Only Angels Have Wings


Reviewed by: Luke Shaw

Only Angels Have Wings
"A brilliant exercise in plotting, drama, comedy and action with a fitting denouement."

It’s probably worth prefacing this review with the fact that I am not au fait with Howard Hawks films. I have seen a handful, but can’t claim to know his oeuvre in any depth. It’s always a treat to be given an excuse, and a helpful nudge, to go back to a perceived classic and see what was considered a hit in the golden age of Hollywood. Thanks to Park Circus’ 4k restoration, I’ve been given the push I needed, and this is a film I’d encourage others to take the plunge with.

Inspired by Hawks' observations of real plane accidents and set in the fictional tropical town of Barranca, Only Angels Have Wings is about the exploits of a private airmail company that flies mail over the Andes. Said company is helmed by the all-business Geoff Carter, played by the inimitable Cary Grant in an ostentatious white linen suit and a preposterous straw hat and bandolier. Despite his cowboy on vacation stylings, Grant plays Carter to perfection, spitting out cocky one liners and sarcastic affection to all and sundry. This was during a period that was noted as Grant’s heyday, and it’s easy to see why he was such a certified star. He simply oozes charisma, and interactions between him and others are whip smart.

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That said, it isn’t simply Grant’s vehicle. Thomas Mitchell’s Kid Dabb is a grounded veteran who plays the role of the crew’s adoptive father, Jean Arthur plays a wayward chorus girl who becomes romantically involved with the stalwart Carter, and the luminous Rita Hayworth makes her first experience on screen as Judy McPherson. Judy is Carter’s old flame, and is married to Bat McPherson, a pilot known for a cowardly and selfish parachute jump which caused the death of one of Carter’s pilots' brother. Friction and verbal sparring abound, and bar a slightly dubious accent from Duchy, the dialogue is excellent. There’s a slight stilted quality at times which is symptomatic of the era, but other than that slight blemish it’s refreshingly sharp and witty despite its age, and modern star vehicles could do well to learn from the past, with the female cast giving as good as they get and being far more than eye candy.

Beyond the actors' brilliant performances, the economy of the set work is to be admired too, with minimal locations conveying a great sense of place. A special tip of the hat to Tex’s mountain outpost set, a sterling effort that helps add a sense of spatial context to the flying sequences. The model work involved in these is the only real relic here. The stunt flying shown is thrilling and orchestrated wonderfully with the on the ground sequences. Radio exchanges between pilots and control are evocative and tense in a way that belies the economy of a pre-CGI world.

After 75 years, it’s still a brilliant exercise in plotting, drama, comedy and action with a fitting denouement. It’s the perfect Hollywood recipe executed by a director whose prowess hasn't been overshadowed by decades of iteration on the classic model. There are plenty of lessons in pathos and direction that modern Hollywood could take inspiration from, and Only Angels Have Wings vehemently proves that the oldies are still absolutely golden.

Reviewed on: 14 May 2015
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An Andean adventure sees a bold young woman trying to cut it as a freight pilot and falling for her boss.
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Director: Howard Hawks

Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth

Year: 1939

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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