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Warner Home Video presents
Duke: Did you think I was kiddin' when I said I'd be glad to knock you off?
DVD ReviewPoetic language and lofty ideas don't usually find their way into gangster pictures, but The Petrified Forest is chock full of both—almost to the exclusion of the stylized gun violence and tough lingo that define the genre. More an examination of man's tortured spirit than a peek inside his sadistic soul, this taut, emotionally affecting film is perhaps best remembered for the electrifying, star-making performance of Humphrey Bogart as the outlaw Duke Mantee. But the lyrical prose of Robert Sherwood, whose hit play inspired the film, deserves equal praise, and lifts this atypical mob film above others in its class.
Set in a dilapidated diner-cum-gas station in the heart of the Arizona desert, The Petrified Forest brings together an intriguing collection of disillusioned misfits who bare their souls while being held captive by the murderous Mantee. Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a penniless drifter with "uncertain" plans, rues his wasted life and thwarted literary potential, and now wanders the American countryside searching for "something worth living for…or dying for." His quest for meaning ends in a most unlikely spot when he encounters the wide-eyed Gabby Maple (Bette Davis), daughter of the diner's proprietor, who fantasizes about escaping the desolate Southwest and studying painting in Paris. Alan appreciates Gabby's spirit and vitality, while she's attracted to his intellect and sensitivity—a refreshing change from the doltish Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran), a brawny former football hero who fancies her.
When Mantee commandeers the diner, Squier impulsively alters his life insurance policy and names Gabby the beneficiary. He then makes Mantee promise to kill him, in the hope that Gabby will use the inheritance to pursue her dream and develop her talent. Although the two men couldn't possess more divergent personalities, Alan and Mantee develop a kinship born of their fatalistic attitudes and "obsolete" nature—Mantee is a relic of the Roaring '20s, while Squier evokes the Lost Generation. Both feel they no longer fit into the world, and ironically make a last stand in a mystical wasteland where wood turns to stone.
In addition to highlighting the core similarities of Squier and Mantee, The Petrified Forest also subtly depicts the differences between two black men, and how their stations in life don't reflect their level of freedom. Joseph (John Alexander) is a chauffeur who's enslaved by Mr. Chisolm (Paul Harvey), his wealthy white employer, while Slim (Slim Thompson), a member of Mantee's gang, may be on the wrong side of the law, but wears his emancipation like an honor badge, and detests Joseph's deferential attitude. Not many films of the period allude to such potent racial issues, but The Petrified Forest uses its stage roots to tackle more provocative themes, and the effort adds texture to the story.
Thanks to the literate adaptation by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves, and sensitive direction by Archie Mayo, The Petrified Forest possesses far more depth than the formulaic menace-to-society, crime-doesn't-pay gangster flicks that flooded theaters throughout the 1930s. Although the climactic shootout flaunts all the trademark touches of Warner's best mob efforts, the exchange of ideas remains The Petrified Forest's raison d'etre, and it admirably adheres to the play's core elements, even while whittling down the story to a lean 82 minutes.
Both Bogart and Howard created their respective roles on Broadway, yet when Jack Warner suggested Edward G. Robinson play Mantee in the movie version, Howard balked, and refused to come to Hollywood unless Bogart was cast. Warner acquiesced, and the rest, they say, is history. Bogart's smoldering presence commands attention, yet the actor divorces himself from the archetypal portrayals of Cagney and Robinson by turning his intensity inward and adding a glimmer of compassion that gives his performance marvelous dimension.
Howard is equally fine, and though his character slightly resembles the weak-willed Ashley Wilkes, his conviction carries the day, and makes us admire Alan Squier even if we can't wholly understand his suicidal actions. He and Davis (who worked together previously on the classic Of Human Bondage) share a lovely rapport, and their relationship develops believably despite the compressed timeframe. Davis embraces her ingénue character, imbuing Gabby with just the right amount of wide-eyed wonder and girlish sincerity. The result is a simple yet emotional performance that's far different from the bulk of Davis' best-known and most acclaimed portrayals.
