—A Great Film—
Your Bogie Fix:
Director: Archie Mayo
Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) is a drifter / writer / hitchhiker making his way across the U.S. when he walks into a little gas station café in the Arizona desert for a “bar-bee-cue.” Gabby Maple (a young, gorgeous, bright-eyed, yes I have a crush . . . Bette Davis) is the café owner’s daughter who waits on Squier, quickly falling in love with him.
Squier is an intellectual and Gabby is an intellectual in the making. With a fifteen year age difference between Howard and Davis, it’s a May-December romance that’s easy to believe since both actors exude charm from every pore of their bodies. But, alas, it’s a romance not to be. Howard’s Squier is a depressed wanderer at heart, and he’s just wise, mature, and intellectual enough to know that he shouldn’t get involved. Whatever emotional baggage he’s obviously carrying below his plucky surface, it’s enough to keep him from returning Gabby’s advances. So Squier heads out the door on his way to see the Pacific, and Gabby reluctantly stays behind in the café with her dreams of becoming a Parisian artist on hold and a lunkhead gas station attendant named Boze nipping at the hem of her dress.
Enter Duke Mantee, played by Humphrey Bogart in what most consider his breakout role. A gangster on the run after a shootout in Oklahoma, Duke’s car happens to break down just a few miles away from the café, just before Squier’s hitched ride passes by and stops to help. Within minutes, Duke and his gang have commandeered a new ride, and Squier is left on the side of the road, watching the gangsters head straight towards Gabby’s café.
Squier returns to make sure Gabby’s okay, of course, and what follows is a tense and gripping hostage situation where Howard and Bogart get lots of time to shine in roles they were both born to play. As the story goes, Howard was the one who demanded Bogart play the part of Mantee after they played the roles together in the original stage production.
It’s no wonder why it was a star making turn for Bogart, as he adopts a tone, style, and mannerisms for Duke Mantee that I don’t believe he ever surpassed in any other role. Both IMDB and his biographies claim that Bogart studied bank robber John Dillinger for the role, and the character work done here is nothing short of Bogie’s best.
Bogart physically becomes a violent, desperate, dangerous gangster. From the moment he appears on screen (about 35 minutes into the film), he is a rubber band wound tight, and the viewer is just waiting for his inevitable snap.
He walks hunched with his hands held slightly out at the waist. It gives you the impression that he’s either going to draw his gun, or strangle someone at any moment.
I cannot imagine any other actor playing the role of Duke Mantee as well as Bogart does. It’s clear that Bogart worked hard to embody the gangster from top to bottom. I almost began to wonder if he was even able to sweat on command as the movie ramps up to its violent, dramatic conclusion.
Bette Davis, who looks and seems to be playing younger than her 28 years here, is so cute and fun that it’s almost too unbelievable that Leslie Howard would choose to leave her at the beginning of the film. If the sight and flirtations of a budding Davis can’t break a man out of depression, what could???
Leslie Howard portrays the depressive intellectual wonderfully, and his playful banter with Bette Davis is both the heart and the backbone of the film. We believe that Howard’s mind is stimulated by Davis’ thirst for more in her life.
The script, which is said to stay very true to the original stage play, offers this group of actors a lot of great dialogue and story to work with. So many times, a filmed play seems like just that – a play on film, but Archie Mayo adapts this story wonderfully. It wasn’t until Bogie’s off-screen death scene that I remembered that The Petrified Forest was meant for the stage, and sticking close to the original script is probably why we don’t get to see Duke go out in a blaze of glory.
It’s been written about a lot before, but director Mayo’s use of the buffalo horns behind Bogie’s head is a wonderfully subliminal way of giving us a demonic look at the unstable Mantee.
The supporting cast is quite good, and there are a lot of great comedic moments spread throughout the movie.
Joe Sawyer’s portrayal of Mantee’s henchman, Jackie, is particularly fun – a role he also originated on stage. When he taunts the gas station attendant Boze, there seems to be real enjoyment in his cruelty.
Porter Hall and Charley Grapewin do very well in their respective roles as Dad and Grandpa Maple – giving the movie a good dose of its comic relief, and Bette Davis just enough henpecking to remind us why she wants out of the café.
Classic Bogie Moment
Joe Sawyer’s Jackie narrates Bogart’s entrance as he announces, “Now, just behave yourself and nobody’ll get hurt. This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer, and he’s hungry!” And there stands Bogart – a wild, edgy, dynamite stick of a man who’s ready to blow up at any moment.
Director Mayo gives Bogart some of the best close ups he would ever get. The sneer. The sweat. The trembling lip. The sunken, desperate eyes that dart around the room. Bogart does as much with just his face in this movie as most actors wish they could do with their whole bodies.
This portrayal should be a textbook example for all actors on how to really lose yourself in a role. While Bogart would go on to play other desperate, edgy characters, I don’t think any come close to Duke Mantee.
The Bottom Line
There’s no argument needed as to why this was Bogart’s breakout role. From script to cast, this movie is tight and entertaining. This was a role Bogie was born to play. Sit back and enjoy.
Warner Brothers apparently wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role of Duke Mantee. While I can understand how Robinson would have lent instant credibility to a gangster film, I don’t know if he could have played Mantee as dangerously dark as Bogart was able to. There was always just a hint of humor in too many of Robinson’s roles. (Although, if they’d shot an alternate-Robinson version, I’d be the first in line to make a comparison!)