Today I’m doing something a bit new. I decided to compare two films from the same actor: Humphrey Bogart. Bogart is a legend of the golden age of Hollywood, both for the films he made, and his personality. In this post, I’ll be looking at the film that made him a star, and a film later in his career, hopefully getting a sense of how he developed:
Archie Mayo – The Petrified Forest (1936)
Nicholas Ray – In A Lonely Place (1950)
I’m also looking at my first Nicholas Ray film. Ray was pf course most famous for Rebel Without a Cause. I’m not an expert on Nicholas Ray, or acting talent, but as per usual, I’ll do my best to point out some things I found interesting.
Let’s get into it.
The Petrified Forest (1936)
The Petrified Forest is a film based on a stage play where a group of strangers become trapped at a remote gas station/restaurant by a gang of criminals on the run. Things are complicated by the love triangle between the daughter of the owner, the football playing station attendant, and the lonely stranger hitchhiking his way through the area. As the evening continues, we begin to learn the inner secrets of these strangers, and the danger increases as the law closes in on the gang.
As I mentioned, the film is based on a stage play, and it’s easy to tell the filmmakers stayed close to the source material. The entire story is told at the restaurant, or within a short walk. There’s also a lot of talking. The film takes a lot of time to set up the people in the restaurant. Gabby the daughter (played by Bette Davis in an early role) wants to go to France, where her mother lives, but fears she will give in to the advances of Boze, the football player. The father and owner just wants to live his life. His father, gramps wants some excitement, and people to talk to. He constantly makes up stories about meeting Mark Twain or being shot at by Billy the Kid.
They all live in Black Mesa, near the Petrified Forest in Arizona. The setting is a barren desert, with their small gas station and restaurant strategically located to be the last chance to stop for motorists. This is in the early days of car travel, and the roads that pass by aren’t even paved. Their lives are portrayed as boring and lifeless. Just passing the days trying to get by.
Their lives start to change as Alan Squire, played by Leslie Howard walks in. He’s been hitchhiking across the country, and stops in for a meal. Gabby takes an immediate liking to him, and her wide-eyed naivete is on full display. She babbles at him, telling him everything she can about her life. Her parents met during the war, and her mother moved back to France soon after she was born. She sends a book every year, and the latest is a book of poetry she’s reading. Alan, who is a writer is familiar with the book, and he’s kind to her asking her to stay while he’s finishing his food and talk to him. Playing the character this way gives us a story reason for the character to talk about her life, rather than just spouting off facts. When the exposition comes naturally, it makes things a bit easier for the audience.
She’s immediately smitten. The film portrays her as a dreamer, convinced she’s meant for great things. She shows Alan her paintings, and talks about her dreams and how she’ll achieve them. When her grandfather dies her father will sell the business and split the money with her. Her grandfather also has some bonds hidden that are willed to her that she can cash in.
As we watch these two characters, we see Gabby (or Gabrielle as she prefers to be called) finding the intellectual equal she’s always dreamed of. But from the portrayal of the characters, I find the relationship a little hollow. Gabby is incredibly naive, and Alan seems completely full of himself, more of a faux intellectual than someone actually educated. I’m not sure what the film intends us to see, but for me, I don’t see these two as soulmates. I see Gabby as a desperate woman who’s ready to latch onto the first good prospect she sees that doesn’t manhandle her when she walks by. And Alan as just kind and smart enough to spark her devotion. To his credit, Alan resists her advances and tries to move on.
Speaking of manhandling though, the interactions between Boze and Gabby are pretty gross by today’s standards. He physically intimidates her, refuses to take no for an answer, and kisses her without permission, after being repeatedly rejected. And sadly, the film portrays this as normal behavior, and even the correct way for him to act, as later in the film, we see Gabby considering him as an appropriate partner.
As Alan tries to leave after turning down Gabby as a traveling partner, a rich couple arrives with a chauffeur to fill up, and Gabby convinces them to take Alan with them, and even gives him a dollar (which in 1936 was a pretty good amount).
Now all through the film, we’ve been hearing the name Duke Mantee. He’s a famous criminal, who is on the run after killing 6 people. The word has spread that he is in the area, but no one seems too bothered, and in fact Gramps seems excited at the possibility. In the era, it might have just seemed like harmless bravado, but seeing it now, Gramps seems ghoulish. He’s actively rooting for Mantee to come around and start murdering people so he can watch.
