Howard Hawks’s films always seem to have a way of making me feel at home when watching them. He was often able to capture a camaraderie among actors that makes me want to spend time with them and get to know them. I’ve seen talk of films that are referred to as “Hang-Out Films”-----films that you watch to hang out with the characters in the film, meaning you like the characters so much that you want to spend time with them. I would also extend this to films in which the characters themselves do a lot of hanging out, or in which the plot of said film is centered around people talking a great deal and you just want to watch them and listen to them. Tarantino certainly has incorporated this vibe into many of his films, as has Richard Linklater among others. What is absolutely essential in this type of film is the dialogue. It has to snap and it has to ring true. Hawks was a terrific capturer and nurturer of cinematic dialogue, that which the viewer could watch and enjoy just listening to the actors and be entertained and moved by their interaction.
Only Angels Have Wings is a terrific example of Hawks’s abilities as a director. He’s able to take a basic plot and fill in the colorful characters that make us care. The story is set in Barranca in South America in the
Andes. Jean Arthur plays
Bonnie Lee who gets off a boat and meanders her way into meeting a few
Americans. They all end up at the Bar. She finds out that some of
these folks are pilots, who fly dangerous routes through the Andes to deliver and pick up mail. Cary Grant plays Geoff
Carter, who is the manager of the group of pilots and a rather ace pilot
himself. Bonnie and Geoff have a mutual attraction and she decides to hang
around the post for awhile. Geoff and his friend Kid (Thomas Mitchell) have
several wonderful scenes together talking piloting and life. A strange pilot
arrives later in the film with some personal baggage and a wife (Rita Hayworth)
who is Geoff’s ex-flame. It’s all a swirl of personal demons and triumphs, love
affairs and misunderstandings, and some rather suspenseful events regarding
flights over the Andes. What matters here, though, is the camaraderie and the dialogue.
There is terrific chemistry in the film from the ensemble cast. Everyone plays their part and each contributes essential pieces to the whole. Jean Arthur plays the plucky and resilient blonde, who sees right through Cary Grant’s character and challenges him to be a better person. Cary Grant plays the smart pilot, who’s been burned one too many times by flying and by women. Thomas Mitchell gives one of the finest performances of his career as Kid, an aging pilot with bad eyes. There’s a fantastic moment where he realizes he can’t see well enough to fly anymore. He stands facing away from Cary Grant, rubbing his cigarette on the edge of a cigarette tray for about 10 seconds, as he admits he can no longer fly. It’s a fantastically played scene by this veteran character actor. Richard Bartelmess strikes just the right note of mystery regarding his past. Rita Hayworth strains a bit in the emotional scenes, but does better in a moment where she’s drunk and Grant pours water over her head.
Hawks and Jules Furthman’s script is rich throughout. Each scene sparkles as you watch it and it’s a scene-to-scene kind of film. Every scene is whole and complete unto itself. You’re not necessarily waiting for some kind of pay-off or some big conclusion, but you simply revel in the joys of the moment throughout the running time. I think the best thing about the film is just watching the actors and listening to them. I could listen to these people talk all day and Hawks allows the actors time to interact. He doesn't rush anything and there is a relaxed vibe to the film, much like another great "hang-out" film of his, Rio Bravo (1959). Only Angels Have Wings is filled with plenty of chatting---moments where you really get to understand these people and that’s why this film works so well---because these characters are so well drawn. It’s hard to find any real flaws with the film. It’s one of Hawks’s best works and gets better with each viewing.