The Petrified Forest (1936)

This Is How The World Ends, Not With a Bang But With a Whimper

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I first watched The Petrified Forest I was at an unsure time in my life; fearful of the future and with my own sense of individualism and artistic ambitions. Watching Leslie Howard as Alan Squier, a failed artist who eventually takes his own life so a young girl could be the artist he never was made me fearful and depressed of what my own future held in store for me. I felt for this character to the point that it hurt because I was worried that someday I could become that character, perhaps not to that extreme but destined to a similar fate. Gabrielle (Bette Davis) on the other hand is stuck in a rut and dreams of going to France. No one in The Petrified Forest has much to look forward to; even the old man played by Charlie Grapewin gets very excited by the prospect of gangsters being nearby. Anything to create some excitement in the middle of the desert, excitement which doesn’t wain when he’s being held hostage by them. At the time when I watched this film and I was dealing with the uncertainty of if I would ever leave my hometown or would I always be stuck here. Few other films have ever had characters which spoke so directly to me.

The atmosphere in The Petrified Forest is intense enough that I can forgive the not so seamless transitions between real-life locations and the sets. With little to no use of non-diegetic music, the sound of a windstorm is more than enough to emphasize the prison of which the characters reside. I also highly recommend checking out Heat Lightning from 1934 which contains many similarities to The Petrified Forest in its setting and atmosphere as well as characters and plot points.

The Petrified Forest’s most notable contribution to cinema is the breakthrough role of Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee, a role in which he has never been more terrifying. I generally don’t think of Bogart as an actor who is scary but here he is a guy I would not want to be stuck in an elevator with, even with that distinct walk with his slouch and his arms bent in that manner as the dangle. – In most cases this would look ridiculous by Bogart makes it work. Bogart’s acting career had been marred with failure up until this point with this likely being his final chance to make it in Hollywood and no doubt must have fueled his performance. I know a film is good when I have to think and contemplate which actor (Howard or Bogart) gave the better performance.

How often do you get to see gangsters and intellectuals involved in such profound conversations? Howard and Bogart play characters whom are worlds apart yet develop a mutual respect for each other as they discover they share a bond with their individualism (also look out for Bogart’s head being framed over a moose head so it looks like he has antlers). Fascinating characters (all with such unique dynamics between each other) in a fascinating story is already one of the most important things I could ask for from a movie, even better when they affect me on a personal level.

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