story. Since I’ve been a grown-up, I’ve spent most of my life in prison. I’ll probably spend the rest of it dead.”
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Gramp Maple, the garrulous codger, is portrayed by Charley Grapewin, who three years later would play Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. We recommend the 1974 version over the 2009 effort and the 1998 telemovie. It’s the story of an armed gang (led by Robert Shaw) hijacking a New York City subway car and demanding a ransom for the passengers’ release.
BODY COUNT: A mere two.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]