The Petrified Forest (1935) is a chick flick that masquerades as a gangster flick. I was all set for Humphrey Bogart to be a bad guy, and he was, but only here and there and the overall tone is much more existential than I expected. Much more delving into the nature of life and its living than the trailer would lead you to believe.
The overall plot could compared to Key Largo (1948), wherein the owners of a closed hotel are held hostage for a short time by a gang on the run. In The Petrified Forest, the patrons of a closed diner are held hostage for a short time by a gang on the run. Introspection abounds in the latter, and I don’t remember that so much in the former (I could be wrong).
Bette Davis is a waitress, probably 18 or 19 years old, at the diner and she falls in love with a drifter who can’t afford to buy even his meal. He’s a washed-up writer divorcee, but to Bette he seems world-traveled and romantic. It is hinted he’s travelling the rails until he gets to the Pacific where he will kill himself, but it’s not explored at all. Actually, since he’s already seen the world (perhaps it was a lie?) why does he think seeing the Pacific so important? Bette sees him as a tragic romantic figure, lets him eat the meal and gives him a dollar before he leaves, hitching a ride with some people who stopped in. She moons over his memory, rebuffs the advances of the local football hero, and her heart soars again when the drifter (Leslie Howard) returns on foot.
In the meantime, the murderer Humphrey Bogart has arrived on the scene with his gang. He’s waiting at the diner for his girl to join him before they make a run for the border. So that’s TWO romantic stories in play. His gang doesn’t think the girl will show, and for brevity’s sake I’ll let you know she does not. His faith in love is let down, and in fact his girl turned the gang in to the police. His broken heart sets the tone for the ending: the drifter realizes he has nothing to offer the waitress in the way of a future with him, this is still the Great Depression and he has no chances for a job, and instead he pulls out his life insurance policy (everything he owns is in his backpack, and he anticipated dying) and changes the beneficiary to Bette. He asks the gangster to kill him (Bette is not in the room when this all happens) while he makes a noble struggle. Bogart’s character thinks about it, seems to discount it, but then in the end he does kill the drifter. What a tear jerker, I totally wasn’t expecting it! A chick flick you could take your guy to and you’d both leave satisfied!
I wanted to make the comparison to a movie I noted several months ago, Will Penny (1968). In that one, the older washed up cowboy falls in love with a woman who wants to marry him, but he leaves her so she can find someone who can support her, as he will never be able to work enough to have a family. The idea of romantic love not being enough to base a marriage on is the same, and the acknowledgment that children will come and actually need a home. A marriage needs an income, and is a huge responsibility. This is an idea that is totally absent in all stories and thought today, and I wonder if it will be picked up again in the coming recessions/depression. Somehow I doubt it.