There’s a certain magic to a character that is talked about extensively before ever appearing. The most famous example is probably Harry Lime in The Third Man, played by Orson Welles. Duke Mantee doesn’t reach that level, but when he’s revealed, we’re ready for it.
As Alan rides away with the rich couple and their chauffeur, they turn on the radio and we hear a news report, updating the audience on the manhunt. The announcer begins to describe the gang in detail, and the camera cuts to what he is describing, ending with the first appearance of Duke Mantee, played by Humphrey Bogart, in his first major role.
Bogart had been in films before, but wasn’t well known. He had played Duke Mantee in the stage play, and Leslie Howard had played Alan. The studio planned to cast Edward G Robinson as Mantee in the film version, but Howard refused to be in the movie without Bogart. The studio relented, and Bogart’s career was launched. Bogart even named a child Leslie after Leslie Howard.
When we see Mantee for the first time, he’s weathered and tired. His car is broken down and his gang is trying to fix it. The rich couple drives by and the gang is able to hijack the car, turning back the way they came. Alan follows the car on foot. Shortly thereafter, they arrive at the restaurant, taking hostages. This is where the movie really starts, almost halfway through.
Bogart shows flashes of why he became a legend in this film. You can’t deny his charisma. He’s the most memorable character from the film, and I have to imagine that even though Leslie Howard is the star here, audiences of the time recognized it as well. He’s playing an authority figure in the film, and when he talks, people listen. The way Bogart plays it is so still. He barely moves during the film. He sits in a chair, and only his eyes and mouth move. When he does move, it’s with a purpose.
The best acting moment from Bogart occurs near the end of the film. The film has set up that there is another car the gang is waiting for which holds a woman. It’s never explicitly said, but it’s clear that Mantee is in love with her. The gang has heard that the other car was captured. Mantee wants to go get her, but the gang knows that’s suicide. As the gang and even Alan argues against his plan, the camera focuses on Bogart’s face. He never says a word, but we see the exact moment where he loses hope.
A posse arrives, and a shootout starts. Mantee and his gang get out of the building, taking some hostages, but we hear later that he’s been captured.
The main plot focuses on the resolution of the love story between Alan and Gabby. It’s a kind of shocking resolution, and I think it’s worth seeing so I won’t talk about it here.
Bogart is the big draw in the movie, and the main reason it’s remembered today. It’s certainly not his best performance, but it is a great performance, and launched his career. I have to admit, I didn’t even recognize Bette Davis until I started writing this post and looked up who played Gabby. I’m mostly familiar with her from later roles like All About Eve where she looks much older.
The acting is good and the story and twists work, but unfortunately, the film suffers in it’s adaptation from stage to screen. The first half of the film is setting up the relationships that are put under pressure in the second half of the film, but I don’t think there’s enough tension to carry an entire film. The problem is the film basically plays out like a stage play. I could almost see the stage version playing out in front of me, picking up on how they might have moved characters around on stage. The film doesn’t really get creative about how it makes this adaptation. It just takes the play and puts it on screen. I’m sure in 1936 this worked great, but I think there’s more that could be done.
As it stands, it’s a film worth watching, mainly for Bogart’s performance, and less for the plot.
In A Lonely Place (1950)
In a Lonely Place is a film about a screenwriter, Dixon Steele, who is hired to adapt a book into a script. Instead of reading the book, he invites a young coat check girl who has read the book to his house to tell him all about it. Unfortunately, after she leaves, she is murdered, and the police suspect he might have been involved. His neighbor, Laurel Gray who saw the girl leave is his only alibi, and they fall in love. But as they get closer, and the police continue investigating, a darker side of Dixon starts to appear, and Laurel begins questioning her faith in Dixon’s innocence.
In the previous film, Bogart has to completely embody a character he is given, but at this point in his career, it’s clear that Bogart’s natural charm was coming through in his characters. It’s likely that his characters were written with his cadence and personality in mind. One of the best lines in the film comes early when Bogart’s Dixon Steele is lambasting a director for making uninspired work:
Everybody makes flops except you. You haven’t had one, because you’ve made and remade the same picture for the last twenty years. You know what you are? You’re a popcorn salesman.
The contempt Bogart portrays here is thick, but he still somehow manages to be likable in this moment. Dixon Steele is set up as abrasive, but kind. He will take on the people above him, but the people below him are defended and treated with kindness. In the first couple of scenes we meet his friend Charlie, a washed up actor who spends most of his time drunk at the bar. Dixon’s agent and a director don’t want to interact with him, but Dixon insists they sit with him. He greets him warmly. Later, another executive comes by and insults Charlie, and Dixon punches him. This also sets up a slightly darker side of Dixon. He has a temper, and doesn’t control it very well.