Although The Petrified Forest is very much a film of its time (and can't totally escape a dated aura), its themes and performances still resonate, and turn this "gangster" movie into a multi-layered, involving cinematic experience.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Like the famed forest from which the film takes its name, the transfer cannot escape the ravages of time. Warner technicians have tried their best, but haven't been able to erase the white specks and faint vertical lines that continually clutter the print. Overall, the transfer possesses good clarity and fine gray level variance, but some scenes are hampered by an overabundance of grain, while others lack the vibrancy one expects from such a classy production. The close-ups of Davis, Howard, and Bogart provide a window into their inner characters, and allow us to further appreciate their excellent performances. When compared to other classic movie transfers, The Petrified Forest looks good, but never quite lives up to Warner's high standards.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track shows its age as well, in the form of mild distortion and a subtle yet persistent hiss. Sherwood's lyrical dialogue, however, is always clear and comprehendible, and the climactic gunfight gives us plenty of bang for our buck.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bullets or Ballots
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Bogart biographer Eric Lax
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Another fine edition of Warner Night at the Movies follows, featuring a three-minute introduction by film historian Leonard Maltin. The half-hour program kicks off with an entertaining (and lengthy) trailer for Bullets or Ballots, a 1936 gangster saga starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, and Bogart, then slides into a year-end newsreel that chronicles the abdication of Britain's King Edward VIII (so he could marry American divorcée Wallace Simpson) and the landslide re-election of FDR. The 19-minute musical short Rhythmitis shows us what happens when Hal Le Roy unwittingly drinks a potion designed to quell his rhythmic impulses, but instead the tonic produces the opposite effect, turning him into a tap dancer extraordinaire. Toby Wing co-stars as a ditzy movie star in this breezy one-reeler that also features an amazing dance by a man on stilts! Finally, the Looney Tunes cartoon The Coo Coo Nut Grove spoofs the famous nightclub and its Hollywood clientele. The first animated short to poke fun at movie stars, this delightful six-and-a-half-minute romp caricatures such actors as Clark Gable (and his oversized ears), Katharine Hepburn (referred to as "Katharine Heartburn"), W.C. Fields, Charles Laughton, John Barrymore, George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Laurel and Hardy, and even the prudish Edna May Oliver, who appears as the sexy "lady in red." Why can't going to the movies be this much fun today?
The Petrified Forest: Menace in the Desert, an all-new 16-minute featurette, analyzes both the film itself and the studio that made it. Film critics and historians (Andrew Sarris, Eric Lax, and Alain Silver among them) discuss how Bogart's career was in steady decline before he was cast as Duke Mantee, and how his portrayal—which he reportedly based on legendary bank-robber John Dillinger—"defined the American gangster, as opposed to the immigrant gangster." We also learn Bogart named his daughter Leslie to honor the man who "made his career." Comments about the tough atmosphere at the Warner studio, and its socially relevant, ripped-from-the-headlines product flesh out this well-made, interesting documentary.
The stagy nature of The Petrified Forest made it a perfect candidate for a radio adaptation, but four years passed before the Gulf Screen Theater tackled the project in 1940. Bogart recreates his star-making role, while Joan Bennett subs for Davis, and Tyrone Power takes over for Leslie Howard. Condensed to a mere 23 minutes (and that includes a lengthy introduction and commercial break!), this production excises many supporting characters and only gives listeners a taste of the film's lyric tone and soulful depth. Bogart sounds surprisingly subdued, and Bennett lacks the youthful optimism Davis brings to the role. Audio quality is mediocre at best, but it's still a treat to hear this rare antique.
The film's original theatrical trailer (which includes a couple of alternate angles) completes the extras package.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsFar from a traditional gangster picture, The Petrified Forest examines how a murderous outlaw forces a group of hostages to confront their wasted lives, and how a disillusioned drifter hopes to save a young woman from spiritual decay. The breakout performance of Humphrey Bogart may be the film's most memorable component, but Leslie Howard and Bette Davis file equally strong portrayals, and director Archie Mayo efficiently evokes an atmosphere of claustrophobic tension. The audio and video transfers may not be up to Warner's usual high standards, but the movie's depth and style, and the disc's top-flight extras make this engrossing drama easy to recommend.
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