Pick of the Week:
Only Angels Have Wings (Criterion)
Howard Hawks’ 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings has had an odd afterlife. Though one of the director’s best films — maybe the best, even factoring in His Girl Friday, Red River, and Rio Bravo, to name just a handful of his masterpieces — and a sizable hit in its day, it now tends to be a film fans of classic movies discover only once they get a little deeper into movies. It hasn’t been added to the National Film Registry. You won’t find it on the AFI 100 list. It’s not even close to the best-known film starring Cary Grant.
If nothing else, it’s the most Howard Hawksiest film ever made, filled with snappy patter, a combative central couple, characters bonded by a common goal, a makeshift family that forms around a profession, derring-do, and men who find every way to express their feelings except speaking them out loud. It’s also a great example of what Hawks acolyte Quentin Tarantino would call a “hang-out movie.” There’s a plot here, sure, but the pleasure comes from getting to spend time in its world and with the people who live in it.
Grant stars as Geoff Carter, chief of a makeshift airline charged with delivering mail out of the fictional South American port city of Barranca. This is not an easy task thanks to the dangerous ascents needed to clear the Andes Mountains and weather that usually offers pea soup-levels of visibility. Enter Bonnie (the great Jean Arthur), a chorus girl with a no-nonsense attitude who nonetheless finds herself falling for Geoff — and for the colorful, dramatic world of Barranca.
This is a movie in which every element works, from the ridiculously charming leads to the still-impressive aerial sequences, to the musical interludes, to a supporting cast stacked with familiar faces like Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy from It’s A Wonderful Life), future stars (it helped make Rita Hayworth), and the now-forgotten silent-era star Richard Barthelemess, who delivers a great performance as a man looking for one last chance at redemption. It has, in other words, everything. And maybe it’s for the best that it takes some digging to get to it. Those who find it know they’ve found one to treasure.
As usual, Criterion does right by the film, with a beautiful transfer and a nice selection of extras, including the film’s restaging as a radio drama (featuring much of the original cast), and a vintage interview with Hawks conducted by Peter Bogdanovich.