Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Petrified Forest


Even film buffs like me have a few classics here and there that we’ve never seen. I’d never caught this one. This film is on just about everybody’s list of classics, but if you look closer, you’ll realize that it’s seen as a Humphrey Bogart classic, not a Leslie Howard classic. So I was a little surprised to see him getting fifth billing. What no one had mentioned to me (and probably it’s because they don’t see it that way) is that it’s not a very good film until Bogey shows up, about halfway through. Howard is, to me, an insufferably Tragic figure, one I had very little sympathy with. In fact, I just wanted to slap him around a little bit here and there and shout “Get over yourself!” Wouldn’t have done a damn bit of good, though, he’d just shake his head ruefully and say he’d deserved that, and would I please hit him again? He enjoys hurting, so at least his semi-suicide at the end is in character. “‘Tis a far, far better thing than ever I have done …” Wait a minute, that’s from another movie. But it is worth watching, just for Bogart. He has such a physical presence on the screen, as a good guy or bad. He looks simian as the primitive Duke Mantee, with his arms held strangely, and his voice is very rough. This was the role that made him a star, and you can see why, even though he wasn’t handsome and had a speech defect.

Then he leaves, to be captured off-screen, and the picture degenerates into talk, talk, talk again, including a lot of high-flown dialogue crouched under a table with bullets flying, and one of the most unintentionally funny final death scenes I’ve ever endured. It was obviously adapted from a stage play, it’s basically a one-set story, though of course this being Hollywood it happens on a vast sound stage with painted backdrops. It’s funny, at first I was always aware of these phony vistas, but gradually my eye adapted and accepted them. I’m sure none of that was a problem for audiences of the time.