Movie: The Petrified Forest (1936)

Here is the description of 1936’s The Petrified Forest from IMDB: “A waitress, a hobo and a bank robber get mixed up at a lonely diner in the desert”.  That sounds like the start of some tired old joke.  If there was such a joke, I would probably enjoy it more than I did this film.

This movie is legendary for being the first one where Humphrey Bogart really became the character people remember him as.  To see him in the movies he made before this is jarring.  It is hard to imagine him playing wealthy fancy lads, and yet he did.

Much to my surprise and dismay, I didn’t believe him here as a murderous thug on the run.  He allegedly closely studied John Dillinger and modelled his gait and pattern of speech on him.  I haven’t seen any footage of Dillinger, so I can’t say if this is an accurate portrayal.  I only know Bogie looks pretty strange here, walking around without moving his arms, elbows pointing out.

Perhaps stranger than seeing Bogart in this was seeing Bette Davis younger than I have ever seen her before.  She also had yet to establish the persona as we come to think of her today.  Not only is she lacking her trademark scathing wit, but she doesn’t even have the distinctive vocal inflections she would later develop.  She even looks so different from her later self that I kept mistaking her for a young Susan Sarandon.

The stated lead is Leslie Howard as the world’s least believable hobo.  With his British accent and fey demeanor, he is as absurd as if Noel Coward had been riding the rails.  I think I hated every moment he opened his mouth and more allegedly-brilliant, excessively verbose garbage poured forth.  It’s amazing somebody can sound so pretentious when talking self-deprecatingly about their own pretentiousness.  Perhaps the most preposterous aspect of this picture is a bizarre pact he makes with Bogart.

All but a few minutes of the picture take place in and around an isolated diner and gas station in the desert.  The whole affair feels very much like watching a play, so I wasn’t surprised to learn a play was the source material.  This does not serve the material well.

But then I’m not sure what would have improved on the script.  This felt like a one-act play stretched out to three, as various characters alternately cajole, confront or just chat with the gangster who is holding them hostage in the diner.

The conversation has its livelier moments, but I didn’t believe a word of it.  I didn’t even believe it in terms of “old movie reality”.  The best bits come from the elderly Gramps character, but I grew tired of even him well short of the end.

Still, there were some neat touches.  I especially liked the shots where Bogart’s head lines up with the buffalo head on the wall behind him, giving him the appearance of having devil horns.

What little I found of value here likely will not warrant a second viewing in the future.  This was an extremely popular picture in its time, and highly critically regarded both then and now.  I so wanted to like, maybe love, this movie that I feel frustrated I couldn’t connect with it.  I found The Petrified Forest to be a turgid affair, and the best thing I can say about it is that, without it, we likely wouldn’t have had Bogart and Davis go on to far better things.

Dir: Archive Mayo

Starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart

Watched on blu-ray