With Only Angels Have Wings, it’s easy to see how Hawks’ stylish dialogue and filmmaking made him one of the key examples of the cinematic auteur. It’s rare to see characters and their relationships so effortless, with the sarcastic humour, overlapping dialogue, blocking of the actors and specific props all serving the actors to make their performances feel at once specifically formed and completely natural.
It of course helps when you have performers as charismatic as Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. The whole cast, including the major screen debut of Rita Hayworth, helps the film navigate its surprisingly complex emotional tightrope, particularly the extraordinary introduction to the island of Barranca which moves at once from an adventurous feel, to screwball comedy, to suspense, tragedy and ultimately a black pointed humour. The mix of Hawks’ trademark quips to regulars like Carey Grant with predominate silent movie stars actor like Richard Barthelmess serve the film’s relationship between human emotion and pragmatism, mechanised flight against nature and the hubris of men in an enclosed spaced. Hawks repeats the sounds of jet engines in ways that are at once liberating, frightening and a symbol of bizarre camaraderie.
There’s only one moment with a gun that felt like a shoehorned plot device, and after the first third in which Jean’s feminine point of view is essential in understanding this male environment it becomes increasingly difficult for the film to make excuses for her being in scenes. But the rest of the cast, particular Thomas Mitchell as the ironically named Kid, is so well established, and the vulnerability between the pilots so gradual, that you might not even notice.
Only Angels Have Wings is first Howard Hawks film, and I don’t intend for it to be my last. Also, if you’re a fan of obvious but endearing model planes, have I got a film for you!