The Petrified Forest (1936)
Directed by Archie Mayo
Humphrey Bogart gets fifth billing in his breakout film, behind Genevieve Tobin and Dick Foran, but he’s the star by any measure but screen time, stealing every scene in which he even just glares at the main action. It’s a role he reprised from the original Broadway production, his last role on New York’s main stage before Hollywood snatched him up, and his performance, as a storied gangster holed up in a dusty service station until the rest of his gang arrives, is a battle between his lips and his eyes: his controlled rage and gloomy bitterness, cool but full of loathing, seem to say one thing; his lispy drawl, calm, bordering on kind, says another. But darker looks have never been cast on celluloid.
Bogart doesn’t show up until about three reels in, intruding upon a romance about as arid as its setting: worldly-wise tramp Leslie Howard meets-cute Bette Davis, an ambitious young woman stuck waitressing in the desert; they bond, and then they part, until the criminal element yanks them back together. The appealing actors carry it through. Howard is debonair and delicately Hiddlestonian, with that uniquely English way of being charmingly cynical, wittily world-weary; Davis is all eagerness and longing, younger in appearance than she is best known but also in spirit. None of them, however—not even Genevieve Tobin or Dick Foran—can hope to compete with Bogart for your attention; he never again felt his emotions onscreen so rawly. Henry Stewart (September 7, October 20, 1:30pm at MoMA’s Bogart matinees)