Review: The Petrified Forest (1936)
The Petrified Forest begins with a solitary hitchhiker wandering through the dusty desolation of an Arizona desert road; his canteen empty and his walking stick leading the way as automobiles and tumble weeds pass him by. He eventually makes it to a lonely gas station diner with the words “LAST CHANCE” writ big on the roadside signage. The intellectual drifter (played by Leslie Howard) is about to meet the diner’s young waitress (played by Bette Davis) and, soon after, the hitchhiker will decide to dedicate his existence to changing her life for the better – and all he has to do to achieve this end is convince a surly gangster to murder him.
Nowadays, The Petrified Forest is probably best remembered as Humphrey Bogart’s first film performance. With wild hair and a permanent sneer on his unshaven face, Bogart plays the fugitive gangster Duke Mantee, walking around an Arizona gas station diner as if his wrists were manacled together by a pair of invisible handcuffs. Both Leslie Howard and Bogart had starred in the Broadway production of The Petrified Forrest and, when it came time for a screen adaptation, Warner Brothers had originally planned to cast the more famous Edward G. Robinson in the role of Duke Mantee. Allegedly Leslie Howard pressured the studio to take a risk on the virtually unknown Bogart as a condition of his involvement with the project, and it turned out to be the breakthrough that would set Bogart on the path to becoming a Hollywood icon. In 1943, Howard was aboard a plane flying from Portugal to the UK when it was shot down by the German Luftwaffe and the actor died with 16 others. A decade later, Bogart and Lauren Bacall would honor his memory by naming their daughter Leslie Howard Bogart.
Watching it now more than 75 years after it was made, Bogart’s performance is still riveting. Not the cartoonish Mafioso that Robinson often played; instead Bogart makes the character of Duke Mantee an intensely still and convincingly dangerous person. The power dynamics within a hostage situation depicted in The Petrified Forest prefigures a number of Film Noir plots, including The Desperate Hours John Huston’s Key Largo – in which Bogart finds himself in the reverse situation when Edward G. Robinson takes hostages in an isolated hotel during a tropical storm. Even though one is set in a desolate Arizona desert and the other is set on a flooded island, both Key Largo and The Petrified Forest skillfully use an isolated location and a harrowing psychological experience to make a small group of captives seem as though they alone are like last people on the planet.
Like many of the most memorable classic films, The Petrified Forest appears on the surface to be concerned with harshness of contemporary events like the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. However if we look below that we will find that the hitchhiker, the waitress and the gangster all become involved in a more universal struggle; the search for identity and a purpose greater than mere survival. The Petrified Forest is based on a well-crafted play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood, and one of the elements that makes it an outstanding script it’s adherence to the classical unities. Thousands of years before the movies, Aristotle stressed the concept of the three unities of drama and The Petrified Forest is a sterling example how these unities are still relied upon for effective storytelling. All three of the philosopher’s unities are observed in this film; unity of place (the gas station diner), unity of action (a hostage situation) and unity of time (the entire story taking place over one night). At a time when tiresome decade-spanning dramas like Cimarron (1931), Cavalcade (1933) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936) were being honored as the best picture of the year, the dramatic immediacy of The Petrified Forest makes it infinitely more memorable and satisfying to watch than this trend of overwrought biographical films.