Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis) is a bright young girl living in an isolated desert of Arizona, where she operates a gas station and diner with her father (Porter Hall) and grandfather (Charley Grapewin). Gabrielle’s mother is no longer a part of her life, having left Arizona years earlier in order to return to her hometown in France.
Gabrielle has big dreams of moving to France and living with her mother, eventually making a living as an artist and drawing inspiration from the country she has idealized in her mind. This plan comes much to the chagrin of beefy football player Boze (Dick Foran), who works at the gas station and sees a future for himself and Gabrielle and Arizona.
One day, a former writer and currently broke traveler named Alan Squire (Leslie Howard) stops at the diner. He and Gabrielle have a talk. She discovers that he’s an intelligent man and has been to France, leading her to quickly profess her love for him and hatch a plan for them to move to France together in a few years. Alan realizes how illogical this plan is and decides to leave, and to let Gabrielle go on with her life – until famed murderer and criminal Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) and his cronies show up, taking over the diner and keeping everyone in it hostage.
Archie Mayo directs 1936’s The Petrified Forest, based on the play by Robert E. Sherwood and adapted for the screen by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Davis.
The Petrified Forest takes its sweet time before truly digging into the story, but once it does get there, it becomes very intriguing and has no trouble steadily holding the viewer’s attention. Part of this intrigue comes from the fact that the film is nowhere near afraid to tackle some of America’s biggest social problems, including mistreatment of minorities, crime, power and the abuse of it, among others. The film makes bold statements about these issues, but not in an over-the-top manner and never in such a way that it comes off as a preachy film.
The main characters (and most of the supports, for that matter) all seem to be “misfits” in some way – Bogie’s character is a criminal and a killer; Howard’s character is a penniless drifter; Davis’ character cares more about becoming a well-traveled, intelligent woman than settling down and having a family. Much of the film’s social dissent is portrayed through these characters, not only in personality but also through their often banter-y dialogue.
Leslie Howard is a highly underrated actor in my opinion, and he gives a great performance in this film. Bogie is equally fantastic, giving his character a sense of anger but at the same time an apathetic attitude toward the entire situation, which seriously increases the film’s tension. Davis is bright, spunky and highly captivating here, giving a performance that hits each emotion just right.
Truly great performances are given all around, making it difficult to choose a stand-out performance in The Petrified Forest. But by the end of the film it’s clear that Leslie Howard takes the cake. His performance here is understated but very powerful, his character sympathetic despite his sometimes illogical thinking.
Though frequently billed as a romantic drama, this film is difficult to pigeonhole into a single genre. There’s some comedy, just the right amount of romance and a whole lot of tense drama at work here. The mood building is wonderfully executed, and this mix of genres ensures that the viewer never gets bored despite the somewhat simple premise of the film. Some periods of The Petrified Forest do move along more slowly than others, but the mood is maintained in such a way that the viewer’s interest is consistently kept.
The Petrified Forest is a gripping piece of work featuring a fantastic cast delivering top-notch performances. The ending packs a few surprises (including an exhilarating shootout scene) and the film as a whole delivers a thought-provoking social commentary that is still relevant today. The score: 4.5/5