The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Petrified Forest is a 1936 gem of a proto-noir, starring Bette Davis, Leslie Howard and a first major star turn from this young cat, Humphrey Bogart.

While we style The Petrified Forest as a proto-noir, its real roots are on the stage, and it is in fact a typical-for-its-day stage-to-screen adaptation. Typical in the performances which seem verbose for the silver screen. and its rather static setting.

Even four or five years later, when the forties were unrolling and film noir was a staple style at the cinema house, much more emphasis was being spent on mis-en-scene and a more visual style. Back in the day - - when the day was the 1930s - - there was a temptation to simply film what appear to us today, to be quite long exchanges of dialogue.

The dialogue between Bette Davis and Leslie Howard which takes up a large chunk of the opening acts is only really saved by the ultra-urbane delivery and the sheer fascination both actors inspire. A variety of carefully curated camera angles keep this moving along, along with a well evoked setting, which is a remote gas station in the Arizona wilds.

The thwarted love interest played by Dick Foran is much more of its day. This amounts to a fair amount of goofing off around the pumps, and some heavy attempts at heavy petting, which turn out to be less than appealing to Bette Davis' small town girl looking for the bright lights and an artistic life elsewhere.

One certain thing is the fact that The Petrified Forest is probably the only film you will find in this an any other era, to make a virtue of profiling the medieval French poet Francois Villon.

Lovely as this all in  - - The Petrified Forest comes even more alive when Humphrey Bogart mooches in.

Have a look at him - - take him in. Was Humphrey Bogart ever more compelling, more still and menacing, more perfected in his mood and style, than he was on this first outing?

It is likely not. There is something captured here, in the dark of the 1930s and under the shadows of well selected lights, and in the focus of a camera which was just about to go out of date. The focus on these cameras is also worth observing. Notice how when a character points, or extends their hand, that hand goes out of focus.

It is a well known fact concerning The Petrified Forest that Humphrey Bogart was not the first choice of the movie's producers, who wanted to employ Edward G. Robinson, a better known quantity at the time.

Leslie Howard however that insisted, we are told, that he would not be performing in the film, unless his partner in the stage production, Humphrey Bogart, was chosen for the role. It was a great decision for Bogart as it launched his career, and he never looked back. He was also eternally grateful to Leslie Howard for this, with 'eternally' in this context meaning the rest of his life.

Over the trajectory of Bogart's career, he moves from bad guy to good guy quite seamlessly, of course perfecting a bit of both in his role as Sam Spade, in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946). He does feature as some proper villains in the 1930s however, and none more dangerous and moody than his turn in The Petrified Forest.

If you are wondering about that mooching that Bogart indulges in when he crosses the room, it is necessary to go back once more to that stage play. For it is said, that the character, who may have well been based on John Dillinger, was perfected by Bogart who watched film of Dillinger, and then copied his mannerism when he rendered his performance of villain Duke Mantee.

John Dillinger

The Petrified Forest as a film does separate itself from the medium of the stage. The cinema is a different kind of magic, and in the case of Robert E. Sherwood's play, what seems entirely theatrical translates into something else. The film of The Petrified Forest, very like  a stage play, only has three settings. Inside the rest stop; outsider the rest stop; and a short scene in the wilderness.

The discussion is perfect for film noir, as everyone is trapped. Trapped in the almighty scale and openness of the Arizona desert in the case of Bette Davis' character. Leslie Howard's character is the same perhaps, but in the opposite direction. Even having found the ultimate freedom, having left everything to find the most open space on the continent, he is still trapped enough to be suicidal. This is the reason for the long and romantic opening scenes. Bette Davis in particular, might as well be petrified, rotted to the spot in the middle of nowhere, dreaming of everywhere. 

Likeness to Dillinger?

Humphrey Bogart on Stage and Screen

The verbose and romantic passages of The Petrified Forest do remind one constantly of the fact that the production is very much a stage play. But they do pass with ease in the perfect presence of two such enjoyable actors, also.

If the action were boiled down to one thing, as it often is in lesser film and stage productions, we might summarise The Petrified Forest as being about a gangster on the run, who holes up in a remote American rest-stop. Under such perfectly stage circumstances, fun will always ensue, whether it be The Hateful Eight or something older.

The hold up is without doubt the exciting meat of the film, and a third of it perhaps, as a segment in and of itself. The theme of course, remains captivity and freedom, and Humphrey Bogart is sensational at capturing both, in a surely fated and doomed performance, which does contain a surprise ending, which is most affecting.

This amid some first rate character acting which ahs the effect of focusing that theme of being trapped, which affects everyone; even the one shot of the big shots in their car, does seem to suggest they are trapped in there also, with four crammed in there.

Dick Foran

Charley Grapewin

And for character actors in The Petrified Forest, a shout out then to Joseph Sawyer, who plays accomplice and gang member 'Jackie'. Sawyer has some decent noir credits to his name, and here are some of few that might crop up around these here parts.

Joseph Sawyer with Humphrey Bogart

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) as Werner Renz
I Stole a Million (1939) as Billings
The Roaring Twenties (1939) as Sergeant Pete Jones
Swamp Water (1941) as Hardy Ragan
Deadline at Dawn (1946) as Babe Dooley
Gilda (1946) as Casey
The Runaround (1946) as Hutchins
Inside Job (1946) as Police Capt. Thomas
Roses Are Red (1947) as Police Lt. Rocky Wall
Big Town After Dark (1947) as Monk
A Double Life (1947) as Det. Pete Bonner
The Killing (1956) as Mike O'Reilly

(Jospeh Sawyer, film noir)

Before we go on, one distinctly period trope from the 1930s does appear in The Petrified Forest, and that is the local militia. Such militarily outfitted local men in the 1930s might well have been flirting with fascism, or whatever the local equivalent may have expressed itself to be. And they may not, of course.

Humphrey Bogart appeared in a quite brilliant and lesser know film in 1939 called Black Legion. The legion of locals in hoods and other fancy outfits in that film owe everything to the KKK, and although not styled or active as a fascist group, the 1930s, relative to what was to come, were a time of political naivety. 

Similar expressions are explicit in Confessions of a Nazi Spy, with Edward G. Robinson, which faithfully exposed the fact that the Nazis had successfully made their mark on American grassroots political activism in the 1930s.

The gentleman militia in this episode of history are portrayed fairly plainly as proud and faintly ridiculous middle-aged male busy-bodies, and don't get much action, but are certainly here for the benefit of some kind of comment on any kind of militia tendency; odder still to think these three uniformed men of action are genuinely based in the middle of nowhere.

Fascism Lampooned by Gangsters

The image of John Dillinger is a work of a Federal Bureau of Investigation employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States

The Petrified Forest (1936)

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