Before leaving, his agent urges him to read a book that the studio wants him to adapt into a script. A coat check girl at the club has been reading it, and returns it to Dix (the name everyone in the film calls him). He coyly asks to take her back to his place, then revealing he wants her to tell him the story of the book she just read. Dix is certain that the book will be terrible and he won’t want to write the script, and he’s looking for a shortcut. She agrees and they arrive at his home. She recounts the story while Dix looks for other things to do, clearly uninterested. When she’s finished, he gives her money and directs her to the nearest cab stand.
In the morning, he’s awoken by a detective named Burb Nicolai who he knows from the army. The detective wants him to come into the station and talk to his captain. Dix believes that he’s being called in for the man he punched the night before, but he soon discovers that’s not the case.
The detective and therefore the film is a bit coy about what has happened, but experienced film viewers have probably figured it out. The coat check girl, Meredith was choked to death and then thrown from a moving car. Pretty dark, but Dix is joking his way through the interview. Answering the questions, but clearly not taking it seriously, a sign to the audience that he isn’t guilty. The police aren’t convinced though, and call in his neighbor Laurel to provide his alibi.
She confirms his alibi, and Dix asks her to dinner, but she says she doesn’t want to be rushed.
We get a bit more insight into Dixon’s inner mind as he’s invited to dinner at Burb’s home, seemingly encouraged by the captain. During the dinner, they discuss the murder. Dix gets interested, and decides to give Burb his theory of how it happened. He sits down Burb and his wife, having them act out his version. Here, Dix changes, he gets very intense and enthusiastic. He directs Burb to put his arm around his wife’s neck, and describes how the killer would have become angry, squeezing tighter and tighter until she died.
It’s another great acting moment from Bogart. The camera focuses on him, and Ray puts a small spotlight on his face, darkening the background. Bogart’s performance is a scary moment in the film. He describes it so confidently the audience must start wondering if he was responsible for the crime. He even has an answer for every hole the couple brings up. He’s thought through how to do this crime.
The next scene is another great acting moment from Bogart. He returns home, but goes to Laurel’s apartment first. In an earlier scene, she has told him she must think about his interest in her before deciding if she wants to be with him. She lets him in, and begins small talk, but he can’t take it. His demeanor is nervous and antsy. He cuts off the small talk and asks her if she has thought about dating him more. He simply can’t wait another second. She says yes, and the film settles into their new lives together.
We see Dix working intently, writing out a script on paper and pencil. Laurel moves around the apartment, ensuring he has what he needs to continue, and making sure he gets sleep and food. When Dix is working, he’s completely absorbed, unable to communicate with the outside world, which is illustrated by a funny scene where Laurel attempts to get his attention for his agent, who has arrived to check on him.
So things seem to be looking up, but the film continually reminds us that the police still suspect Dix. Laurel is called back into the police station to answer more questions, and Dix begins to get paranoid when he sees another detective arrive at a club, who he assumes is following him. In addition, Laurel begins to hear stories about Dixon’s violent past, when he beat up a woman he was dating.
This all comes to a head at a beach picnic with Brub and his wife, when it slips out that Laurel has returned to the police to answer questions, Dix gets angry, leaving to go to his car. He doesn’t wait for Laurel, but she catches up, getting in just before he accelerates out of the parking lot. Dix drives like a maniac, ignoring all traffic laws. Laurel is scared, we see a shot of her foot, pressing down on an imaginary brake pedal, trying to will the car to stop.
Eventually, the inevitable occurs. Dix runs a stop sign and sideswipes a car in an intersection. The other driver gets out of the car, and screams at Dix. Dix gets out and attacks him, knocking him to the ground and punching him. He picks up a rock to continue his beating, and Laurel finally screams at him “You’ll kill him!”
Dix relents and returns to the car. As they drive away from the crime, we see Dix put his arm around Laurel, exactly the way he described the killer must have in his demonstration. He claims he was justified in fighting the driver, but then has Laurel take the wheel.
As they drive, Ray contrasts the most violent moment of the movie with one of the most tender. Dix recites a line he wants to put in the script:
“I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
This is such a great line, and it’s obviously about Laurel and his relationship with her. We see Dixon trying desperately to hang onto the relationship, but also seeming to know that it can’t last, and that it must inevitably flame out after burning so bright and hot.
