I had heard of The Petrified Forest as a gangster film, so was surprised to find that it is really a stage play, largely set in one room (a remote cafe at an Arizona petrol station) – and has a static, talky quality. Although this is known as a star-making performance for Humphrey Bogart, in fact the male lead is Leslie Howard.
He plays a failed writer turned failed drifter, who lands up at this restaurant in the middle of nowhere and strikes up a tentative relationship with waitress Gabby (Bette Davis), the daughter of the owner – who is desperate to get away and discover the outside world. I was intrigued to discover how literary a lot of the conversation between Howard and Davis is, with them both reading poems aloud – everything from Francois Villon to TS Eliot. I like Davis’ performance as the ambitious young dreamer frustrated by her surroundings and desperate to travel to Paris and find love. But Howard really does seem like a fish out of water, indeed almost like someone who has wandered in from another movie, and I don’t find him at all convincing. There’s also just too much stodgy dialogue, so that any sharp lines get lost along the way.
For me the movie only truly comes alive with the arrival of Bogart as gangster Duke Mantee, who holds everyone in the cafe hostage and insists that they sit at the tables for even longer, while he works out what to do. Bogart seems to be speaking a different language from everyone else in the film – terse, snappy lines with not an unnecessary word, a long way from the flowery exchanges between Howard and Davis. Bogart seems to be the man of the future, while the penniless Howard, with his pipe, romantic ideas and tales of meeting writers now dead, is the man of the past.