Classic Movie Review: Only Angels Have Wings (The Criterion Collection)
Tuesday, February 20th, 2018 at 12:00 pm
Only Angels Have Wings Blu-ray | DVD
Directed by Howard Hawks
Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, and Richard Barthelmess
Criterion Collection Release Date: April 12, 2016
The treacherous landscape of a South American village is where our adventure takes off. Nothing new here. Chameleonic director Howard Hawks has an unmatched affinity with environments that have such an immediate influence on his characters. Sometimes rendering them helpless and other times it influences his characters to rise to the occasion. Think of the ruthless wild west evidenced in Rio Bravo, the unforgiving terrains in Red River, the extraordinarily corrupt neighborhood in The Big Sleep, or the abundance of violence running amuck everywhere in Scarface. All of his films are completely disparate when it comes to genres and themes. The one commonality all of them abide by is the ferociousness of their landscape. 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings is no different.
Immediately we are made acquainted with the crowded atmosphere, jam-packed saloons, lonely one room living spaces tucked cozily between mountains, and jaggy mountain peaks that reach to the coldest point possible that a South American city allows. Dealing with a South American airmail service, Hawks paints a vivid portrait of courage, romance, manliness, and loyalty. All of these are characteristics that would fit ideally in a Hemingway novel. Like those novels, landscapes, no matter their surpassingly beautiful appeal, shape characters for better and for worse.
The treacherous landscape’s trajectory, depicted effortlessly by Hawks, can be seen in the film’s main character played wonderfully by Cary Grant. Geoff Carter (Grant) may have been just a normal man prior to coming to this village. We know he previously experienced love with Rita Hayworth‘s character, who just so happened to show up with her current lover who was once a quality aviator (Richard Barthelmess) but now living with a blighted image. Geoff is now the man in charge of the airmail service, pointing his men to go here and to fly there into a windy or snowy storm without any traceable sentiment. This tough-guy mentality easily attracts the attention of Bonnie (Jean Arthur), an entertainer who happens to be visiting this little town while waiting for her next gig. After hearing about the death of one of his men, Geoff willingly shakes it off. How? We want so bad to know how.
This tough-guy mentality easily attracts the attention of Bonnie (Jean Arthur), an entertainer who happens to be visiting this little town while waiting for her next gig. Appalled at first, she begins to get acquainted with Geoff via rapid, dazzling dialogue that is essential to all Hawks’ films. One recalls what will ensue in his 1940 newspaper picture His Girl Friday, where Rosalind Russell’s character initially detests Cary Grant’s overwhelmingly confident journalist. Hawks ability to appreciate the power of words makes his movies seem more alive than most even when his subject is focused on mortality.
As despondent a topic that death can be, it never pervades Only Angels Have Wings. A lesser film may inevitably dwell on such a topic, whereas Hawks’ film, with a tight script by Jules Furthman, tucks it away in a corner where it unconsciously plagues our thoughts. Despite the film being deeply embedded in tales of death and agony its avoidance of relying on it and Hawks’ subliminal persistence with it is a wonderful, beautiful paradox. Throughout cinema it always has been fascinating to see how characters cope with death. What makes Only Angels Have Wings stand out is that prior to 1939 not only did few films deal with the insufferable landscape that this topic provides but none were truly more fascinating in its attempt to study the overwhelming burden (and more pertinently the absence of it) one experiences when wounded by death.