Gabby lives and works at her dads small diner out in the desert. She can't stand it and wants to go and live with her mother in France. Along comes Alan, a broke man with no will to live, who is traveling to see the pacific, and maybe to drown in it. Meanwhile Duke Mantee a notorious killer and his gang is heading towards the diner where Mantee plan on meeting up with his girl. Written by
Behind the lunch counter, at the Petrified Forrest BBQ/ Gas station are open boxes of cigars. In the extremely dry conditions in that part of the desert South West, any such cigars would be reduced to practically dust, and useless.. See more »
The trouble with me, Gabrielle, is I, I belong to a vanishing race. I'm one of the intellectuals.
That, that means you've got brains!
Hmmm. Yes. Brains without purpose. Noise without sound, shape without substance.
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"The Petrified Forest" (Archie Mayo, 1936) is most fascinating for its eager willingness to voice criticisms of wealth, power, authority, and inequality in America. Perhaps its acute social commentary should be unsurprising considering that Warner Brothers released the romantic crime drama during the depths of the Great Depression, but it is freshly relevant just the same, striking a note that would not be witnessed in the films of the forties and fifties. In speaking to the exploitation of workers, the snobbery of corporatism, the repression of women, blacks, artists, and literary poets, the reign of gangland crime, the American government's complicit abuse of power, and the loss of individuality in an increasingly meek age, "The Petrified Forest" manages an equal-opportunity iconoclasm that belies any party affiliations. Simply put, the film is unafraid to criticize America, and it's that sense of freedom that makes it particularly delightful. Best of all, "The Petrified Forest" voices its dissent through colorful witticisms and engaging banter, never taking itself too seriously or losing its sense of humor.
"The Petrified Forest" is also particularly notable for marking Humphrey Bogart's first major screen role as the nominal villain and escaped gangster Duke Mantee. The unshaven, pompadour-sporting Bogart is leering and menacing, brooding and growling and glowering, projecting the lonely, hard-bitten cynicism that would soon become his trademark. At the same time, however, he also emerges as a sympathetic and noble figure, one who transcends his criminal trappings through a fierce sense of integrity and individuality. Not only did these hard-boiled character traits become the template for the Bogart persona, but they also serve as a source of magnetism within the film's social milieu. Aside from the corporate oilman (Mr. Chisholm, played by Paul Harvey), Duke Mantee's hostages in a desert diner come to admire and salute his rugged individualism and defiance of the status quo, even as he endangers their lives. They yearn for the empowering resistance that he embodies and the gritty social rebelliousness that he wears on his prickly face, and when the film, before its final shootout, labels the confrontation as "Duke Mantee vs. the American government," it's clear that the sympathies of its principal characters reside with the Duke.
"The Petrified Forest" is also noteworthy for the dynamic contrast between its two black characters. One of them (Joseph, played by John Alexander) is virtually the embodiment of the pre-sixties Hollywood stereotype, a meek, shuffling, subservient chauffeur who always looks to his wealthy boss for paternalistic approval before opening his mouth. The other (Slim, played by Slim Thompson) is one of Duke Mantee's gangster associates, and he's clearly a liberated, autonomous, independent soul who offers his opinions on his own accord while mocking his "colored brother" for his subservience. He's almost a figure out of 1966 rather than 1936, and the difference between these two black men highlights the social conflict that the film heeds. On one side is the ruggedly individualistic and socially defiant Duke Mantee and a black man who marches to his own beat; on the other is a fat cat corporate tycoon and his docile and emasculated black servant, who, in turn, represent the American status quo. And so while Mantee and his gangsters are nominally the villains of "The Petrified Forest," at heart they constitute the film's heroes and rousing saviors. They are the men who obliquely brighten the hopeless despair and repressed frustrations of a trapped waitress who is secretly a talented painter (Gabby Maple, played by Bette Davis) and a fatalistically passionate French drifter-poet who is hitching his way to the Pacific Ocean (Alan Squier, played by Leslie Howard). They also seem to enliven several of the other repressed characters, from the restless wife of the cowardly tycoon (Mrs. Edith Chisholm, played by Genevieve Tobin), to an ex-college football player struggling to release his pent-up energies (Nick, played by Eddie Acuff), to an old man who longs for Billy the Kid, Mark Twain, and the legendary individualists of a bygone era (Gramp Maple, played by Charley Grapewin).
To be sure, the film doesn't explicitly paint Duke Mantee and his fellow gangsters as heroic saviors, but it's clear where the film's sympathies lie.
Ultimately "The Petrified Forest" is about an umbrella of misfits and their discontent with the repressive and exploitative American establishment, and it's that pulse of iconoclasm that keeps it audacious and provocative after all these decades.
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