*. Can anybody watch this movie today without a wince and a chuckle? It’s based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, and a stage play from the 1930s is exactly what it both looks and sounds like.
*. I say “looks” because the last-chance road stop café was a set built on a studio set in Burbank, with a giant cyclorama backdrop sitting in for the Arizona desert. In other words, we’re on stage.
*. Then there’s the dialogue. Has stilted speechifying ever tottered as high as this? On stage you have to act big, something actors had to be reminded of when making the transition to film. On screen, less was more. But on stage you also have to talk big as well.
*. Here are some of the greatest hits: “This is Duke Mantee, the world-famous killer. And he’s hungry.” “Alan, Alan will you please kiss me?” “She has heroic stuff in her. She may be one of the immortal women of France. Another Joan of Arc, George Sand, Madame Curie, or Du Barry. I want to show her that I believe in her, and how else can I do it? Living, I’m worth nothing to her. Dead, I can buy her the tallest cathedrals, golden vineyards, and dancing in the streets.” “Let there be killing. All this evening I’ve had a feeling of destiny closing in.” “Any woman’s worth everything that any man has to give: anguish, ecstasy, faith, jealousy, love, hatred, life or death. Don’t you see that’s the whole excuse for our existence?”
*. Most, but not all, of this comes from Leslie Howard’s Alan Squier, who may be excused somewhat on account of his being an “intellectual.” Intellectual (“a vanishing race” embodying “noise without sound, shape without substance”) is a slippery label, adopted by Squier since he doesn’t quite qualify as a writer. In fact, he’s a bum: formerly a kept man by a wealthy French woman, he now panhandles and hitchhikes across the American West. Apparently his plan is to simply walk out of the café without paying for his meal. Was this the last time such a figure could be seen as romantic?
*. That’s the question that kept niggling away at me. Of course it all sounds ridiculous today, but when, if ever, did it not sound ridiculous? Pauline Kael thought it a hoot (“There’s no way to say this stuff without sounding affected, and every now and then Howard hits really embarrassing false notes”), but what about contemporary reviews? Apparently they were strong, so maybe they took it seriously in 1936.
*. But then perhaps the problem is the cratering cultural cachet of the book. We no longer live in a society that places any value on literature, so the spiritual nobility of a failed writer and the sensibility of a young woman who gets teary-eyed at reading translations of fifteenth-century French poetry strikes us as absurd.
*. Some awareness of Squier’s absurdity is built into the play itself. Gramps thinks he’s insane and even Gabby says at one point that he’s talking nonsense (“You know, you talk like a darn fool”). But he is the hero and I don’t think he’s meant to be undercut too much. We really are supposed to see him as a noble, tragic soul. As for the others, the mystic mesa atmosphere apparently induces an “autobiographical impulse,” leading the inhabitants of the diner to confess themselves to, and fall instantly in love with, complete strangers.
*. The effect of all this poetry is to exaggerate even more the violent charisma of the movie’s real star, Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee. None of the gangsters at Warners were the usual matinee idol types, but Bogart was something else: raw, dirty, and weary of life. Other gangsters — Rico, Tom, Tony — were climbing the underworld corporate ladder, living their own version of the American Dream. Duke isn’t going anywhere and he knows it.
*. I’ll expand just a bit on one of those adjectives: dirty. Duke Mantee isn’t dressed well, hasn’t shaved recently, and looks like he has a couple of layers of the Arizona desert on him. One thing about earlier gangsters is that they were stylish. They dressed well and were clean shaven. Indeed they were frequently shown being fitted for bespoke suits or being lathered up. Such scenes became gangster-film tropes. Hell, in Smart Money Robertson and Cagney even start out as barbers. But Bogart is different: a Marvel superhero in a DC world.
*. I really don’t like his walk though, which makes him look like a puppet with half his strings cut. Apparently he was trying to act like Dillinger, though it seems like a pure stage mannerism to me that should have been scaled down for the big screen.
*. What kind of a name is “Mantee” anyway? I can’t fix it to any ethnicity. And it sounds so close to “manatee” it seems funny.
*. Poor Dick Foran. He was only 25 when he made this film and yet he looks 40, with a pronounced pair of droopy man boobs that might have been given some support. And poor Boze (the character he plays), still dreaming of gridiron glory in the deserts of Arizona.
*. What such an isolated place like that needs with a full-time gas jockey is another question. But then they have a full time cook (“Fat”) as well. This leaves everyone with not much to do but sit around and talk.
*. Poor Bette Davis. She was actually a couple of years older than Foran, and playing a presumably teenaged girl. She does what she can in a hopeless part: the girl who has to “go to France and find herself.” She’d been better playing opposite Howard in Of Human Bondage a couple of years earlier.
*. What remains curious is the attitude taken toward Duke. Squier, who refers to him, curiously, as the Duke (thus subordinating himself) dubs him “the last great apostle of rugged individualism.” Gramps insists that he’s not a foreign “gangster” but an authentic “real old-time” American desperado. The part was modeled after Dillinger, who was a huge celebrity at the time (he’d just been killed a year earlier). Gramps also helpfully draws a link to Billy the Kid, another American cultural icon, and is thrilled and delighted to have “ringside seats” so as to better bear witness to “some real killing!” One wonders why Gabby doesn’t get a new crush. Remarkably, Mrs. Chisholm declares that she is ready to leave her husband and take off with him to Mexico.
*. This feeds into the ending, which the studio wanted to change but was kept consistent with the play. Of course the noble Squier has to go. He realizes he’s an anachronism anyway and has a death wish. But by the same mythic logic Duke has to escape, at least temporarily. We’ll hear a report that he’s been caught, but we may not want to credit it. Surely this was just a sop thrown to the censors. Surely Duke Mantee is still out there, a legend now of the new Old West. He’d even reappear as an older man with a different name in The Desperate Hours.
*. For me anyway this is one of those movies that has dated so badly it’s almost unwatchable today. Ten years later Bogie’d be back in a very similar situation in Key Largo, facing off against Edward G. Robinson (who was originally slated to play Mantee here). In that movie he’d catch a break however, and be allowed to survive. He’d also catch a break in being directed by John Huston, who had no intention of simply filming a play he thought stupid. In contrast, a filmed play is exactly what The Petrified Forest is. A filmed play, and a fossil.