It was 79 years ago today, February 8th 1936, that The Petrified Forest made its big screen debut. The story centers around Alan Squier, a carefree drifter (Leslie Howard) and the waitress Gabrielle Maple (Betty Davis) he falls in love with at a remote diner in Arizona. They, along with other unlucky patrons, are held hostage in the diner by notorious gangster Duke Mantee, played by Humphrey Bogart. Alan waxes philosophically about Mantee, society and the choices people make. In the end, he sacrifices his own life for Gabrielle so she can pursue her dream of living as an artist. Bogart brought an intensity and gritty realism that was a perfect foil to Howard's dreamer character. Critics raved about the new "tough guy" in Hollywood.
Although the role of Duke Mantee was a breakthrough role for Humphrey Bogart, his name wasn't prominent on movie posters since this was his first major film. Top billing went to Betty Davis and Leslie Howard, who were much better known at the time.
Bogart wasn't even the first choice for the gangster part. The studio wanted Edgar G. Robinson, who was already established as a gangster in films such as Little Caesar and The Hatchet Man. But Leslie Howard wanted Bogart to repeat the role he had played so well in the Broadway production with him. Howard was a leading man and he got his way. Bogart even studied film clips of notorious bank robber John Dillinger in an effort to learn the gangster's mannerisms for the movie role.
Duke Mantee propelled Bogart from a character actor to a major star, and Bogart never forgot Leslie Howard's efforts on his behalf. He even named his daughter after Leslie Howard. In 1955, Bogart played the role of Duke Mantee one more time in a television adaptation of The Petrified Forest for Producer's Showcase. The role of Alan Squier was done by Henry Fonda and Gabrielle Maple was played by Lauren Bacall, Bogart's wife.
The Petrified Forest was one of the biggest gangster films of the decade, and Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press ranks it in their list of the Top 101 Greatest Films of Mystery and Suspense.