Now remembered mainly as the film that introduced Humphrey Bogart to the gangster movie, Petrified Forest is not really a gangster film as such, but rather an adaptation of a piece of serious American theatre by Robert E. Sherwood, concerned more with ideas than action.
The drama proper concerns the relationship between a pessimistic English writer, backpacking across America in search of existential enlightenment, and a pretty, talented and intellectually stifled daughter of a way station proprietor stuck in the heart of the American nowhere. The pair are played by Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, re-teamed after the previous year’s Of Human Bondage (“Again they triumph!” screamed the publicity) and it is in the context of their story that the arrival of Bogart’s snarling, scruffy Duke Mantee serves an almost symbolic function, as catalyst and liberator of repressed feelings and aspirations.
Both Howard and Bogart had played their roles on Broadway, but Warner’s original intention had been to cast Howard only, opposite Edward G. Robinson. The star nobly made Bogart’s casting a condition of his own, overriding considerable studio reluctance in an act of generosity that opened the door for Bogart’s subsequent starring career. (In gratitude, Bogart and Lauren Bacall named their first child Leslie.)
With the action confined almost entirely to a single set and a few studio exteriors, the viewer is rarely likely to forget that this is essentially a piece of filmed theatre. Dramatically, however, the resultant sense of claustrophobia does work somewhat to the film’s advantage, and it is further notable for its surprisingly grim and gloomy climax, and standardising of the ‘gangster siege’ plot that would turn up again in Key Largo, The Desperate Hours and many others.
The cast is uniformly impressive, with Davis standing out in an uncharacteristically naive and vulnerable role. But above all, it is Bogart’s scene-stealing Mantee that leaves the strongest impression. In a performance somewhat different from later Bogart gangsters, the unshaven, ill-educated Mantee (apparently modelled on John Dillinger) has none of the actor’s customary cynical cool; instead Bogart conveys a deep layer of insecurity, even regret, beneath a surface of thuggish bravado. In particular his relationship with Howard’s character, which swings from indifference to contempt to confusion to grudging respect, is played with considerably more power and subtlety, by both actors, than may actually be present in the writing. Bette, as so often in the thirties, is unaffectedly adorable.