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'The Petrified Forest': Diners, Disillusionment & Diva
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
03:56PM / Friday, June 19, 2020
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I wish that I were reviewing one of the half-dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.

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Watching director Archie Mayo's film rendition of playwright Robert E. Sherwood's "The Petrified Forest" (1936) for the umpteenth time, a thought-provoking dynamic struck me. I'm not sure what part of human cognizance, perception or scrutiny it is that makes it so, but I wouldn't mind if an expert in how we notice stuff would explain why it is that no matter how often one sees a favorite movie, each time brings a new discovery.
 
It's a really great dividend which proves what a smart cinema investment you made when you decided to place the film in your hall of fame, to be enjoyed over and over, touted to relatives, friends and strangers alike, and quoted with a reverence usually reserved for scripture. If anyone didn't know differently, they'd suspect you had a financial interest in said reels of celluloid. But alas, truth is, your fandom is much more important than any monetary concern.
 
Ahem, clearing my throat when about to issue a bit of presumptive if not entirely pretentious analysis, it is a personally vested interest that is at play here, for a cherished motion picture often says more about its cherisher than any nuggets of revelation the film itself unfolds. Which is why when traveling by mass transit and learning that the person sitting next to me holds in high esteem movies like "The Grotesque Dirty Monsters that Killed Everyone," or "The Lots of Slaughtering War that Killed Even More than Everyone," I like to move away a seat or two.
 
Granted, "The Petrified Forest," about a convergence of folks from different walks of life compressed into a soul-searching confessional when held hostage by Humphrey Bogart's desperado on the lam brims with wit and wisdom. But that's not what grabbed me this go-round. What struck me amidst the wonderfully eerie backdrop of an isolated café at desert's edge was the realization that Bette Davis' portrayal of Gabrielle Maple, a winsome waitress longing to shake off the desert sand and pursue art studies in France, was not just great, but flawless.
 
Indeed, the ensemble cast, working its thespic magic in the hauntingly cozy confines of just the sort of rustic dive where a budding poet laureate could gain inspiration, gives the laudable impression that no other assemblage could do justice to the drama at hand. But as Davis immediately and then devotedly falls for Leslie Howard's also excellently etched Alan Squier, a disenchanted writer trying to find meaning in his hitchhiking wanderings, it is evident that her every chromosome is devoted to the dual muses of theater.
 
Each twitch of a facial muscle, a glint in an eye, half-hopeful smile, momentary sadness and deep, abiding concern are evoked in a phenomenal amalgam of technical and method acting that cannot be attributed to anything but natural talent. Sure, Babe Ruth learned something from his coaches and peers. But, as the more knowledgeable scouts probably opined, he was the goods.
 
It's that same, innate Ruthian gift Davis learned to command that, in this specific assignment, proves vital to projecting the human quest for fulfillment that Gabby represents. Leslie Howard's itinerant commentator of the human condition proves just the catalyst Gabby needs to crystallize and put into words her hopes and dreams beyond what she sees as a stultifying insult to her artistic potential. As such, he gets to spout all the good quotes that form the ethos of the tale, a romantic showcase of man vs. nature, brains vs. brawn, idealism versus self- righteousness, rich versus struggling, and whatever astute observations your viewership may glean.
 
But while I'll save all his eloquently trilled bon mots for you to discover, in service of a nutshell description of Bogart's Duke Mantee, hailed as "the world-famous killer" per Gabby's ornery Gramps (Charley Grapewin), I will allow one of Duke's more pungent reflections. Asked by Squier what kind of life he's had, the Duke surlily relates: "What do you think? I spend most of my time since I grew up in jail — it looks like I'll spend the rest of my life dead."
 
Adding another fold of interest to the mini biographies extracted by the mortal threat Mantee poses is the tacitly woven subtext's measure of the times. It's the height of The Depression. But while the only reference to it comes from a lineman who, upon paying for his lunch is rebuked by Gabby's tin soldier-type dad (Porter Hall) for remarking that the Republic needs saving, the bewilderment that comes of economic uncertainty hangs in the air.
 
Likewise, in exampling that the Chisholms (Genevieve Tobin and Paul Harvey), labeled by the ever-forthright Gabrielle as "the rich people," are no happier than any of the other captives, the currency of this societal microcosm becomes not money, but the elusive nobility of purpose Alan extols. But be warned: Submit to your English professor that a parallel can be drawn between "The Petrified Forest's" Alan Squier and "A Tale of Two Cities's" Sydney Carton (y'know, "It is a far, far better thing that I do … ") and he might suggest you've been swayed by some pompous literary dilettante.
 
"The Petrified Forest," a Warner Bros. release directed by Archie Mayo, stars Bette Davis, Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. Running time: 82 minutes
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