Sunday, January 18, 2009

Films I Love #15: Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939)


[To continue with the theme of the currently running Early Hawks blog-a-thon, the Films I Love series this week spotlights one of my favorite slightly later Hawks films.]

Only Angels Have Wings is one of Howard Hawks' finest films, a tribute to a tight-knit community of men living under the constant specter of death, and a woman who tries to forge herself into the kind of person who could love one of these death-courting daredevils. It is a quintessential Hawks subject, filmed in an atmosphere where cigarette smoke and the ever-present fog curl together, a shroud hanging in the black air of a South American town where a company of fliers must risk death daily in order to deliver the mail across treacherous mountain ranges. The film is one of Hawks' most gorgeously shot, with dark, moody images that capture the romance and bravado of aviation. Cary Grant is Geoff Carter, the head pilot of this crew, bearing a heavy burden as night after night he sends his men up in bad weather or good, taking the riskiest missions for himself when he knows no one else could pull it off. Jean Arthur is Bonnie Lee, the woman who arrives on a steamship for a layover and finds herself falling for Geoff, even though she knows he resists sharing his dangerous life with any woman. The film has a quiet, melancholy tone despite its occasional bursts of wisecracking Hawksian dialogue, and the fiery plane crashes that punctuate the film give it an uneasy, unstable quality, as though anyone could be snuffed out suddenly at any moment. It's a haunting masterpiece, a fog-shrouded romance — not just between a man and a woman, but between a man and his work, and perhaps most importantly, a grim romance between man and death.

11 comments:

filmdr said...

Thanks for including one of my favorite films. I was bothered by Kid's sentimental death scene (Kid's problems with his vision is reminiscent of Donald Pleasence going blind in The Great Escape), but the pilots have a nonchalance that makes them appealing, and Cary Grant has one of his best roles. I'm surprised that this film isn't mentioned more in best-of lists.

Sam Juliano said...

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS did reasonably well in our 30's poll, and surely by any barometer of measurement it must rank as of the director's finest, and one that often (as is the case here with Ed) frequently mentional as a "personal favorite." Indeed, my site colleague Allan Fish notes in his own review of the film last month at our site during our 1930's poll:
"Howard Hawks directed many masterpieces, but I’ll be darned if this isn’t my favourite of them. It may not be the best of his films, but it’s the most typical, a truly uplifting (in more ways than one) tale of camaraderie in the toughest of environments, a tale of men loving, losing and drinking their way through life taking each minute as it comes. Quite simply it’s the sort of film that Alexandre Dumas would have made if he had been a director in the 30's."

Of course Mr. Howard your own review (as well as this entire extraordinary series) is on the highest level, and perhaps the most fecund observation of all is in your closing:
"It's a haunting masterpiece, a fog-shrouded romance — not just between a man and a woman, but between a man and his work, and perhaps most importantly, a grim romance between man and death."
While most won't place Hawks with Welles or Ford, or even Capra and Sturges, truth is no American director offers his versatility, with triumphs in virtually all major film genres.

(Hello Film Dr.! I am not surprised at what you say either!)

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Sam: I'd definitely place Hawks not only with any of the directors you name there, but quite possibly above them, at least in terms of my own personal pantheon. And a big part of that is exactly what you say, his ability to approach pretty much any genre and imprint it with his subtle but nevertheless unmistakable signature. Even his early work, as I've been exploring it this week, though often rough and uneven compared to his later masterpieces, has yielded up some unexpected treasures.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks for the great response to me Ed! Well, Allan Fish completely agrees with you on Hawks (possibly) reigning supreme among American directors, and I am hard-pressed to contest it as well. That's exciting about the early work yielding some treasures!

Princess Fire and Music said...

I've already seen this twice, but I'd like to watch it again sometime soon. It's a great movie, and Cary Grant was wonderful in it.

Jon Hastings said...

I think it's probably easier to make the case for Welles' and/or Ford's greatness: If you're trying to show someone why Welles and Ford's movies are so great, there's usually something fairly obvious that you can point to - a bravura sequence in Welles, a breathtaking image in Ford. What makes Hawks' movies great though has more to do with the little ways he makes everything fit together - the editing rhythms, the different levels of performance and realism, the freedom given to the performers, the celebration of community which reflects the working methods of the cast & crew.

Anyway - very nice post, Ed. Depending on the day, this is also my favorite Hawks film ;).

Sam Juliano said...

"What makes Hawks' movies great though has more to do with the little ways he makes everything fit together - the editing rhythms, the different levels of performance and realism, the freedom given to the performers, the celebration of community which reflects the working methods of the cast & crew."

That was a brilliant comment there Jon Hastings.

