Due to the scowly presence of Humphrey Bogart in its second half, the 1936 film The Petrified Forest would later be considered one of the decade’s great gangster pictures, though in actuality it’s more a caged-in character study where the nation itself is what’s being studied. Based on the Robert E. Sherwood play, the film adaptation does little to open it up and keeps just about everything confined to the main room of a diner/gas station on the edge of nowhere in the Arizona desert. Eventually the diner will become the setting for a teeth-clenched, guns-a-blazing showdown, but for the good first half of the film, it’s just the boring prison where Gabby Maple (an effervescent Bette Davis) dreams away her days, serving travelers while reading poetry, painting, and dreaming of France. Her father and grandfather (Porter Hall and Charley Grapewin) serve as the crotchety soundtrack to Gabby’s musings, while the handyman, Boze (Dick Foran), tries to woo her away from books and art. Into this zone of tedium drops a hitchhiker, Alan Squier (Leslie Howard, reprising his stage role, as does Bogart), a winning coversationalist but clearly at the end of his tether. Gabby is quickly infatuated with the coy and utterly pretentious Squire, who tells stories laced in self-deprecating wit about his past as a failed writer and kept man. Meanwhile, her grandfather keeps bothering the customers with stories about the time Billy the Kid took a shot at him, and her dad is off running about the desert with his band of wannabe vigilantes, looking for the notorious gangster Duke Mantee, rumored to be heading their way. When Duke (Bogart) does finally show up, bringing a howling sandstorm and a passel of trigger-happy gunsels with him, it’s somewhat of a shame, as the film, like Gabby, had fallen so completely under Squire’s spell that second-act plot machinations seem almost unnecessary. Davis and the ever reliable Howard make an eminently watchable couple, the bright-eyed girl of promise and the fey but burned-out aesthete reading Francois Villon poems to each other in the middle of the desert. When Bogart does make his entrance, it’s a sterling performance as well, full of volatile rage but suffused with that sly mockery which later became his calling card—easy to see why this was his breakthrough role. The Petrified Forest seems to have bigger things on its mind, though, than romance and a hostage situation. From the sign in the diner that says, “tipping is un-American, keep your change,” to Gabby’s father’s tin soldier posturing and the grandfather’s endless romanticized Old West spiels to Squier’s long ruminations on being the last of a vanishing race, “the intellectuals,” much of what’s on display here evokes a society on the decline, propping itself up with patriotic guff, fairy tales, and violence.
Definitely better overall than some recent product from Warner Home Video, with a sharp picture marred only by the occasional grain, and deep sound quality that lets you hear every syllable of the well-crafted dialogue.
A solid package that provides a better understanding of the film without overpraising it. The making-of documentary "Menace in the Desert" presents a line-up of film historians and professors, as well as critic Andrew Sarris and Bogart biographer Eric Lax, all providing some good analysis and background, the most interesting part of which is about how important the film was to Bogart's career (after a string of misses and a Broadway career that had run its course, this was basically his last shot). The film commentary is also by Lax; while learned, it suffers from him obviously reading from a script, and rather stiffly at that. The "Warner Night at the Movies 1936" package comes with an excellent newsreel from 1936 and two rather odd shorts, a musical one called Rhythmitis and the Merrie Melodies cartoon The Coo Coo Nut Grove, a somewhat rote send-up of the Hollywood hotspot.
A ripping thriller shadowed with overtones of societal decay and Darwinian selection.