Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Movie Review: The Petrified Forest (1936)


A single-location drama set at a remote diner on the edge of the desert, The Petrified Forest enjoys an engaging cast doing plenty of talking about life, love and death. The film often veers into pretentious territory, but does so with good intentions.

Jason Maple (Porter Hall) runs a small diner and gas station in the Black Mesa area near the Petrified Forest and the desolate Arizona desert. His passionate and intellectual daughter Gabrielle (Bette Davis) is the waitress, and her grandfather "Gramp" (Charley Grapewin) entertains the dusty guests with tall tales, especially the time Billy the Kid took a few shots at him and missed. Boze (Dick Foran) is the muscular hired help, and he has his eyes on Gabrielle.

Into the diner walks failed writer and endless pontificator Alan Squier (Leslie Howard). His worldly stories impress Gabrielle, who quickly fall in love with the sophisticated traveller, while Boze becomes jealous. But the tension at the diner is about to get a lot worse. Gangster Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) is on a crime spree in the region, and along with his men they arrive at the diner to wait for accomplices. Gabrielle, Gramp, Boze, Alan and a few other customers find themselves held at gunpoint by Duke, while a sand storm rages outside.

In adapting the Robert E. Sherwood stage play, director Archie Mayo plays to the strength of the source material and does not try to expand the film beyond its sheltered confines. The Petrified Forest is a cozy drama that generates power from its isolated locale, and a collection of sturdy characters.

The film simmers on many fronts. The first act introduces the characters, with Boze lusting after Gabrielle as she perhaps starts to be tempted by the idea of settling for the energetic but unrefined gas jockey. But then Alan arrives and opens her eyes to a romantic world of opportunity, and the second act is the blossoming of their relationship and the awakening of Gabrielle towards seeking much more out of life. And then Duke and his men barge in on the solitude of the desert, forcing Alan to live up to his operatic ideals as he searches for a higher purpose. Gabrielle finds her future transforming in front of her eyes, while the tired but still potent Duke exerts his influence and ponders his fate.

Alan is the sort of character who can exist often on the written page, but rarely in real life. His dreamy, lyrical prose, drawn from a life of grand adventure and failed expectations, is flowery and entertaining, but also overwrought. Leslie Howard plays his role straight and Alan is certainly the most interesting character at the diner, but also closer to a mythical presence than a believable man.

Bette Davis gives Gabrielle a breezy but practical personality, at her best when opening up to Alan about her absentee French mother. Alan's worldliness activates in Gabrielle her latent desire to burst out of her father's shack, and Alan finds in her a spirit that he can help launch into the world to compensate for his perceived failure to achieve his potential.

Once Duke Mantee makes his appearance, Humphrey Bogart takes over the movie, and becomes a star. Recreating his stage role at Howard's insistence, Bogart turns Duke into a weary but didactic gangster, almost tired of his life but still willing to aggressively fight for it. Duke has no time for the unrefined Boze, but is more than happy to indulge Alan, as the writer dreams up a remarkable exclamation point to his personal story.

The Petrified Forest ends with a gun battle and a hail of bullets, but for Gabrielle, Alan, and a cornered Duke, only one shot will count, as it marks a promise kept, an appropriate final chapter and a hopeful new beginning.






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