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The Petrified Forest

Marking Humphrey Bogart's first successful appearance on the silver screen, The Petrified Forest (1936) also marked Bogie for several years as a hard-boiled gangster type — despite the fact that he'd mostly played upper-crust sorts of roles on the stage, the kind that called for dinner jackets and tennis whites. In fact, when he was first cast as killer Duke Mantee in Robert E. Sherwood's Broadway play, Bogart was unsure that he was right for the part — he simply didn't see himself as a believable criminal. But the play was a hit… and Bogart was so good as Mantee that when it was adapted for the screen the following year, Sherwood insisted that Bogart join co-star Leslie Howard. A very talky, tense, and surprisingly existential film, The Petrified Forest concerns Alan Squier (Howard), a penniless intellectual wandering the world in search of meaning, who stumbles into an isolated café. There he meets Gabby (Bette Davis), a waitress yearning to be a poet, who sees in Alan everything she's dreamed of while living in this one-horse town — sophistication, worldliness, perhaps a chance to escape to something better. But Alan's soul is tired and he's ready to give up… no matter how attractive he finds Gabby, it's too late for him. It's an encounter that might have otherwise gone nowhere, except for the appearance of Duke Mantee, a cold-blooded murderer on the run who holds the café's denizens hostage. The dynamic energy in the film comes from the by-play between Howard and Bogart, both losers at the end of their respective ropes, each representing the polar opposite in man's nature — Alan, effete and philosophical, hopes to resolve the situation through ideas and intellect, while the uncouth, vicious Mantee knows he holds the power as long as he holds the gun. Very obviously an adapted stage play, the claustrophobic one-set presentation may seem painfully verbose and a tad slow to modern audiences, and the badly painted desert backgrounds are laughably fake. But the performances are riveting, especially that of Bogart. Lore has it that he struggled terribly in the early years of his film career, feeling a deep sense of inadequacy as he tried to learn the more naturalistic style of film acting after years on the stage and, at 37 years old with several unsuccessful stabs at a film career under his belt, he knew that this was his last shot. His career-launching work here is superb, as is the smooth finesse of Howard, from whom Bogart may have taken more than a few acting tips. One of the great gangster classics, The Petrified Forest is a must-see for fans of the genre and of Bogart. Warner's DVD release has been cleaned up nicely with a good full-screen transfer (1.33:1 OAR), although the source materials still looks rather soft and suffer from a fair amount of archiving, as well as some specks and splotches. It's not terrible, though, all things considered. The monaural Dolby Digital audio (with subtitles in English, French, or Spanish) is quite good, very clean and clear. On board is a commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax, who dutifully reads very detailed notes on the film throughout; his observations are informative and scene-specific, but quite stilted. The "Warner Night at the Movies" menu offers a selection of featurettes introduced by Leonard Maltin that one might have seen during a night out in 1936 — a trailer for the Edward G. Robinson gangland drama Bullets or Ballots, newsreel footage, the musical short "Rhythmitis," and the star-studded, Friz Freling-directed Merrie Melodies cartoon, "The Coo-Coo Nut Grove." There's also a new 15-minute featurette, "The Petrified Forest: Menace in the Desert" with sound bites on the film's background from Lax and others; an audio-only presentation of a 1940 radio adaptation starring Bogart, Tyrone Power, and Joan Bennett; and the theatrical trailer. Keep case.
—Dawn Taylor

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