11 April 2009
The Petrified Forest (1936) is mostly remembered for Humphrey Bogart's performance as Duke Mantee -- a brilliant re interpretation of John Dillinger --and the hostage scene that comprises the film's second half. But to me the most intriguing aspect of the movie is the first half when Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) walks into Gabrielle Maple's (Bette Davis) life.
A July 4th weekend when I was 15. At a large family gathering. My first cousins and I were bored to tears when in walked a distant relative we'd never met. Steven was 19, a true hippie, an intellectual. Funny, fun loving. He spiked our lemonade with vodka. I was never the same again. It's not that Steven’s introducing me to demon rum that was so significant. In the course of the weekend he helped transform me from a naif to bohemian. The booze was but one aspect of this change. I started reading more seriously, laughing more uproariously and questioning authority more openly. This devilish raconteur had unlocked something within me. The lid would never go back on Pandora’s Box.
It happens in life that one someone strides into a person's sphere and they are forever changed. Often they bring true love and all the attendant joy and grief. But it can be so much else or more than that. Witness Gabrielle.
She lives with her father and grandfather out in the stultifying Arizona desert where she works at the family diner. She dreams of going to France and staying with her mother. Ahh to to go France where anything is possible! Meanwhile she's pursued by the hired help, a big lummox, strong of body, weak of mind and fore square in his intent to betroth Gabby. He's clearly not in Gabrielle's class. She loves poetry, painting and her larger than life dreams. My God how many women have succumbed over the centuries to lesser men either out of necessity or desperation? (Don't do it young women, hold out for someone special, like my wife did...okay, maybe not a great example.)
Into the diner walks an Englishman, exotic for his nationality alone. But he brings more. This Mr. Squier is a writer, a traveler and a very deep thinker indeed. That he is penniless is of no matter, he brings other types of riches, far more valuable ones. Alan can enrich Gabrielle's mind if not her purse. He brings charm, wit, contemplation and experience.
Our Gabrielle will never be the same.
In the end, of course, he makes the ultimate sacrifice so that she can pursue her dreams. But the greatest gift was not the insurance money but unlocking possibilities.
That's what a new person entering our life can do. Help us experience or to see different ways of living or at least of viewing the world. The Petrified Forest explores this idea as well as any film before or since. But surely Gabrielle is not merely the beneficiary of extraordinary luck. Anyone may be exposed to the new and interesting. It is crucial to be open to it, to be able to appreciate it, to explore it. If Gabrielle were not intellectually curious then Alan’s arrival would be like giving a great book to an illiterate.
Of course there is another stranger who enters the diner: Bogart's Duke Mantee. Surely his presence is crucial to Gabrielle as well. But he is all accident, mayhem and death. He forces change by barging in and wreaking havoc, not by enriching or opening minds.
In addition to Bogie, fine performances by Howard and Davis highlight the film as does Genevieve Tobin in a small but crucial role as a fellow hostage. As Mrs. Chisolm she represents the very opposite of what Gabrielle's aspires to be. Mrs. Chisolm heartbreakingly tells of how she gave up her dreams when she married for money and has thus lived with regret ever since.
I cannot finish this post without including these wonderful words from Squier: "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? It's what makes the whole thing possible and tolerable."