Thursday, June 23, 2011

THE PETRIFIED FOREST plus Nazis should really be more exciting, shouldn't it?

d. Edward A. Blatt
Starring: Phillip Dorn, Jean Sullivan, Irene Manning and Alan Hale (yes, the father of the Skipper from Gilligan's Island)

While I don't really count myself as nostalgic for long-gone ages in most respects (no contact lenses, lots of diseases, and racism and sexism out the wazoo), I usually have a rather rose-colored vision of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whatever the faults of the system itself, it certainly produced some classics, and even the more mediocre efforts of the era usually have a professional sheen and charm that help them go down easy. On the other hand, this vision of the Golden Age of Hollywood escapes Sturgeon's Law (that 90% of everything is crap) by grading on a curve. After all, while a select few masterworks are lost to time, a lot of the material that Hollywood put out in those days that is still missing is lost or locked in a vault for good reason. It's just not that good. 

But every now and then, while trawling TCM's listings, I'll come across something that reminds me of that. In this case, I watched an obscure film called Escape in the Desert. Directed by a man whose main credits on IMDB are as dialogue director, and starring actors and actresses with few other credits, there's very little of that professional sheen or charm to make up the weight.

The story is about Phillip Artveld (Phillip Dorn), a Free Dutch soldier who is hitchhiking across the US on his way to San Diego. Unfortunately, his journey across the American Southwest happens to coincide with an escape by Nazi POWs, and a crotchety old man (Samuel S. Hinds) makes a citizen's arrest after picking him up. The misunderstanding is soon cleared up, but the upshot is that he's stuck at the old man's gas-station, which is run by his grand-daughter Jane, who wants nothing more than to escape the desert (Jean Sullivan), and Jane's suitor/sometimes-boyfriend/all-around idiot Hank Albright (Bill Kennedy). Oh, and then the real escaped Nazis show up.

Now, you probably couldn't guess from the plot description alone, but this is a rewrite/remake of The Petrified Forest. You know, that little picture that starred Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. The same film that gave Humphrey Bogart his start as the Golden Age's number one bad-ass in the role he originated on Broadway as Duke Mantee. Oh, and a play whose ending suggests that the brutish, violent thug and the disillusioned humanist are two sides of the same coin?

As you can imagine, the film is, to put it lightly, problematic. The people behind the cameras are straining to twist the story into something it isn't, and there's no one on either side of the camera to make it work. Certainly Hollywood has completely changed the message of a story while adapting it it, with Key Largo also making an odd ideological transformation from a reactionary stage play response to the Spanish Civil War to a cinematic defense of intervention in the Second World War (with an ending stolen from To Have And To Have Not). The difference is, John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G Robinson all worked to sell it. 

When you have an ersatz dialogue director running the show with the rather inexpressive Phillip Dorn and the blandly pretty Jean Sullivan as your leads, the odds are against you.

And I'm not even a big fan of The Petrified Forest. While I rather enjoy Bogie's gangster, the script is pretentious, Leslie Howard comes off as the annoying dandy the Nazis in 49th Parallel accused him of being, and I can see Bette Davis still trying to figure out her technique. But still, it's Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. And the script, for all it's faults, at least follows someone who is having a crisis of faith and comes to a big decision at the end.

Whereas Escape in the Desert has Phillip believing in the war but being slightly tired of fighting it. The narrative is explicitly set after the liberation of Holland, so he's not even chickening out of fighting, he's just doubting the wisdom of liberating colonial possessions that the Dutch really wouldn't get to keep anyhow (or at least, how you can cynically argue it in retrospect). There's not even a sense of conflict between Phillip as a warrior being mistreated by the people he's fought for. The guy gets kidnapped, held at gunpoint and punched because he's not like them. Hank, who might be shirking military service (the point is never quite made clear), even calls him a coward. But he never shows any resentment over that. I'm not expecting Stallone in First Blood-type reactions, but still... heck, go back to Key Largo, where there's a tension between Bogie's returning warrior and the people on the home front whose comfort and groundedness he resents.

So the only conflict is basically, will Phillip capture the Nazis? And we already know he'll survive since the story is a flashback. And the Nazis aren't really worthwhile villains. I never expected to type that phrase, but there's never even a two-dimensional level of characterization like the Nazis in 49th Parallel had. 

At least it's reassuring to know ours is not the only age that has a problem with ill-conceived remakes of popular films.

The Petrified ForestKey Largo (Keepcase)