The Petrified Forest

By on January 11, 2010

Alan Squier, a cynical, failed British writer, wanders into an isolated, weather-beaten desert diner in Arizona owned by Jason Marple. Jason’s daughter, Gabrielle is instantly taken with the disillusioned intellectual, since they share idealistic dreams of escaping the stark reality of their lives, but her interest in Alan brings out jealousy in her gas-pumping boyfriend, Boze. Tensions rise when everyone present become hostages of a gang. Unlike the others, Alan relates to the threats of the gangster’s leader, Duke Mantee, with an indifference to his own fate, as if realizing that they both he and Duke are doomed by the inevitable failure of their lives.

“The Petrified Forest” is particularly notable for marking Humphrey Bogart’s first major screen role as the nominal villain and escaped gangster Duke Mantee. The unshaven, pompadour-sporting Bogart is leering and menacing, brooding and growling and glowering, projecting the lonely, hard-bitten cynicism that would soon become his trademark. At the same time, however, he also emerges as a sympathetic and noble figure, one who transcends his criminal trappings through a fierce sense of integrity and individuality. Not only did these hard-boiled character traits become the template for the Bogart persona, but they also serve as a source of magnetism within the film’s social milieu. Aside from the corporate oilman (Mr. Chisholm, played by Paul Harvey), Duke Mantee’s hostages in a desert diner come to admire and salute his rugged individualism and defiance of the status quo, even as he endangers their lives. They yearn for the empowering resistance that he embodies and the gritty social rebelliousness that he wears on his prickly face, and when the film, before its final shootout, labels the confrontation as “Duke Mantee vs. the American government”, it’s clear that the sympathies of its principal characters reside with the Duke.

“The Petrified Forest” is also noteworthy for the dynamic contrast between its two black characters. One of them (Joseph, played by John Alexander) is virtually the embodiment of the pre-sixties Hollywood stereotype, a meek, shuffling, subservient chauffeur who always looks to his wealthy boss for paternalistic approval before opening his mouth. The other (Slim, played by Slim Thompson) is one of Duke Mantee’s gangster associates, and he’s clearly a liberated, autonomous, independent soul who offers his opinions on his own accord while mocking his “colored brother” for his subservience. He’s almost a figure out of 1966 rather than 1936, and the difference between these two black men highlights the social conflict that the film heeds.

On one side is the ruggedly individualistic and socially defiant Duke Mantee and a black man who marches to his own beat; on the other is a fat cat corporate tycoon and his docile and emasculated black servant, who, in turn, represent the American status quo. And so while Mantee and his gangsters are nominally the villains of “The Petrified Forest,” at heart they constitute the film’s heroes and rousing saviors. They are the men who obliquely brighten the hopeless despair and repressed frustrations of a trapped waitress who is secretly a talented painter (Gabby Maple, played by Bette Davis) and a fatalistically passionate French drifter-poet who is hitching his way to the Pacific Ocean (Alan Squier, played by Leslie Howard). They also seem to enliven several of the other repressed characters, from the restless wife of the cowardly tycoon (Mrs. Edith Chisholm, played by Genevieve Tobin), to an ex-college football player struggling to release his pent-up energies (Nick, played by Eddie Acuff), to an old man who longs for Billy the Kid, Mark Twain, and the legendary individualists of a bygone era (Gramp Maple, played by Charley Grapewin).

To be sure, the film doesn’t explicitly paint Duke Mantee and his fellow gangsters as heroic saviors, but it’s clear where the film’s sympathies lie.

Ultimately “The Petrified Forest” is about an umbrella of misfits and their discontent with the repressive and exploitative American establishment, and it’s that pulse of iconoclasm that keeps it audacious and provocative after all these decades.

Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart had played the same roles in the stage version. Warner Brothers wanted to put Howard in the film but replace Bogart with Edward G. Robinson. Howard insisted on Bogart, and Robinson was happy to step aside from yet another gangster role. Bogart would later name his second child with Lauren Bacall Leslie, in honor of Howard, the man who gave him his first big break.

The character of Duke Mantee was mainly inspired by bank robber John Dillinger.

The original Broadway version also featured John Alexander and Slim Thompson, who recreate their roles in this film. The stage production opened Jan. 7, 1935 at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York and ran for 197 performances.

Mounted on the wall of the diner in which the story takes place is the headdress of a Native American medicine man, which resembles the horned head of an American buffalo. ‘The Petrified Forest’ director Archie Mayo staged many of the movie’s shots with the head of actor Humphrey Bogart (playing ‘world-famous murderer Duke Mantee’) framed by the headdress mounted on the wall behind him. The composition of these shots, which appear throughout the second half of the film, result in the appearance of a demon’s horns sprouting from Mantee’s head.

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