Rare is the film in which Bette Davis plays a likable character. Her stage roles always seemed to mimic the real life hardness for which she is noted, so it is refreshing to find her so appealing in the role of an ingenue. Not only is she fabulous in this movie, though, but her co-stars, Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart, give equally strong performances, making The Petrified Forest extremely memorable despite its depressing ending - sorry if I gave away a major plot point there. This film is also significant because it marks the first major role that Bogart ever played, reprising the part he played on Broadway at the absolute insistence of his good friend Leslie Howard.
Bette Davis plays a poetically-touched waitress working at a rest-stop diner in the Arizona desert. When a disillusioned writer (Leslie Howard) wanders in one day, the two are drawn together as kindred spirits, and Davis's optimistic ambition to see the world rekindles Howard's long-extinguished faith in humanity. Howard intends to continue on his journey, but the arrival of a dangerous gangster (Humphrey Bogart) prevents him from leaving, as Bogart proceeds to hold the entire diner hostage while he waits for his girlfriend to join him. As the evening wears on and tensions mount, Howard looks at his worthless life and considers how he has nothing to offer Bette Davis, with whom he has fallen in love. He hits upon the idea, however, to name Davis as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy and then letting Bogart kill him, which the surly gangster agrees to do after he makes his rendezvous. The arrival of the law on the scene seems to prevent Howard's quixotic self-sacrifice, and after confessing his love to Davis, he seems to regain to will to live. But in a final act of serendipity, Howard tries to prevent Bogart's escape, and gets gunned down.
There's a strange kind of determinism and nihilism in this movie which makes it difficult to watch. Howard's character has strange premonitions that he will die there in the Petrified Forest, and he seems to think it poetically appropriate because he feels fossilized by his irrelevance and sense of powerlessness. Davis, too, seems to be destined to doff the her mundane surroundings and seek the adventure she longs for, and the achieves this means despite all plot twists, just as Howard achieves his sacrificial death. Howard's gesture is supposed to be noble, but I don't really know how much of a sacrifice it really is because he seems so careless of his life at times. Instead he feels at times like a suicide looking for a place to happen, and even though he seems to regain the will to live near the end, the way he flings himself in front of Bogart in the end feels truly needless because he really has no way of preventing Bogart's escape, and really just stands there and blocks the door before getting shot.
Despite these dismal images, there's also a movement towards searching for a reason to live, mostly depicting in people urging Davis to embrace her dreams. Even Howard has flashes of a rebirth - ironic since he is heading for Phoenix on the way to the pacific ocean - and as I said, his death is supposed to be redemptive because it will enable Davis to do what she wants with her life. Still, the pallor of death hangs so heavily over Howard's character that his rejuvenation seems more like that of the penitent thief on the cross saying, "Lord, remember me in your Kingdom!" than an actual Christ figure. So despite well-drawn characters and outstanding acting, this movie does not leave the audience edified as the best of tragedies do (Shakespeare, for example). It's philosophical examinations, however, bear viewing, however, if only to disagree with them.
I give this film a 7.5 for very strong acting, and an engaging, if not ultimately successful story.
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The Petrified Forest