Ed Howard said...

Jon, that's a great comment indeed. Hawks is all too easy to overlook in favor of flashier directors whose genius is easier to pinpoint. The brilliance of Hawks tends to be the brilliance of the picture as a whole, rather than anything you can isolate in a shot or two as examples. Even the stylistic continuities in Hawks' work -- his love of crowded frames, his head-on static group compositions -- tend to be very subtle and un-showy. He's no less great for this subtlety, of course; if anything, it makes me treasure him even more.

Anonymous said...

The eye-test scene in Wings is a particular favorite of mine. It is a brief but complex and deeply affecting riff on the key Hawksean themes of friendship and professionalism.

Here’s a question. What do you (and other readers) make of the scene in which Geoff “punishes” Judy MacPherson for her disloyalty to Kilgallen? With a different director I think we would be left with a fairly standard (and odious) patriarchal enforcement through physical violence of male power. But given a) the (relative) complexity of Hawks’s depiction of the role of women in predominantly male communities (the “Hawksean woman”); b) Hawks’s insistence that both men and women be held to the same “high” standards; and c) the physical punishment (even death) that the men in the film receive for “not being good enough,” I have come to regard the scene as perhaps the most typical example of the rough egalitarianism women can expect within the Hawksean friendship-families. I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of setting-up the question, but I do think the scene is a very interesting vantage point on the entire “Hawksean woman” issue. (Perhaps I'm making far too big of a deal out of a few pitchers of water being poured on someone!)

And as so many have already said: Great blog!

Ed Howard said...

Anon: That's an interesting analysis of what's going on in that scene, and in Hawks' treatment of women in general. Hawks seems to have some disdain for -- or simply impatience with -- traditionally feminine attributes and characteristics. He tends to judge women by the same standards by which he judges men: how tough they are, how well they hold up under pressure, how clever and quick-witted they are, how loyal, how brave, and more than anything else, how in control of their emotions. This last is a fairly consistent theme in his work: the necessity of restraint and understatement in emotional expression. This applies to his aesthetic as a director, his favored types of stories, and to the qualities of the characters and people he admired.

Whether Hawks' insistence that women measure up as honorary men is "egalitarian" because he's holding men and women to the same standards, or sexist because he's dismissing uniquely or primarily feminine qualities, is largely a matter of perspective. I think it's a little of each, myself, but mostly I can't help but admire how vibrant and individualistic most of Hawks' women are.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for spotlighting one of my favorite films. I think the film is a bit problematic in its plot twists (does anyone REALLY believe that Bonnie would pull a gun on Geoff? Do we even need the Rita Hayworth character?), but whatever it lacks in the at times flimsy script is more than made up for by Howard Hawks' passionate direction and love and admiration for these stoic professionals; the "Who's Joe?" scene is the apogee of examining stoic masculinity of people always brushing with death. I'm sure I wouldn't be far out of the question to call it the masculinity maestro Hawks' most personal film, considering that his own beloved brother died in a plane crash. It's long been a big favorite of mine and I place it with HIS GIRL FRIDAY as one of the best films Howard Hawks ever made.

It's also a great role for Cary Grant, who I think is long underrated as an actor. Before he was the Hitchcock hero in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, he was the best comedian Hollywood had to offer, and still holds that honor in my book. In 1939 he made two dramas to show that he was more than a leading man with impossibly perfect comedic timing--there is John Cromwell's maudlin melodrama IN NAME ONLY, which is really only notable for being the only time when Grant got to star alongside Carole Lombard, the best comedienne Hollywood had to offer (and still holds that honor in my book), but the film makes one wish someone had grabbed the two stars and made a comedy. This is by far the superior of the two, and Grant seems to understand the bitterness of a man who's afraid to put his heart out there and risk losing it. Grant, underneath the tailored suits and the perfectly sculpted face, was an insecure man with emotional problems himself, the deepest cut concerning his growing up under the impression that his mother had died; in actuality, Grant's mother was sent to a mental institution when she had a nervous breakdown; she probably didn't even need to be there. It was only in the early 1930s when Grant's father died did Grant find out the truth about his mother. And it's this insecurity that plagued his relationships and marriages. His role in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is very much a preview of the stoic vulnerability Hitchcock would bring out in NOTORIOUS, one of the two or three best performances Grant would give, and his Geoff Carter the most complex and commanding personifications Grant had given up to that point, playing a seemingly hard-shelled man who lets his emotions out in little bursts, including smashing a chair when forced to ground his best friend. He's also playing a man who refuses to let his heart out, who can never tell Bonnie that he loves her, instead cryptically using a two-headed coin to get her to stay.