Humphrey Bogart had horns, apparently

The same evening that we watched CHRISTOPHER STRONG, in which Katherine Hepburn wears silver moth antennae, we watched THE PETRIFIED FOREST, in which Humphrey Bogart has horns. He totally has horns.

This was Bogie’s breakthrough, or one of them. It got him showy heavy roles. MALTESE FALCON moved him up to leading man roles in A-pictures. And he got to stop being showy, and just be Bogie. (Jeap-Pierre Melville claimed that Fred MacMurray invented underplaying, and that Bogie didn’t underplay until after DOUBLE INDEMNITY. I wonder.)

Now, I don’t know if Bogie had his horns filed short for other roles, like Hellboy, or he kept them long and Warners had them removed using the 1930s equivalent of photoshop (basically a sweat shop full of girls with paintbrushes, ruled over by a whip-wielding Hugh Herbert). I leave that for the likes of Rudy Behlmer to determine.

The horns are, arguably, a silly idea, but there’s other business, like a radio announcement in one scene starting to describe a car, followed by a series of hard cut to the bits of the car being detailed, leading out to wide shot showing that car in the desert, broken down but with the radio still describing it. That stuff is smart. Delmer Daves contributed to the script (from RC Sherwood’s play), so…

The Painted Desert

It’s taken me a VERY long time to get around to this film. I had heard of it as stagey and unconvincing in its set design. It IS remarkable how the same studio could make HEAT LIGHTNING, which has basically the same single location, a desert auto camp, and make of it a striking blend of reality and artifice that basically convinces, and then make this a few years later, with its weird, slanting cycloramas that feel close enough for Bette Davis to kick a heel through. As for the staginess, a hostage scenario creates a built-in dramatic tension that can basically let the writers get away with almost anything, so it’s not like it’s ever dull, and even in the long build-up, the whole setting is such a prison, there’s still tension before anything has happened. What makes it feel overly theatrical is the tendency to push character at the expense of situation, having characters reveal themselves in ways they wouldn’t, and eventually playing a love scene during a shoot-out.

Bette is miscast, I fear. You certainly believe she doesn’t belong in this desolate environment (“What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” as the Waco Kid once inquired) but you don’t see how she ever got there and there’s no trace of the naive hick about her. She has to be able to call Villon’s poetry “swell” and sound like she really does appreciate it BUT doesn’t understand that “swell” is a gauche word to use in the circumstances. With Bette, that moment is just kind of surreal. Still, though I can think of other Warners starlets who might have embodied the character more aptly (Ann Sheridan?) I can’t think of any with more star wattage (or oomph, if you will).

Leslie Howard is great. Kind of hated where the character was headed, but he made it electric. I guess we’re in the same phase of inter-war fatalism that gave us French poetic realism. It’s a beautiful, dreamy, melancholic mood, but probably the worst possible mood to have with fascism on the rise. KEY LARGO would have been a more switched-on version of this story to make in such a climate.

And then there’s the great meeting between two contrasting black characters, a moment that allows this film to pass whatever the African-American Bechdel test is. The stick-up man, Slim (Slim Thompson) greets the chauffeur, Joseph (John Alexander) with a jaunty “Hello, colored brother!” and gets a stiff “Good evening!” in reply, which makes his head go back about a foot in surprise. An amazing moment, built on in subsequent interactions. There’s the fact that these two black men ARE contrasting. And while the gangster expects them to have something in common, the driver knows he has NOTHING in common with this crook, and is positively alarmed by the other’s bonhomie, as if he were being cheerfully hailed by a rattlesnake or a hand grenade. And Slim looks at Joseph like he’s just plain from another planet. Warner Brothers’ progressive tendency could fire off in all kinds of directions…

7 Responses to “Humphrey Bogart had horns, apparently”

  1. Melville is right about Fred MacMurray. Underplaying isn’t speaking in a soft voice which Bogart can do, mostly to convey menace. It’s something subtler than that. It’s the reason why after having starred him on “Double Indemnity” Wilder cast MacMurray as a very different kind of “heavy” in “The Apartment.”

    Bette Davis may seem miscast in “The Petrified Forest” but her sheer acting nerviness makes it work. Plus she relates to the doomed, self-sacrificial Leslie Howard so beautifully. Quite a contrast from “Of Human Bondage.”

  2. Agreed. I think part of MacMurray’s skill came from not thinking of himself as an actor, just a lucky sax player. So he kept it restrained, since as Robert Mitchum said, “You don’t want to get CAUGHT AT IT.”

    Yes, it was nice seeing Bette and Les together again after OHB. And agreed, she pulls it off despite being quite wrong for it. Not many people could do that.

  3. A Loony Tune featuring a brief parody of PF:

    No Bogart there … but in a remake of the same cartoon …

  4. La Faustin Says:

    1. MacMurray beautifully underplays whimsy and smoldering yearning (no, really!) in Mitchell Leisen’s HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE.

    2. I see 1930s Bogart as derived from George Raft — and the latter’s style from Stroheim as continental cad, circa FOOLISH WIVES.

  5. Slim to Joseph – “Don’t you know there’s a revolution going on?!” Or words to that effect.

  6. Slim also says, “Hi coloured brother!” to Joseph and gets a look that could kill.

  7. GREAT cartoon. The Loony Tune Leslie is perfect. I guess Bette hadn’t been around long enough for them to get a real grasp of her, but her first line is very good.

    La Faustin, I like you theory of caddish derivation. And Jack La Rue, the second-string Raft, plays a continental cad in Christopher Strong.

    Hands Across the Table is a favourite. Though I recently realised its big scene of yearning from neighbouring rooms is a straight swipe from It Happened One Night’s walls of Jericho. Still, it’s a beautifully executed swipe.

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