Warners has dug deep down into its inventory and pulled out six titles that are the core of their golden-era image, the elite of the Gangster film. One of the most interesting is this 1936 melodrama adapted from Robert E. Sherwood's high-minded play.
Superficial gangster fans may steer clear of The Petrified Forest, a talkfest that spends more time on philosophical poetics than gritty action. But it introduced Humphrey Bogart as potential star material and is a masterful example of a play adapted to the screen. It's at least as effective as Key Largo, which in retrospective plays like a reworked version.
Self-styled intellectual Alan Squier (who claims not to be English) runs up against killer diller John Dillinger substitute Humphrey Bogart, who we're told affects the same dress and some of the mannerisms of the famous bank robber. A nicely-orchestrated cross section of supporting players allows playright Sherwood to score some unflattering points about American attitudes, and even though they're all accurate clichés. The wife of a banker turns virtuous under the seige; the pushy football player makes a dumb try at heroism, and the old codger (Charley Grapewin at his best) loves Duke Mantee because he remembers Billy the Kid with affection! Bette Davis' father Porter Hall belongs to a sinister-sounding paramilitary group called The Black Horse Troopers. Sherwood even reserves an unheard-unheard of dialogue exchange for two black characters, outlaw and chauffeur, that plays unusually well.
Leslie Howard is too earnest to seem effete, as he rattles on about fate and courage in poetic terms. It's easy to see why both Bette Davis' Gabby and the female public at large adored this fantastic character not likely to be found in real life. Under the truth serum alcohol, both Squier and Mantee bring their feelings out in the open, and Mantee is revealed to be a kindred lost soul working his way toward the same grave Squier sees in his own future. Squier has a death wish and makes a deal for Mantee to shoot him dead on his way out the door ... giving the players two or three varieties of nobility and poetic irony to chew on. It's the kind of slightly delirious play that has average people talking about stylized, idealistic concepts. Howard's character blabs a lot, and Bogart communicates his feelings in a few terse statements.
Many viewers don't think that rural outlaw bandits are real gangsters, but anybody with a gang qualifies, even The Wild Bunch, which carries over some potent gangster images in its flashback scenes. As the scholars on this disc's featurette claim, Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie & Clyde can be distinguished as 2nd or third generation Americans. The old codger makes a cogent remark about Mantee being "American" instead of "foreign," by which he means that Mantee's a homegrown menace instead of one of those despised immigrants. The immigrant urban gangsters come from ghettos and are ambitious practitioners of the American way of business, skipping all the rules. Rural bandits like Mantee are the disillusioned product of economic failure, born of the dustbowl and righting perceived wrongs by striking back against society.
People who make fun of Bette Davis usually haven't seen her movies. Her acting is always interesting and excellent in thoughtful work like this, playing opposite a worthwhile leading man. In his own way Bogart is another step toward modern screen acting. His imposing presence and craggy face do most of the work; instead of emoting all the time, he inhabits the character and lets his eyes carry his intent. The opening shots of him walking with his arms in an apelike posture are a bit thick, but beyond that, no complaints.
For 1936, this is an extremely fluid and imaginative staging of what is basically a one-room play. Archie Mayo's name doesn't come up in any lists of great directors, but he hit the nail on the head this time.
Warners' DVD of The Petrified Forest is again a nicely cleaned-up restoration. The studio look of the time didn't go in for deep blacks, and the image reflects this while giving the stagey sets a dusty look. The sound has been particularly improved from old 16mm TV prints - the movie no longer looks like a fossil.
By now we're used to the convocation of experts that gather to explain the film in the featurette, Menace in the Desert. The commentary is by Eric Lax. An elaborate extra is an entire 1940 radio adaptation with Bogart, Tyrone Power and Joan Bennett.
Leonard Maltin's string of short subjects includes a newsreel, a grating musical short Rhythmitis, the cartoon Coo Coo Nut Grove and a trailer for Bullets or Ballots.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Petrified Forest rates: