Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) - Directed by Howard Hawks

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.


R. D. Finch said...

Jon, some terrific observations here about Howard Hawks's films, especially his emphasis on characters--he made male camaraderie seem so convincing and natural--and the way each scene seems complete and fully developed. He had a great way of balancing intensity and casualness in his movies. This film has my favorite non-comedy performance by Cary Grant, the only one I've seen where he seems as relaxed as he does in his lighter roles. I'm a huge fan of Jean Arthur too, who like Grant I think of as mainly a comic actor. But Hawks gets a wonderful performance in a more serious vein from her too. She and Grant have great romantic chemistry. It's a shame they didn't work together more often.

Jon said...

R.D., you bring up some great insights that I didn't quite pick up on. Yes Cary Grant gives one of his best non-comedy roles, and there aren't many of those. Even North By Northwest has some humor to it. I like what you say here about male camaraderie. I hadn't pinpointed that but now that you mention it, this comes up in many films of Hawks. I LOVE Jean Arthur! She is always rather tremendous and she's so unorthodox IMO.

Sam Juliano said...

To many it is Hawks' masterpiece, but even for those who favor a few others in his iconic output it is still upper tier, and one of the tried and true American classics. Typically you get to the bottom of it's long-lasting appeal and artistry, and it really comes down to the master orchestrator and an extraordinary visual design that offers up a definitive showcase of 'peril.' Th plot does recall RED DUST, but the vital component as you (and R.D.) rightly note is Hawks's direction of actors, especially Grant and Arthur, who are unforgettable. This could well have been a claustrophobic affair, but Hawks' imaginative treatment won'y allow it.

Jon said...

Thanks Sam for your comment. I do well know that there are many who consider this to be Hawks' best film and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. I'm not even quite sure which is my personal favorite. There are too many gems it's hard to pick just one.

Judy said...

Jon, really enjoyed your review, andthis is one of my very favourites by Hawks - a film I can never get enough of. I must agree that it is one of Grant's best non-comedy roles - though he does have some sort-of comic moments, like his constant requests for matches, which start off funny and become increasingly poignant. I also love Grant in Hitchcock's 'Notorious', and there is a nice line in David Thomson's book 'Have You Seen?' where he refers to "an unyielding dark drive in Grant that only Hitch and Hawks recognised". Also agree that both Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur are excellent - I've been watching quite a bit of both of their work recently and am increasingly impressed by their versatility.

Hawks' slightly earlier 'Ceiling Zero' is very similar to 'Only Angels Have Wings' and another really good film, with an unusually sexy role for James Cagney, but sadly it isn't on DVD.

Jon said...


Wow fantastic comment. I like what you offer here on that book regarding Grant and how Hitch and Hawks tapped into that dark drive. Fascinating....I should find that book it sounds like I would like it. Glad to hear it's one of your favorite Hawks films. Mine too. Yeah Mitchell and Arthur are always excellent it seems. I have never seen Ceiling Zero! Sounds like an interesting precursor and would love to see it. Thanks Judy!