The exotic lands of South America provide the location for one of the big adventure films of Hollywood’s most famous year (1939). Cary Grant as an adventure-seeking enigmatic airline pilot running mail into dangerous regions of an unnamed town in the Andes established his Hollywood star status as a true leading man, game for comedy, romance and adventure. Howard Hawks’ recurring themes of male comraderie and his knack for wordy rhythmic dialogue elevate this straight-ahead actioner into something memorable and resonant.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) dir. Howard Hawks
Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth
By Alan Bacchus
Cary Grant is in full movie-star mode from the opening introduction of this picture. His swagger competes with John Wayne’s classic turn in Ford’s Stagecoach made the same year, and the cool under pressure demeanor of Humphrey Bogart’s memorable pre-war noir/crime roles. We might even track his wide brim hat, saggy pistol at his hip and belt of bullets as an influencer to Indiana Jones’ character design.
But we first meet Grant’s character (Geoff Carter) through the eyes of Bonnie Lee (Arthur) a sultry blond American musician who has stopped over in Barranca South America, a port of calls for ‘banana boats’, and who falls in love with the freewheeling lifestyle of the pilots of Barranca airlines, owned and operated by Carter himself. While not top notch pilots, Barranca seems to be a refuge for rejects of other airlines, a hodgepodge of drunks, weirdoes and headcases united only by their love of high-risk flying. Without getting paid much the ragtag group of men, which include “Kid” Dabb, “Sparks” Reynolds, “Gent” Shelton, “Dutchy” Van Ruyter and “Tex” Gordon , fly around dangerous flying routes to deliver mail and other supplies throughout the region.
Hawks takes us through a week in the daily lives of these men and their high stakes missions of peril. Other than the awkward presence of Lee, disturbing the peace is the death of one of their mates after a risky flight through inclement weather and later the return of Bat McPherson, a cowardly traitor whose piloting failure saw one Carter’s former employees killed in a shameful act of betrayal. McPherson’s journey to redemption is so compelling it threatens to steal Carter and Lee’s scenes. There’s some plotting about a government contract at stake which could make the fledging airline solvent, but in hindsight it feels like script fodder for Hawks’ true desires to wring as much drama, romance and tension from Carter and Lee’s relationship and create energetic suspenseful action sequences.
The film’s aerial photography has been renowned since its release, and winning its own Oscar for best special effects. A combination of real location filming, process studio photography and model work create these sequences. With today’s eyes these sequences don’t the match fireworks of the character work built by Hawks, his actors and the screenwriter Jules Furthman. Lee just can’t understand the lack of empathy and mourning for the death of Joe, the young pilot who dies early on, nor can she understand the lack of commitment Carter gives to their coy relationship. “No looking ahead, no tomorrows, just today” is Carter’s mantra. But Lee tries her best to crack. But Grant, in top notch, enigmatic form will not budge.
The film’s most memorable scene is the finale, when Carter finally admits his love for Lee and is confronted to make a commitment to be with her, until another frantic call for help comes through the radio breaking up their climactic moment. As Carter breaks back into hero mode, he leaves Lee’s question un-answered leading to a delightfully ambiguous ending for the audience.
Only Angels Have Wings is available via the Criterion Collection.