Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Directed by Howard Hawks; Written by Jules Furthman

Before Google digitized every inch of the globe and Instagram squared every locale away inside of a hashtag, people didn’t know what was over the next hill. Distant lands were mysterious and to find them out meant adventure; to experience them meant revelation in a time where coffee shops and department stores hadn’t yet homogenized life. 

Only Angels Have Wings, Howard Hawks’ absolute pearl of an action-adventure, gets it. Opening scene: a freight ship glides out of the fog and sidles up next to a nighttime loading dock still bustling with life: crates, burlap sacks, banana clusters, livestock in cages makes the ground come alive, its sights and sounds pressing. Bonny Lee from Brooklyn (Jean Arthur, animated with wanderlust) steps off the boat, face turned up at the mystery that hides behind the veil of night. 

She makes her way to a bar, where a Dutch expat serves steak and whiskey, his rosacea-swollen nose proof that the water’s no good here. Rubbing elbows with her are what turns out to be bush pilots, daredevils who brave the wild air and connect civilization by its first thin thread, flying mail or whatever will fit in their holds, landing on 100-yard long landing strips and darting through snowy mountains passes in planes little more than sheets of metal held together by glue, spit and a mechanic’s know-how. What a way to live.  

I write this sitting at my kitchen table. I used to sit in an office chair with a view of other paperpushing wastrels with soft hands and minds. To Only Angels Have Wings is to be wrapped in a fantasy, to watch impossible men dare every day and whose exploits are worth listening to. They made death defiance their job and brought people’s letters along. I had five back-to-back meetings, and watched my emails accumulate.  

Of course these men also look like Cary Grant, glittering here like a black diamond as air freight company chief Geoff Carter, a pilot ace who talks fast with hard words, and who only takes to the skies when he deems it unsafe for anybody else to do so. A man who won’t let no woman’s love and concern for his well-being stop him from taking to the skies. 

He and his fellow pilots are cut from complicated cloth, believing the best way to keep death at bay is to not acknowledge it. Should a brother die wrapped in flaming metal, grief counselling and commiserating lasts for however long it takes to toast and throw back a shot of bourbon. Like the jungle with its life-indifferent laws just on the other side of the landing strip, their bar-cum-break room refuses pity nor contemplation of life’s fragility. Brace yourself for difficult men and their inscrutable emotional lives. 

Hawks even takes the viewer up there in the clouds with some stunning aerial photography that’s impressive for a film of any age, let alone one boasting 81 years. Shots of planes, small and defiant, as they hang among snow-capped mountains justify the pilots’ rush to get back up once they’re on the ground, and if you think Interstellar’s docking-scene makes Christopher Nolan the master of air-crobatic suspense, I’m here to tell you he’s riding Hawks’ tailwind and taking cues from an early sequence wherein a pilot must try to land in dense fog with only the eyes and ears of his colleagues on the ground to guide him.

Like the expert navigators on the screen, Hawks proves himself a master of spectacle, dramatic interplay, and the fundamentals of filmmaking, taking Jules Furthmann’s splendid script and creating something more transformative and escapist than most sci-fi produced today. It’s also an early great example of Cary Grant’s talents both comedic and dramatic, perhaps unfairly underappreciated wedged in between Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) as early defining roles of his.

The same can be said of Only Angels Have Wings, sharing its release year with Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, and Stagecoach, all time greats of Hollywood cinema and their respective genres, but it’s clear Hawks’ wonderwork deserves to be named alongside them going forward. 

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