Saturday 25 July 2020

Movie Review: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

A drama and romance, Only Angels Have Wings explores the psyche of men intent on conquering the dual risks of gravity and jagged terrain.

The setting is the remote port city of Barranca, in South America at the base of the Andes. Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) runs a ramshackle airline flying mail, supplies and rescue missions through mountain passes. The elderly Dutchy (Sig Ruman) owns the airline but is close to bankruptcy. Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) is Geoff's loyal second-in-command and one of the pilots. 

Entertainer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) arrives in Barranca and is attracted to Geoff, although he is clear about never wanting to be constrained by a woman. Bonnie witnesses one of the pilots crashing in heavy fog, and is shocked at Geoff's casual attitude towards tragedy. Nevertheless, she decides to hang around.

An experienced pilot calling himself MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) arrives with his wife Judy (Rita Hayworth), seeking a job. Judy has a romantic history with Carter, and MacPherson carries a suspect reputation due to an incident involving Kid's brother. Carter gives him a chance and MacPherson proves his flying skills. With financial pressure increasing to fly more missions, Carter and his men accept higher risks.

It takes a special breed of men to settle at the limits of civilization and fly suspect equipment through soaring mountains, and the women attracted to such men are also made of stern stuff. In Only Angels Have Wings, director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Jules Furthman create an unforgettably scrappy edge-of-the-world ambience enlivened by compelling characters dancing with death. Personal and financial desperation mix with brazen courage and adrenaline, and several memorable flying sequences celebrate the early days of commercial cargo aviation.

The film notably refuses to conform to any genre. Starting with the foundation of a frontier western mentality (all the pilots wear guns), Hawks crafts a unique character-centred drama with one-sided romantic entanglements, a cryptic sense of humour, a couple of organic musical numbers, breathtaking aviation scenes and no shortage of tragedy, injury and interpersonal tension. 

The unifying theme is a sense of close-knit family nourished by camaraderie forged by like-minded adventurous but interchangeable men. While they each have limits, none have the patience or inclination to grieve. The meagre belongings of the deceased are unceremoniously shared, and after a few songs are belted out focus quickly shifts to finding a replacement.

Cary Grant's Carter stands tall as a risk-taking leader, quick to bark out orders and push back on emotions. Full of prickly self-confidence, he leads by example and never hesitates to speak his mind to the men and women in his life. Nor does he care should anyone pack up and leave because of his forthright words - in fact, he frequently encourages them to do so, Barranca being no place for unsure personalities.

He is surrounded by colourful characters with their own stories. The doddering Dutchy is buckling under financial pressure and a life lived watching others die, while Carter's sidekick Kid is approaching his best-before flying date and now has to confront the man responsible for his brother's demise. And Richard Barthelmess as MacPherson emerges with the most interesting side-quest as a pilot quietly gritting his teeth to seek redemption in perilous skies.

Only Angels Have Wings bluntly advocates for women to accept men as they are or leave them alone. With Jean Arthur at her inquisitive best, Bonnie has to decide if loving Carter is worth daily heartstopping drama, while Rita Hayworth's Judy, having bounced from Carter to MacPherson, is clearly attracted to the thrill, although she may not admit it. Flying with the angels is treacherous, but also euphoric.

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