The film shifts to Laurel’s perspective, as she tries to convince herself that Dixon’s behavior is normal. She goes to Sylvia, Brub’s wife to confide in her, hoping that she will laugh off the events, but she doesn’t.
The climax of the film proceeds with Dix asking Laurel to marry him, and Laurel trying to get away from him secretly. I won’t spoil the ending, which is a major part of the appeal of the film, because it’s very much worth watching.
This is a thrilling and heartbreaking film. The tragedy of Dix is that the passion that drives him to be a great screenwriter is the same passion that pushes the people in his life away, and cause him to do terrible things. The tragedy of Laurel is the same tragedy that many women face, being with an abusive man and not knowing how to get away.
As an acting performance, this is definitely one of Bogart’s darker roles. The film is able to keep the audience in the dark about his complicity in the murder, and continually gives us clues that support both conclusions. It isn’t until the very end that we learn the truth of the matter.
Bogart is amazing. One of his best roles, for sure. We see the Bogart charm through snappy dialogue, as mentioned earlier, but he has several great acting moments where he’s able to express his character’s needs and emotions simply through his reactions. It’s a spectacular performance. The other characters do their job, for sure, but no one is on Bogart’s level here.
This is my first Nicholas Ray film on this blog. This film was early in his career, but he already had become a spectacular director. Many of his most famous films would come later in his career, but In a Lonely Place likely cemented his place as a major director.
The Double Feature
As a comparison of Bogart, this was a great exercise. I think it might have been slightly more interesting to compare The Petrified Forest to The Harder They Fall, which is Bogart’s final film, but I think In a Lonely Place is a good comparison point. While Bogart certainly pops in The Petrified Forest, you can see how much stronger he is as an actor by 1950. Part of the improvement is that as an established name, he was more familiar and trusted by writers and directors who he worked with.
It’s sometimes tough to figure out if a famous movie star is a great actor. Audiences latch onto certain actors for different reasons, and they aren’t always worried about acting talent. Bogart was a larger than life figure, and many of the films he was in post Casablanca are all-time classics like The African Queen, The Big Sleep, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre among many others. But I think looking at these two films shows us Bogart as an actor first and a movie star second. His personality and charm are incredibly appealing, and it’s easy to see why he was so popular. But his ability to embody the character he was playing is what makes him special. Without his acting ability, his filmography would likely have him in gangster films as a villain like The Petrified Forest for most of his career. But we know he grew out of those roles, and eventually played complex characters like Dixon Steele, Sam Spade and Rick.
Bogart tragically died of cancer in his 50s, and he had a late start on his career. The Petrified Forest was made when he was 36. We don’t really know what his career would have looked like if he had lived and continued. Different actors chose to leave the profession at different times in those days. But it seems likely he would have acted for another decade. Who knows what we could have gotten in that time? What if he had been discovered earlier? There are plenty of what-ifs, but the 20 years we got are wonderful to look back on.
It’s almost time to move into the cruising lane on this blog. I’ve been in the fast lane for a few weeks, turning out 3-4 posts a week. But the class I’m teaching starts next week, and I need to start focusing on that. So this week, we’ll have a few posts as usual, and then I’ll slow down. I definitely won’t stop.
One of the goals of this blog was to give me an outlet outside of school as an escape. The problem was that if things at school weren’t going well, I didn’t have anything to turn to to balance out my moods. I just had to wallow in that experience, which certainly isn’t healthy. I think this blog has helped me feel like there’s more to my life than just school, and even if that crashes and burns, I still have good things in my life that I can appreciate.
So my plan is to do 1 post a week, maybe a second if I have time, and post during the week. Maybe on Wednesdays. Not sure yet.
But for this week, we’re still full speed ahead! So what will the next two films be? I haven’t done anything in a foreign language for a couple of weeks, so I think it’s well past time to work a non-English film into the rotation. I also haven’t done a Kurosawa film since the very first post. So let’s start there. The next two films will be:
Akira Kurosawa – Rashomon (1950)
Robert Altman – Gosford Park (2001)
I struggled a bit trying to decide what to pair with Rashomon. I went with Gosford Park for a few reasons. First, I love Gosford Park, second, they both involve mysteries, and finally, on the Rashomon Blu-ray I own, Robert Altman gives an interview about the Kurosawa film. In reality, there’s no film like Rashomon, so almost anything I picked would be a hard sell. I’m not sure if they will match up well, but I’m going to give it a shot.
See you then.