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The Petrified Forest

Posted on the 05 October 2018 by Christopher Saunders

The Petrified Forest

"Certainly does feel great to have a real killer around here again!"

Archie Mayo's The Petrified Forest (1936) is a curious film, a slow-burn crime drama that's more about philosophical dialog and debates over Fate than your usual gangster flick. An excellent cast and a compelling, if talky script makes it worthwhile.
Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) is a failed writer and washed-out husband who turns up in a small Arizona town. He takes a meal at a roadside diner where he flirts with Gabrielle (Bette Davis), the wide-eyed daughter of the diner's owner (Porter Hall), and spars with obnoxious gasman Boze (Dick Foran), who states his claim on Gabrielle, and Gabrielle's crusty grandpa (Charley Grapewin). Things grow complicated when a band of fugitives led by Dick Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) roll into the joint, taking everyone hostage. With rescue uncertain and the criminals' patience thin, it seems only a matter of time until bloodshed erupts.
The worst you can say about Petrified Forest is that it's based on a play (by Robert E. Sherwood), and looks (and sounds) it. Virtually the entire film's set inside the diner, with only a few brief exterior scenes and a climactic shootout providing any relief from claustrophobia. Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves pare down Sherwood's play slightly, but the balance of the film remains exchanges of dialog and arguments. But Mayo's handling of the material proves effective all the same, allowing the actors to chew over the meaty screenplay without too many frills or distractions.
Like any good play, Forest holds our interest with sharply drawn characters and moral dilemmas. Alan initially comes off as an irritating, poetry-spouting flake, but his existential musings eventually prove compelling. He's enraptured by a journey through the titular forest, comparing the fossilized wood with his ruined life and a Western climate stuck in time, and comes to see himself fated to die here, actively encouraging Dick to murder him! Gabrielle's frustrated by her background (her mother, a French war bride, deserted her as a child) and sees Alan as a compelling window into a world she can't know. Their relationship moves into fits and starts, until Alan makes that's at once touching and ridiculous.
The complex story renders even minor players intriguing. Boze, a washed-up footballer who wears a jersey and carries a newspaper clipping about his exploits, thinking he's Somebody when he's as lost as Alan; Gramps, an old-timer who remembers Billy the Kid and practically cackles with glee at the thought of Dick slaughtering everyone; Slim (Slim Thompson), Dick's black sidekick who berates a rich couple's manservant (John Alexander) as an Uncle Tom. Only Dick doesn't seem fully-formed, a taciturn, no-nonsense crook with little time for Alan's musings or the petty melodramas raging around him. Not that he needs to be: as "the last great apostle of rugged individualism," Dick represents a simple, uncomplicated masculinity adrift in an increasingly complex world.
Leslie Howard is cast well to type, handling Alan's charm and florid character without becoming aggravating. Bette Davis plays well as a wide-eyed, long-suffering romantic, a change from her more famously imperious role. Humphrey Bogart, still in the villain stage of his career, gives an imposing portrait in minimalism: one only need spy his severe crew cut, stubble and menacing glare to know who we're dealing with. Bogart would play characters thrust into similar scenarios in Key Largo and The Desperate Hours, which play as variants on this film. Dick Foran makes Boze a strangely pathetic jerk, with Joseph Sawyer, Adrian Morris and Slim Thompson as Dick's crew.
The Petrified Forest is a neat work of drama, a simple story made vivid with craftsmanship, drama and mood. Once we reach the climactic acts of violence the whole thing has a feeling of tragedy, with Alan's musings about preordained fate seemingly confirmed by Dick's rash, desperate actions. If the movie can't help feeling stagy at time, that's not a bad thing when it's so compellingly rendered.

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