Bogart’s breakout, and for good reason. As Duke Mantee, gangster on the lam, Humphrey Bogart jump starts The Petrified Forest just as it’s beginning to lag, bringing genuine menace and rakish charm to the adaptation of the Robert E. Sherwood play. “Gangsters is foreigners,” an old man says of Duke at one point, “and he’s a real American.” That’s pretty much how the moviegoing public would come to feel about Bogie.
The real purpose of the film is to give the intellectual a little bit of the gangster’s cool and the gangster a sense of existential heft.
Part of the cleverness of The Petrified Forest, however, is the way it partly undermines this sort of Hollywood jingoism. The yin to Duke’s yang is Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), a British intellectual hitchhiking his way across America. He wanders into an isolated roadside diner in the Petrified Forest area of Arizona, where he meets the owner’s stifled daughter (Bette Davis), who reads the poetry of Francois Villon and aches to be free of the “sun-baked, ignorant desert rats” surrounding her. (Among these is Dick Foran’s service-station attendant, so brutishly American that he wears a football jersey on the job.) And so when Duke seeks refuge at the diner and holds everyone hostage, it becomes a showdown of sorts between his vicious pragmatism and Squier’s well-read romanticism.
The real purpose of the film, though, is to bring these two characters together: to give the intellectual a little bit of the gangster’s cool and the gangster a sense of existential heft. Bogart and Howard were reprising their roles from the 1935 Broadway production, so they had plenty of practice making sure each performance served the other in this way.
In retrospect, then, The Petrified Forest seems specifically designed to cement the Bogart persona in the American consciousness by distinguishing him from the football brutes and conferring the approval of the Continental elite. This would later be seconded by the French New Wave films that openly worshiped Bogart. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s tip of the hat to a Bogie poster in Breathless is really a reprise of what began in The Petrified Forest. When Squier looks admiringly at Duke and calls him “the last great apostle of rugged individualism,” a career was born.