Saturday, September 20, 2008

Not So Quiet Desperation

Cultural conservatives always tend to go on and on about the good old days when Hollywood movies respected flyover country (the land between LA and New York) yet some of the most negative portraits of such country pop up in many an old movie made in the very era they wax nostalgic over.

For example, it’s difficult to watch a film like 1936's The Petrified Forest and not get the feeling that the audience was meant to root for the female lead character (a bookish waitress played by Bette Davis) to leave Arizona and fulfill her dream of traveling to France. The film doesn’t exactly mock America but it doesn’t pretend that Davis’s character -- Gabrielle Maple -- is particularly happy where she’s at and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the character most mocked in this movie is a self-styled patriot while the most respected character describes himself as “an American once removed.”

The Petrified Forest is most famous today for being the movie in which actor Humphrey Bogart first achieved stardom. Bogart plays the heavy, a criminal fugitive named Duke Mantee whose gang hides out in the diner/gas station where Gabrielle Maple works. Also present at the diner are Maple’s grandfather, Maple’s would-be suitor, and a drifter (played by Leslie Howard) who captures Maple’s fancy. Eventually a rich couple and their chauffeur get roped into the mess and although words are exchanged between many a character, the main conflict proves to be a war of words between Howard's character -- Alan Squier -- and Duke Mantee, a conflict which eventually resolves itself in a way that I dare not give away.

Alan Squier -- a former expat who is currently hitchhiking his way across the country -- is most interesting because it’s the type of character one rarely sees in movies anymore: a self-styled intellectual who is self-aware enough to be humble and sensitive enough to be more attractive to a local girl than a local football hero. Yes, it’s tempting to see this character as little more than a lonely screenwriter’s wish-fulfillment fantasy but the dialogue between him and Maple actually proves quite interesting. The subjects Maple and he discuss in their conversation (fate, nature, genetics, etc.) rarely get mentioned in movies nowadays and I for one found it refreshing to hear such people talk on and on without once feeling the need to throw in a pop culture reference so that the average movie-goer won't feel left out.

It’s even more refreshing to see Ms. Davis prove her versatility by playing a character so vastly different than the role she last played with Mr. Howard -- that of the scornful waitress in Of Human Bondage -- though, of course, that movie would not be the last film in which Ms. Davis proved such talent.

Of course, this movie was based on a play, and it might be argued that the movie could afford to be more literate than the average modern movie because it was based on a property that had already proved itself commercially on stage. But it’s still refreshing to see such a movie in existence and it’s a pity one doesn’t see movies like this more often.

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Blogger Campaspe said...

What a great write-up of a movie that gets dismissed a lot by modern critics as stagey and talky. Which it is, a bit, but as you say the talk is worth hearing. It's most famous for Bogart's role but I also love that you gave Howard his due. He was so defined by Ashley Wilkes, but there was a lot more to him as an actor. He was someone who could play a refined intellectual and still give the character some fire, an ability that Gone with the Wind did not showcase.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Thank you for your kind words, Campaspe.

8:08 PM  

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