Between the wordy dialogue, which often involves characters detailing their entire autobiographies, and the studio set, its walls wrapped around with a painted facsimile of Arizona desert and sky, The Petrified Forest is clearly adapted from a play. I would say, however, that this is not an overwhelming drawback. The Petrified Forest succeeds because it maintains its tension throughout and proceeds at an energetic pace, helped by snappy editing. It’s also remarkable for its uniformly strong performances, including those from Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and, most of all, Humphrey Bogart, whose career was launched with his portrayal of desperate gangster Duke Mantee.
Mantee is on the run, and seeks refuge in the remote Black Mesa gas station. Among his hostages are Gabby (Davis) and Alan Squier (Howard). Waitress Gabby is as ambitious as Squier is aimless. He’s British, and an intellectual, and though he’s seen parts of the world Gabby longs to visit, he doesn’t know where to settle himself. Gabby is a painter and, seeing that Squier is more cultured than the average visitor to the station (owned by her father), quickly falls for him.
Mantee does not appear onscreen for more than half an hour, but the characters follow his flight from the law on the radio. When he does arrive, he doesn’t disappoint. Through Bogart’s glowering, shown as much with his body as with his face, he is constantly a threatening presence. Mantee is no thug, however; his mind is clearly ticking over at full speed. And when Bogart needs to show hurt, he can really show hurt. The actor was in debt, suffering personal hardships, and his career seemed to be going nowhere; he needed success, and this role got him noticed by critics and by audiences, for all the right reasons.
Howard makes Squier the quintessential old world intellectual, a man whose time has passed. He has a ghostly pallor from the beginning of the film, and at times an unearthly, insightful glint comes into his eye. He’s more set upon grander goals than matters of life and death, and finds them, uncalled for, in this hostage situation.
Mantee and Squire are vividly contrasting figures. However, there’s an unlikely connection between them. No wonder that Howard fought hard for Bogart to join him in reprising their roles from Broadway; the two are a large part of why The Petrified Forest is such a striking film.
Davis makes a strong contribution through her performance, too. At the time, she was as ambitious as Gabby, bent on achieving on higher quality roles than those her studio had been giving her. (A rare such role was in 1934’s Of Human Bondage, which also starred Howard.) Here, she is lively without being restless, forceful without being exaggerated. Gabby does not seem much like a Davis-type role, and so could probably have been well-played by any number of other actors, but that only makes Davis more interesting here.
This film shows America at an uncertain point in its history. The remnants of the Wild West still remain: old man Gramp Maple (Charlie Grapewin) often reminisces about nearly being shot by Billy the Kid, and there’s a photo of someone who looks very much like Wild Bill Hickock on the wall. The expansion is over, however, and where to from here? And what needs to be left behind? These questions are examined through the characters’ interactions, which makes the film work on a thematic level, while it maintains enough pacing and tension to keep from feeling stuffy. It helps that in its criticism of America’s treatment of women and black people, the film is well ahead of its time.
The Petrified Forest would make for a great double (or triple) feature with a couple of other Bogart films. In The Desperate Hours (William Wyler, 1955), he once again played a criminal on the run, with a group of hostages to keep the police at bay – only this time, the setting is American suburbia, bringing the social criticism even closer to home. In Key Largo (John Huston, 1948), it was Bogart’s turn to be the hostage, and the gangster was played by the man who came close to portraying Mantee on film: Edward G. Robinson. Just as a dust storm heightens the tension in The Petrified Forest, the characters in Key Largo are trapped by a hurricane. The similarities and differences between these films, and Bogart’s performances, are fascinating. All three are also well worth watching for their own merits. The Petrified Forest, though, must receive special note for the way it defined Bogart’s career, and the films that followed it.