A young woman gets mixed up with a group of hard livin’, hard drinkin’ expatriate pilots who careen through a life of reckless adventure in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Cary Grant plays the manager of a small airline contracted to carry the mail through dangerous South American mountain passes. Equipped with small, out-of-date planes, the pilots don’t have the equipment needed to fly above the mountains or navigate safely in bad weather, making every flight a chance for high drama. Our window into this insane business is a plucky American woman (Jean Arthur), who steps off a boat for what is supposed to be a few hours and finds herself unable to resist Grant’s churlish appeal. This is the first movie by Howard Hawks we are going to discuss, but it is certainly not the last, as Hawks has more films on the Sight & Sound 250 list than any other American director. (121 min.)
J. – I was really surprised to see this movie listed in the Top 250. I watched it late at night on television several years ago and remember thinking it was a great deal of fun, but my recollection certainly didn’t fit with the serious demeanor of so much of the Sight & Sound list. And now after seeing it again, I am quite pleased to see that my memory isn’t faulty — it is a great deal of fun. So I remain surprised that Only Angels Have Wings is on the list, but I’m quite glad for it. There’s definitely something to be said for a bit of classic Hollywood-style adventure.
S. – Very much a change of pace from our recent viewing experiences and one that follows a more familiar movie format. Everything the viewer could want: action, adventure and romance all in an exotic location. After what has been a few weeks of watching silent or early sound films it was very striking how this Hollywood movie is heavily invested in wise-cracking, fast-talking characters. Everyone has a lot to say and any moment that isn’t packed with dialogue has a band lustily performing, loud airplane noises or wild weather whooshing by. The entertainment has been dialed right up and subtlety packed away for another day.
J. – All of these things you mentioned are reasons why I am surprised the movie was on the list. I feel like Hollywood action-adventure films are among the most unjustly maligned. Some are crackling entertainment, and Only Angels Have Wings is an excellent example of the form. But before we get to the action, I’d like to address the humor of the film. You mentioned the torrents of speech in this film, and that’s one of my favorite aspects of 1930s Hollywood: that heightened form of speaking they often employed, which really reached a frenetic peak during the screwball comedy days. It’s no surprise that Hawks directed some of the best screwball comedies, seeing how characters in this film trade barbs like lightning. I think that aspect was handled particularly well in the scene after the first plane crash as everyone boozes it up, laughing so they won’t cry.
It was also nice to have a female lead who was frequently as rough and tumble as the men in the movie. Jean Arthur did a great job of shifting between sassy to sweet to vulnerable to panicky and all over again without making the character feel too inauthentic (not that this film gives a damn about authenticity!). Although Rita Hayworth really didn’t have much to do other than look gorgeous and vaguely worried — her character really wasn’t needed at all.
S. – I agree that it was great to see a woman finally get a few more lines in a film and not be present purely as set dressing, but I was a little confused by the character’s frequent switches between savvy and sappy (the simpering was left to Rita). I guess the charms of Cary Grant, even in those uncomfortably high pants, just do that to a gal. The witty repartee was indeed sizzling and the ensemble cast played really well off each other, there was a real sense of camaraderie. I also enjoyed the action scenes immensely, the high flying through the mountain pass looked amazing. There were a few moments when it was quite obvious that a model plane was being used but for the most part the daring flight scenes were a highlight.
J. – The action was amazing. That scene where the new pilot needs to land atop that plateau is pretty much insane. I tried to grab a good still of it for this entry, but the plane was moving too fast for me to capture anything that would make sense! In general, the bits involving real airplanes were extremely exciting and often stunningly beautiful as well. The film really serves as a reminder of how downright insane it was to be a pilot in the first few decades of aviation. I agree that the models sometimes looked a bit cheesy, but compared to most other movies from the era, they did a remarkable job. And that first crash is horrifying, even if it was just a toy plane hitting toy trees. But more than that, Hawks did such a good job of setting the mood around the flying scenes. That great lookout post in the dangerous, fickle mountain pass, the tropical torrents that poured down as they tried to contact the pilots from a phone box, and even the puddles on the runway all sold the environment so well it made every flight look like it was probably the pilot’s last.
But the heart of the film was in the bar, and I really liked how Hawks was able to pack his interior shots with so many people carousing or complaining. Those had to be tough compositions to work out in a 4:3 frame without looking too cluttered or unnatural, and the movie was stuffed with these great scenes, which gave the proceedings a wonderful energy. It also meant that every time two characters were alone in a room together the resulting scene took on extra weight and significance.
S. – The bar scenes are memorable, filled with a joyous and manic atmosphere fueled by the pilots who had looked death in the eye and lived to fly another day. I enjoyed the character of Dutchy (Sig Ruman), the owner of the flight company and bar-manager, who played the mother hen visibly worried every time he sent out another pilot in bad weather but fully aware the company would go under if they weren’t willing to take the risk. Everyone gave him some ribbing for not wearing a mask of bravado but he was the conduit for all the unspoken fears and you got the sense the pilots were grateful that there was someone willing to acknowledge that the stakes were so high. The other interesting dynamic explored was the psyche of the pilots themselves, every new face in the bar expressed horror at the danger they faced to do this job. For some of the pilots it was just a matter of time before their nerve failed, for others the adrenaline rush was what they lived for.
J. – It certainly did create an interesting dynamic among the pilots, and I’m glad that the movie rarely let the pilots crack the veneer of cool toughness that they outwardly exhibit. I think most movies would have given in too fully to emotion and sentiment, when these are clearly people who didn’t go in for such things. This is not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of melodrama in the film (these are outsized characters with outsized reactions), but they were allowed to have their inner anguish be implied without ever having them really show it — which I think is probably the reason this film made the list. These characters were allowed to keep in character, and it was small, small changes that somehow added up to major character arcs for pretty much the entire cast. Everyone was allowed to change without changing, and in that respect Only Angels Have Wings actually was rather true to life.
S. – You speak the truth, J. (and very eloquently I might add). But I have a sneaking suspicion that this movie may have made the list mostly for having the audacity to dress the heart-throb lead actor like this: