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. -Duke Mantee
The Petrified Forest (1936) is a wonderful film which perhaps gets lost in its stars’ later successes. Here we have Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart- but none in a role that most fans would mention as among their favorites. It looks alot like a single set play, which in effect it is, the original having run on Broadway the year earlier, in 1935.
Bogart and Howard reprise their Broadway roles; Bogart’s inclusion was at the insistence of Howard. Bogart, whose first stint in Hollywood in the early 1930s had left him mostly unremembered, wasn’t considered initially in the role of Duke Mantee. The dynamic gangster Duke was originally pitched to Edward G. Robinson, who was reportedly more than happy to step aside at Howard’s insistence as there was no shortage of quality gangster films for Robinson at the time. Here we see the beginnings of Bogart’s rise to the film star he ultimately became- this was his final and ultimate launching pad.
The story all takes place in a rustic truck stop, with Bette Davis as the young waitress (Gabrielle Maple) who also evidently manages the books as well. Along comes hobo and otherwise lost soul Leslie Howard (Alan Squier) who waxes on about all types of philosophy and romance but without dampening the picture. Personally I never see Davis carrying off a romantic part, but here she does it quite well and reciprocates with equal amounts of poetry and loft ideals.
Throughout the picture we hear the radio warning us of Duke Mantee (Bogart) and his gang, who are on the loose, and about halfway through the picture they appear to rest and recover at the truck stop. Bogart steals the picture from this point on even though he isn’t the star. He’s the bad guy so to speak but we can tell that director Archie Mayo’s thinking mirrors Duke’s and isn’t all bad after all.
There is an interesting play on the roles of the two black characters in the film. One member of Duke’s gang is black and is a very independent and empowered chap and very much out of place in a 1936 film. The other black character is the chauffeur of a wealthy couple who “stop” by. In contrast, the chauffeur is meek, pandering, and completely subservient. It’s quite nice to see the former mock and poke at the latter. And listening to the squabbling fat cats the chauffeur caters to is priceless.
Directing is pretty straightforward, given that it all (with only a few exceptions) is set in the same room for the duration. Director Mayo does do some nice framing shots throughout and in many places Mantee’s head squarely in the middle of a Native American headdress, which gives him the appearance of having horns.
The acting is outstanding. Some of the writing would come off as romantic teenage drivel in lesser hands. Here you have an actor who excelled in portraying forlorn philosophical types in Leslie Howard in a role which was right up his alley. Bogart is in a role which includes much of what the stereotypical Bogart film has; grim honesty and a riveting performance. And Bette Davis just is.
They simply don’t make movies like this anymore and this should be required watching for all. It is available on DVD and includes and nice selection of additional features, including a short documentary and a radio adaptation featuring Bogart and Tyrone Power.