Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Petrified Forest

The 1936 adaptation of Robert Sherwood's play is a crime drama with a somewhat existential scope. Set in a desolate Arizona cafe taken over by a gang of thugs on the run, it's about people who are out of date and incapable of dealing with a suddenly chaotic world; like the terrain described by the title, they're fossils. So is the play -- a dated relic that says a good deal about was on the minds of people back in the Depression, when the economy or what was then the war in Europe seemed to be eating up humanity.

Leslie Howard plays a world-weary writer, Alan Squier, who is at the end of a long journey; he's hitchhiked cross-country to arrive at the cafe, where he briefly falls in love with the pretty waitress Gaby (Bette Davis), who reads Villon on the side and dreams of becoming a painter in Paris. She has the kind of youthful spirit that Alan -- a failure who traded in his ambitions to become a boy toy for a rich woman, who ultimately ditched him -- no longer quite believes in.  Gaby's dad is a war veteran and right-wing vigilante nut, who dreams of nothing more than killing someone for his country. Gaby's grandfather is a silly old fool who lives to buttonhole customers with the great story of his life: Billy the Kid once took a shot at him while drunk. Gaby's would-be boyfriend is Bose, a quick-tempered lunkheaded ex-football star who now pumps gas.

When the wanted killer Duke Mantee (Bogart) arrives on the scene and holds them all hostoage, these people -- along with a couple of rich patrons, a fatheaded banker and his stuffy wife -- all serve as a kind of made-to-order microcosm of society, high and low, with Alan's failed idealism very much at the center. Alan sees himself as useless; a writer who can no longer write, an intellectual in a world where intellectuals are no longer needed. The possibility of death at the hands of Mantee -- the only one who seems to have accepted the dog-eat-dog nature of human society -- disturbs him rather little, as the whole point of his long journey appears to be to drown himself in the Pacific Ocean. Instead, he becomes a martyr.

The Petrified Forest was a huge hit as a play and movie, and for all its heavy-handedness and melodrama there's still a lot to like about it. Leslie Howard was probably the reason to see the movie back then, but he tends to lean a little too heavily on that soul-sick schtick that would later characterize him for eternity as Ashley Wilkes. Davis, on the other hand, was a real screen natural whose smile lights up the screen; Bogart is suitably tough and threatening. While the movie is still somewhat stagebound -- and the entire film, even most of the exteriors, were actually shot on the Warner's lot -- but Director Archie Mayo keeps the story moving at a pretty exciting pace.

I got the movie for Christmas as part of a set of Warner's gangster movies that also includes the great White Heat as well as Little Caesar, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Public Enemy, and The Roaring Twenties. Nice set, as far as the movies are concerned, and they all come with some cool extras like cartoons and newsreels and silly one-reelers.

The downside, so far anyway, are the commentaries. Looks like Warner's dialed up UCLA, hired a bunch of film chatters to talk their way through the series, and then called it commentary. It isn't; it's just a bunch of cinemaphiles reciting standard biographical b.s. about the stars. They rarely comment on what you're looking at, and say nothing about composition or lighting; a shame, really, because I found rather a lot to look at in The Petrified Forest. So often I wanted to scream at the screen "Hey, dumbass, I can look up IMdB as well as you can."

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