In Only Angels Have Wings, director Howard Hawks spins his own experience as a flyer into the manna of pop mythology. Gruff, tormented, surprisingly effete Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is the manager/resident stud of Barranca Airways, a little airfield on an imaginary South American banana port that’s perpetually on the verge of going under. Geoff and his men navigate their rickety planes through the dangerous fog-swamped Andes, via an overhead that allows them to receive and deliver airmail. The particulars of this small country, or of Geoff’s profession, don’t matter. Hawks is interested in the airmail service as a metaphor for male courage and camaraderie and the various ways the two concepts nurture and even undermine one another. Geoff and his flyers, particularly his aging right-hand, The Kid (Thomas Mitchell), are vividly drawn as a society unto themselves, with a series of internal codes and references that Hawks sketches with his characteristically exhilarating and misleadingly glancing sense of craftsmanship.
Diversion and profundity reside, and co-mingle, in the commanding subtlety of Hawks’s distinctive, idiosyncratic aesthetic. The filmmaker’s images often suggest haikus in their poetic succinctness, as Hawks was a master of resonant group blocking that boiled text and subtext down to a single pointed, fat-free shot. (There’s a scene early on in Only Angels Have Wings in which the bonding of two characters is narratively accomplished through a huge one-shot party sequence that revels in the bonhomie of musicians, partiers, and pilots as they slug back bourbon and play away at a show tune.) Most pivotally, Hawks was also a master of linking images, editing within the camera. A four- or five-shot between an adventurer and his rowdy buddies can segue with stunning ease into a two-shot of the hero and the woman who might be causing all the narrative trouble, and then into a three-shot, and back into a four-shot again—all in a matter of seconds. This technique would prove to be of immense value to Steven Spielberg, among many others.
But Hawks doesn’t prime one to discern his shot list, as other layers of behavioral and verbal scaffolding are built atop it. While the characters are exiting and entering sets, often on a singular location that comes to spiritually define the film in question, they trade dialogue that’s teeming with in-jokes and innuendos, hopscotching with deliberately tossed-off asides that casually establish the density of the narrative’s world. The dialogue is complemented, and heightened, by Hawks’s ease with actors, affording the latter the freedom to forge telling bits of gestural business that physicalize theme and emotion.
Given this context, it’s unsurprising that Hawks is a master of the workplace comedy, which thrives on the rapidly established contrast of varying personalities, and which is a film genre that he essentially invented. Every Hawks film—yes, even Scarface, as Robin Wood memorably proposed—is a workplace comedy, with the wide variety of other genres that the filmmaker tackled over his career serving as flavorful glosses on this bedrock core. In Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks weds this form with his other favorite genre, the adventure, forging a tapestry of romantic longing and daring.
The film pivots, as most Hawks films do, on women who enter a male dimension and throw off its gender-subjugated biorhythms. Particularly Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a performer from Brooklyn whom Geoff initially writes off as a “chorus girl” with a strain of contempt that’s illustrative of Grant’s understated sense of characterization. After dominating much of the first act, Bonnie comes to be largely unseen, yet unforgotten: Her marginalization is of paramount importance to Hawks, particularly in a heartbreaking scene in which she asks the Kid why she can’t be allowed to love Geoff the way that he does. Bonnie is calling into question the fundamental hierarchy of inter-male trust.
Only Angels Have Wings doesn’t go in for the maudlin pathos of the overrated, similarly themed Casablanca. It’s a tough and stylized study of the gap that exists between genders, though Hawks, a worldly “man’s man” of the firmest stock, doesn’t beg us to applaud his sensitivity, pitying the characters in the process. Hawks expresses the film’s neuroses within the exciting flying scenes, which suggest masturbation (men display their prowess up in the air, alone, isolated), within the memorable setting, an elaborate fusion of bar, post office, restaurant, and unofficial town hall, and, of course, with the endlessly inventive dialogue, courtesy of the cast and screenwriter Jules Furthman. The men in this film yearn for women, yet resent and fear their presence, while the women play into the caricatures that the men have invented for them. The ending is one of Hawks’s greatest and most poignant: A man reaches out to a woman by pretending to be a man who doesn’t need women.
The Criterion Company’s 4K refurbishing of the image emphasizes the suggestive depth of Joseph Walker’s cinematography. Shadows are deep and sharply drawn, punctuated by shards of bright light. The landscapes are gorgeously pristine, somehow without casting unforgivingly modern clarity on the special effects, which involve miniatures and mattes that have aged phenomenally well (particularly a cliff matte). The film’s greatest effects, however, are the actors’ faces, and they’re often highlighted in detailed, well-textured close-ups. The soundtrack includes no score, and, instead, is a symphony of densely mixed drink pouring, airplane noises, ambient talking, diegetic music-playing, and people weeping against classically manufactured Hollywood rain. The film has never before sounded so nuanced or multi-planed.
The audio excerpts of Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Howard Hawks, conducted in 1972, is the biggest "get" of this package. Bogdanovich asks the veteran about lighting choices, actors’ gestures, dramatic sound-mixing flourishes, and so on, quietly coaxing Hawks to describe his general aesthetic, seemingly without making a fuss of it. Hawks’s gracefully drawling vocal rhythms say as much about his artistic temperament as any of his frequently astute observations. One wishes that more of this interview were included on the disc, or that a Bogdanovich audio commentary could have been recorded. One also wishes that David Thomson’s new interview was longer, as the critic suggests a variety of promising approaches to reading the film within his few minutes of screen time. "Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies," a new featurette with film scholars Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, sorts out the filmmaker’s technical achievements, reminding audiences that their idea of how planes sound is largely established by film grammar, on which Hawks was highly influential. Rounding out this good but somewhat slight package is a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1939, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by Michael Sragow.
Howard Hawks’s resonant, prescient, entertaining, enormously influential pre-war adventure receives the A/V refurbishing it richly deserves, though the extras fall a little short of greatness.