Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Petrified Forest: On "Distinctiveness" in Art

(UPDATE: NOW you'll be able to see the Verrocchio/Leonardo painting referred to below the "fold.")
The Petrified Forest (1936; dir. Archie L. Mayo; starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Genevieve Tobin, Dick Foran, Humphrey Bogart, Joseph Sawyer, Eddie Acuff)

I borrowed this from my colleague and movie buff Larry mostly out of curiosity: it's the film that made a star out of the 5th actor listed in the credits. Bogart had started out on Broadway and had appeared in films before; but, judging from the brief clips I've seen, it's pretty clear to me why they're described as "forgettable." This has been released just this year on DVD, and those curious about Bogart's career--this is his first gangster role on film--should see this. But it has value on other grounds, too.



(It's also quite strange to see Bette Davis as a wide-eyed romantic throwing herself at the feet of anyone, much less Howard's unappreciated artist marinated in ennui; in later roles, she'd devour such men for snacks and not even have to wipe her mouth afterward. But that's a subject for another post.) The Petrified Forest started life as a Broadway play, and when its chief star, Howard, was tapped to reprise his role in the film, he insisted that Bogart--also in the play and who, ironically, had had trouble imagining himself as a gangster--appear in the film as well. So, here he is. And, as Mrs. Meridian said after watching for about 5 minutes, it looks more like a play than a film. The actors look, well, petrified--that is, "stage-y," mannered, studied. I don't think that's by design, but it's what we see onscreen. So also does Bogart, but a manner that makes it easy to see how he garnered such attention in this role.

I've written about Bogart films a couple of times before, but I've not said much about his actual acting style. In Casablanca, he's all elegant tuxes and sardonic close-mouthedness, which makes his passion for Ingrid Bergman all the more powerful when it's revealed to us.
By comparison, take a look at this still from The Petrified Forest. Bogey's Duke Mantee never stands straighter than you see here; not only does he sport a couple of days' growth, it appears that he's the only male in the film who would actually ever NEED to shave; his left arm here is about as straight as either of his arms will ever get. His posture is, in a word, simian. He of course is not, we must conclude, in view of the pact he strikes with Howard; nevertheless, his stage manner is so utterly different from that of the others, even his fellow gangsters, that it's easy to see how, to an earlier generation, Bogart's appearance here was analogous to Brando's early work.

Odd, though, that this, Bogart's breakout film, is not among his best performances (for what my opinion might be worth, those would have to be The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Casablanca). What marks his performance here is not its skill but its distinctiveness, the extent to which he stands out from the rest of the cast.

I find myself pondering, just now, about the extent to which the element of "distinctiveness" in an artist's work needs to be present before his/her "style" or "talent" or whatever it is becomes developed enough to get an artist noticed as an Artist. We are familiar, for example, with the story of how Leonardo's apprenticeship angels in the lower-left of Verrocchio's painting upstaged the master's work in the public's eye. My knowledge of art history is extraordinarily limited, but I don't know of anyone claiming that these angels are Leonardo's best work; no doubt, though, this painting is Leonardo's Petrified Forest: it's what got him noticed, what marked his entrance onto the stage whose boards he sought to tread.

So. No wonder Genevieve Tobin, seemingly out of nowhere, asks, begs for Bogart to take her with him when he leaves, perfectly happy to abandon her passionless husband with no second thoughts, no regrets, even after Bogart's gang has robbed them of their car. No wonder Howard sees Bogart as the vehicle for freeing Davis from her dusty existence at her father's last-chance gas station/diner. Duke Mantee is no Rick Blaine or Sam Spade, but in view of the other options presented in the world of The Petrified Forest, he looks like the most-alive one.

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4 comments:

Raminagrobis said...

Very nice entry, that.

Have you seen In a Lonely Place? Another great 'distinctive' Bogart performance, but measured from the opposite end of the spectrum, so to speak: this is Bogart fairly late in his career playing 'against' the already established hard-boiled image. It's an excellent film, and a brilliant performance from Bogey.

easywriter said...

I now know what I'm going to watch this weekend. I've never seen it or even heard of it so thanks, from me, who likes old movies and popcorn.

John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for your kind responses.
Grobie: I don't think I've heard of it, but you make it sound intriguing. After seeing The Misfits (Gable's and Monroe's last film), I've become interested in seeing late work by actors, though, as is usual with me, I've not exactly made a list and sought them out. Anyway, thanks for the recommendation.
Ms. Writer: Glad to be of service. I don't know how much poking about you've done in this blog's archives, but you'll find posts about a variety of older films, some of which you may not have heard of before.
Enjoy your popcorn.

Ariel said...

Excellent! I never thought I'd see this film reviewed, much less in such an eye-opening way. My wife and I are Bogart fans, and I agree with your take - although I couldn't have articulated it like you did.

Key Largo and The Maltese Falcon are worth a look if you like vintage Bogart.