Only Angels Have Wings

Directed by Howard Hawks.
With Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess.
USA, 1939, DCP, black & white, 121 min.
DCP source: Sony Pictures

Jollity and death exist on a precarious seesaw throughout Only Angels Have Wings, a quintessential mid-career Hawks film about male commercial pilots operating in a remote alpine outpost in South America. Two worlds govern the film: there is the idyllic flying station, a bunkhouse-cum-saloon where the men carouse in between missions, and then there is the treacherous route through the mountains, where storm clouds constantly circle and planes go to die. Hawks delineates both masterfully through sound design, favoring brisk overlapping banter and near-constant barroom music in the station while letting the nerve-wracking drone of wind, rain and plane engines dominate the missions—a soundscape that gradually intrudes on the merriment as the film presses on. Geoff (Cary Grant) is the headstrong leader of the ever-dwindling crew, a stoic man who has learned to accept death with a straight face and an ace pilot who volunteers for the most dangerous trips himself. Still, what unites these daredevils is a passion for their death-defying craft, and much of the film revels in the pockets of joy found amidst lingering grief. In acquainting the viewer with this unstable existence, Hawks offers Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) as an audience surrogate, a curious traveler who must come to grips with the wearying transience of the pilots’ lifestyle in order to win Geoff’s affection.

Part of film series

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The Complete Howard Hawks

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