Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Hawks’ Greatest Adventure Movie

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Howard Hawks always had a knack for creating worlds and subsequently building camaraderie between his characters simply by stringing scenes together one after the other. Only Angels Have Wings sets up a premise — revolving around a South American outpost — then settles in on two flyers.  But for all intent and purposes, Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr.) and Tex Gordon (Don Barry) exist in the periphery of the story.

Despite all this, we’re instantly interested in what they have to do in this world and they’ve got their eyes on a woman (Jean Arthur) exiting a recently landed ship, only to strike up an instant connection as they’re a trio of Americans. A sequence that almost feels ominous initially does a rapid about-face to settle into something a great deal more amiable.

In truth, the introduction of a female heroine fresh off the boat in a foreign land hearkens back to Miriam Hopkins in Barbary Coast. She too was a tough character who was capable of surviving in a rough and tumble boomtown out west. Jean Arthur does much the same in Barranca. Except the difference is Arthur seems adept at showing her flaws with that quirky comic edge of hers.

The other added benefit is Howard Hawks seems about as invested in this picture as he could be due to his own intense preoccupation with big birds in the sky. His surname never seemed apter. The flight sequences follow in the path of Test Pilot exuding a certain authenticity while the narrative itself is unparalleled thanks, in part, to the entire framework built around it. The fascinating assemblage of characters is a testament to the best of what old Hollywood has to offer.

In 20 minutes he’s already enveloped you in an entire cinematic reality full of people, atmosphere, stakes, and danger. The genial owner Dutch (Sig Ruman) is slowly going broke trying to keep the establishment afloat. His last chance is to come through on a 6-month contract of mail deliveries without a failed drop.

Everything he has is riding on it but he’s a man who cares about people and their lives. It’s not merely a business endeavor. It’s about relationship and that’s why everyone likes the man. Even with this kind of impetus, it remains a harrowing life or death operation that Hawks documents with immense clarity.

Lives are still lost because flyers are foolhardy, proud, and daredevil types and yet when you put them up in a plane fighting against the elements and geography, they don’t always come out on top. Modern man and especially the modern aviator of 1939 is far from infallible.

But it’s one of the most gripping flight films buttressed by Hawk’s capacity for lulls and interludes which layer on character to the plotline. It’s imbued with the same spellbinding aura of a Casablanca or To Have or Have Not. There’s a certain ambiance pervading those classics of old and ironically, the moments that give us impressions of the world and the people walking around in them are the ones I’m most likely to imbibe. They speak in basic, visceral terms about men and women and how we cope with one another. How we emote: laugh, cry, get angry, and bury our emotions to avoid getting hurt.

Cary Grant is hard and fierce as ace flyer Geoff Carter who runs the airmail service for Dutch, willingly deferring to him in all matters due to Geoff’s history and expertise. We get the impression our protagonist is embittered by the years of such a tough vocation. His personality at times proves as severe as the brim of his hat.

When I watch Only Angels Have Wings I remember where Devlin came from in Notorious (1946). Because Grant reveals a side of his persona like a double-sided coin. There’s something different hidden under each side and he’s a tortured soul struggling to reconcile the life he leads with feelings he is so inept in expressing. Because the danger of any type of human attachment is that the same person could just as easily be taken out of your life a moment later. Far from despising him for his callous attitudes, it makes him all the more intriguing as a human being. Because every other character brings something out of him.

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Though his career had all but tanked after immense successes with D.W. Griffith in the silent era, Richard Barthelmess has a crucial role as a recently arrived flyer who has an ignominious history under a different name. In a single moment, he broke the unwritten code of the skies, never bale out and leave your copilot high and dry. It’s followed him everywhere he goes like a Scarlett Letter.

What makes it particularly volatile is the fact that the dead man’s brother, The Kid (Thomas Mitchell), a 22 year veteran of the business, is Carter’s right-hand man. This past tragedy causes the aging pilot to seethe with anger as his ill-will toward Macpherson burns under the surface. There is a great deal of unresolved ire between them waiting for release.

In fact, that’s the trait of many of these characters. Because Macpherson has picked up an attractive young wife in his travels. Though Rita Hayworth is in a smaller role as Judy, it’s still significant because most every player is given a piece of the pie. Her connection being the fact she knew Geoff in a former life. They don’t admit it right away but it becomes clear enough. And of course, there’s this uncomfortable chafing as Grant keeps the disgraced pilot in his back pocket to do all the dirty work. He’s handsomely paid for it but there’s no sentimentality or camaraderie.

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Everyone else is a part of Grant’s family as it were. MacPherson is just around for his usefulness. Carter’s relationship with the other man’s wife puts him in yet another position of power to show compassion. He surprises us incessantly and a dose of redemption explodes right out of an inferno of tragedy.

But we have yet to consider Grant and Arthur’s relationship throughout the picture, arguably the film’s most integral and constantly evolving asset. He is a man who can never be tied down; he does not share feelings or expect anything from any woman. And yet hidden away and shrouded from view are these threads of decency running through his life. Ways that he cares for people without letting his virile image slide. The final scene is a fine summation.

The pass is clearing up and despite all that’s gone wrong — he’s only got one good arm for goodness sakes and Bonnie’s about to leave him — there’s still a drive to finish what they started. But there’s a chance to make it through and save their contract and as he goes flying out the door he gives his girl a great big kiss and says he’ll flip her for whether or not she stays or leaves.

Of course, we know full-well the coin he tossed her is from “The Kid.” It’s marked with heads on both sides. She’s hurt at first. Injured by this flippancy and lack of commitment. But then she realizes, turning it over in her hands. In his indirect way, he’s saying he wants her to stay.

Why bring this up at all? As best as I can explain it, this individual scene is so beautifully restrained and nuanced in a way that surpasses other lesser films. Meanwhile, Only Angels Have Wings displays all the delectable glories of a deeply satisfying adventure film from Howard Hawks. There’s drama, romance, friendship, tragedy, and a simplicity to the action lines which nevertheless feels deeply indicative of the human condition.

4.5/5 Stars

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