Monday, December 30, 2013

The Petrified Forest

“The Petrified Forest” (1936 - Archie Mayo) is famous as the film that made Bogart a movie star. Theatrical and full of high-flown rhetoric, the movie betrays its origins as a smash-hit Broadway play, a kind of middle-brow version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” with a gangster-tint. Bogart’s physical presence is impressive and frightening; he imitates John Dillinger’s slouch and ape-like walk and holds his arms flexed in front of him as if fettered by invisible handcuffs. He is the epitome of primitive menace but, it must be said, that he has not successfully adapted his stage persona to the screen -- every time he speaks, Bogart over-inflects, using precise clipped diction that probably was effective on Broadway but that makes it seem as if he has learned his lines phonetically. By contrast, Leslie Howard is fluent, if annoying, and makes his quasi-Shakespearian speeches seem almost plausible. Unlike Bogart, he under-acts, recognizing that less is more in film -- this is a Erich Maria Remarque and several important scenes turn on the poetry of Francois Villon, improbably celebrated in America in the Twenties and Thirties. (Why? I presume on the basis of the influence of Ezra Pound -- but does anyone read Villon in translation nowadays?) The play was allegorical: An English writer, filled with self-loathing at his failure as an artist, is wandering the Arizona desert, apparently, looking for a place to die. He stumbles into a comically isolated road-house occupied by an American Legionnaire, his old coot father, a desert rat who claims he once dodged a bullet shot by Billy the Kid, a burly ex-Football player named Boze, and a half-French waitress yearning to escape the mesas and sand dunes for Paris. The girl is played by Bette Davis. She spurns the Neanderthal affections of the football-player and falls hard for the peripatetic British intellectual (Leslie Howard), primarily, it seems, because he recognizes in her a fellow artist. After about 50 minutes of scene-setting and character development, the film shifts from a rather static allegory about the decline and fall of the West into a gangster picture when Bogart and his gang of desperadoes takes everyone hostage at the roadhouse. Bogart plays Duke Mantee, a bad hombre who has massacred six people in Oklahoma City and who has come to the isolated BBQ joint and gas-station near the Petrified Forest to wait for his dame. Apparently, the woman is captured and betrays the location of their rendezvous resulting in a final, unconvincing shoot-out. “The Petrified Forest”symbolizes the ossification of ideals, the stultification of artist impulses, the repression of authentic emotion, and the post-World War One malaise that followed a conflict that discredited most aspects of European civilization. All of this is suggested by the dialogue that is hyper-theatrical and completely unrealistic. To my eyes, the best thing about the picture, other than Bogart’s brutish cave-man posturing, is the old desert rat’s insouciance --- he tells everyone that a real killer can be identified by the way that he presses his lower jaw and chin back against his breast-bone and, sure enough, when Bogart appears, armed to the teeth, he displays that physiognomy. A sagebrush rolls disconsolately across the dusty-looking set, the flashing neon light that says BBQ blinks on and off during the final shoot-out and lonesome desert winds howl throughout the entire picture. The adobe ramparts of the Roadhouse are filmed against obviously painted backdrops, with saguaro cactus gesturing at imaginary cream-puff clouds above tall, jagged mountains -- it’s so unreal as to be slightly surrealistic.

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