The Petrified Forest

The Petrified Forest – Archie Mayo – 1936

The Petrified Forest CoverOriginal title: The Petrified Forest
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
Year: 1936
Director: Archie L. Mayo
Duration: 82 min.
Genres: Crime, Film Noir, Drama

The Petrified Forest

Given it’s #NoirSummer and I’ve been trying to tick off some of the unseen DVD’s and Blu-rays gathering dust on my shelves, The Petrified Forest seemed like a perfect fit. I wasn’t disappointed. Because I’ve had the DVD for so long I completely forgot why I bought it, so I went in not knowing what I was going to watch. So to my surprise it listed the great Humphrey Bogart not as lead, not as second lead but as just another actor with a part. According to a nice DVD extra at this point in time Bogart’s career was at rock bottom. He basically flopped as a film actor and this was his last chance to prove otherwise. His part was given to him by his friend Leslie Howard. They played together in the stage play this film is based on. It shows in that there is good chemistry between the actors, but also because it pretty much all takes place in one small gas station in the middle of nowhere.

The Petrified Forest

The film starts with a lone man walking down some dusty road. A car passes and it drives to a gas station with a BAR-B-Q. Some unimportant scenes later the lone man arrives too and introduces himself as Alan Squier, a quasi-intellectual weirdo without purpose. Meanwhile the radio and newspapers occasionally mention a criminal on the loose, a Duke Mantee, who killed some people and now the whole state is looking for him. Needless to say he will be arriving too a while later. But first Alan gets acquainted with the people at the station, most notably with a young Bette Davis in the role of Gabby, the station holder’s daughter. Some sparks fly, but Alan insists on not getting involved and he eventually leaves. The whole story really does take place in and around the gas station entirely, so Alan’s leave is of short duration.

“I spent most of my time since I grew up in jail – it looks like I’ll spend the rest of my life dead.” – Duke Mantee

But enough about the story. It’s good, and the acting is pretty solid too. A minor gripe is the nonsense the Alan character keeps yapping on about, but overall the dialog is pretty good. The main typical film noir elements missing here are the urban setting and the extreme darkness at times. But it makes up in other ways. My personal favourite character is Charley Grapewin playing old gramps. He’s the comical relief of this film, even openly wishing for bloodshed because he could do with some more action since Billy the Kid took a crack at him many years ago. As I mentioned this was Bogart’s last chance, and even during filming people noticed that he took this chance with both hands and made it work. Many of his later characters were based on his tough, hard and ice cold portrayal of Duke Mantee, a hard boiled criminal with a strange air of humanity around him. Years later, he named the daughter he had with his then-wife Lauren Bacall Leslie, after the man to whom he owed his success.

Some more surprises though. The ending was pretty neat, but what really struck me was that they had a black guy with actual lines. I can’t think of any 30’s film that had that. And by actual lines I don’t mean some yes’m’s, but actual lines and a non-servant role for a coloured person. It is such a shame that this was so rare, because the actor, Slim Thompson, played his character really well. It’s an even bigger shame that this actually counts as a surprise. Thompson’s talent, and the talent of many others like him was almost completely lost on the people of that era. I suppose in retrospect we should be glad to have at least these small bits of goodness, like this bit in The Petrified Forest.

“Here is to happy days.” – Duke Mantee

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