101 Greatest Films of Mystery & Suspense, #69 - 'The Petrified Forest'

From the archive: We're recounting the films chosen by Otto Penzler for his now out-of-print 2000 collection, 101 Great Films of Mystery & Suspense.


 

The Petrified Forest (1936)

TYPE OF FILM: Crime

STUDIO: Warner Brothers

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Hal B. Wallis

DIRECTOR: Archie Mayo 

SCREENWRITERS: Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves

SOURCE: The Petrified Forest, play by Robert E. Sherwood

RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes

PRINCIPAL PLAYERS:

Leslie Howard - Alan Squire

Humphrey Bogart - Duke Mantee

Bette Davis - Gabrielle Maple

Click here to see the rest of the cast. 

DID YOU KNOW? Robert E. Sherwood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, wrote The Petrified Forest as a play, which became a hit on Broadway starring Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. When Howard was asked to star in the screen version, he accepted the role only on condition that Bogart, then a stage actor and a player mainly in B movies, be hired to again play Duke Mantee.

THE STORY: Alan Squire, a suicidal intellectual, is hitchhiking across the Arizona desert when he happens on the run-down Black Mesa Bar-B-Q. Were he to ask where he is, someone could reasonably tell him that he is in the heart of nowhere. Here he meets a pretty young idealist, Gaby Maple, who dreams of escaping the desolate gas station to go to France, where her mother still lives. They fall in love immediately, but the idyll is ended when a brutal killer, Duke Mantee, and his gang, running for the Mexican border, use the restaurant as their hideout. Mantee holds a small group of travelers and residents captive while waiting for the rest of the gang, especially Daisy, his girlfriend. The philosophic Squire spurs the “autobiographical impulse,” and the people reveal their true feelings and hidden truths. Squire makes a deal with Mantee: Squire will sign over his life-insurance policy to Gaby if the gangster will kill him before he leaves, so that the girl will be able to escape her squalid life and find herself in France.

***

There is no doubting that the original form of The Petrified Forest was as a stage play, since the film is essentially confined to one set and has far more talk than action. Indeed, until the final shootout, there is no action. But it’s a beautifully written play that eloquently makes a case for individualism.

Squire, for all his wordiness, never appears pedantic. Mantee, on the other hand, a man of action rather than thought, looks menacing but does not behave at all like the brutal killer he is reputed to be. When a rather thick young football player who is enamored of Gaby grabs a rifle, Mantee shoots him in the hand, rather than killing him on the spot. When the restaurant is surrounded, he yells at his captives to get on the floor for their safety. He even has trouble living up to the bargain with Squire, finally shooting him only when the suicidal young man bars the doors to Mantee’s escape.

Two endings were shot, but the studio decided to remain true to the play and allow the hero to die.

A weak remake titled Escape in the Desert was made in 1945, without the superb writing and acting of the original. It starred Philip Dorn, Helmut Dantine, Jean Sullivan, and Alan Hale. In 1955, a television version starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

The essential plot structure of a group of hostages held by gangsters is used equally effectively in Key Largo (1948) and The Desperate Hours (1955), both of which also starred Bogart.

BEST LINE: When Alan Squire asks Duke Mantee to talk about his life, Mantee tells him that most of it has been in prison, and “it looks like I’ll spend the rest of my life dead.” 

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