Only Angels have Wings
For many film fans in the UK, the Criterion Collection has been locked behind region codes and blocks therefore the highest profiled of all boutique labels choosing 2016 to migrate to these shores is the best news in years. Their opening salvo of titles represents the eclectic mix that saw the New York based company become so highly regarded worldwide. Criterion have always championed directors who have been overlooked, Howard Hawks is the classic example – a director known most with Hollywood classicists and few others. The first Hawks Criterion UK title is 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings starring Carry Grant and Jean Arthur.
Positioned as a proto-Casablanca, Hawks locates his film in the fictional South American port town of Barranca. We arrive in town with Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a cruise ship “speciality” performer who is invited to a bar owned by local businessman Dutchy (Sig Ruman) by two pilots with a charm and whip-smart dialogue that only 1930s cinema knew. The two men squabble over who gets to wine and dine Lee with the decision decided by the fatalistic Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Barranca airways make their meagre existence through dangerous mountain flying and of all the nights to meet this merry brigade this is the one that claims the life of a pilot. Feeling guilty about her self-perceived role in the death, Lee stays in town till the next boat arrives in a week. Although not without its romance, Only Angels have Wings follows this little community of pilots in a far flung corner of South America.
Better known for The Big Sleep or Rio Bravo, Only Angels have Wings stands out as one of Hawks’ finest achievements. The film may be similar to Casablanca’s reluctant romance in an exotic locale, but unlike the icon that aspect discloses little of the bigger picture with the tone modifying itself at any given opportunity. As previously outlined Only Angels Have Wings sets its stall as a characteristically smart, playful romance picture; 30 minutes in and that has been traded for edge of the seat tension with Grant talking his pilot down to earth despite being blinded by fog. Moving forward with an amazing intent, the film then concerns itself with the interactions of the pilots and their struggle to survive whilst almost simultaneously introducing rich character back-stories for supporting players – see Kid (Thomas Mitchell) and the arrival of MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess). Then and only then is the romance reintroduced before heading back to the trials and tribulations of the community and it’s never anything less than absolute in its entertainment.
Being dense of story has been the making and breaking of many films before and after Hawks, yet few have even a slither of his penmanship. Each and every thread moves with pace and purpose while characterising the ensemble, with characters moving from lead to supporting and back again. It’s often remarked with cinematography that the very best raise the form to such a degree that it appears wizardly, a credit that has rarely been extended to screenwriters – perhaps Robert Towne with Chinatown, Paddy Chayefsky for Network and Billy Wilder for Sunset Boulevard, but few others attained such rare honours.
With this in mind, if Hawks’ film is approached as a romance picture it’ll leave a distinct dissatisfaction in the mouth however approach with an open mind and the true expanse will present itself. While underwritten by merit of the sheer girth of content, the romance still rings true. Cary Grant’s Carter is a bitter man who treats the death of a colleague with a detach and distance moving forward never back, its only when Arthur’s Lee makes the observation that a woman must have really hurt him that he becomes approachable. Amenable perhaps but still hard, yet there’s enough there for Lee to become attached to for her to be more than a love sick puppy chasing her crush. Grant, Dutch, Kid and the ensemble all live life on the edge of life-death and bankruptcy, extreme circumstances affect emotions and present different facets of a personality that wouldn’t be immediately obvious otherwise. It’s that which Lee sees something in. It also helps that both Grant and Arthur command the screen with performances buzz with chemistry.
A common misconception in the discussion of 1930s cinema is that it was very earthy and stagey, much of it was but there are a few films and directors who strove for spectacle – although a little earlier 1927’s Wings is impossibly modern in its effects work. While not quite as lavish and more reliant on miniatures and back projection, Hawks still uses aerial photography beautifully. Almost every flight has a doubt cast upon it, with both the potential for the mist to roll in from the mountains at any given moment and the financial pressure to complete every mission. Albeit sufficiently dramatic without, the addition of aerial photography captures the expanse and proffers a context and scale that pushes ever closer to the edge of the seat.
For a while Masters of Cinema have been operating unopposed in offering this brand of cinema and now with the arrival of [the] Criterion Collection it has quite simply never been a better time to be a film fan. No film exemplifies that more than Hawks’ Only Angels have Wings, a film of bewildering invention and flexibility showing the rich heritage of Hollywood while scoffing at the mere suggestion that romance is a vehicle for the derivative; work-a-day boy meets girl tale. We can’t wait to see what else Criterion have up their sleeves.