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.