Criterion Review: Only Angels Have Wings

"A man can die but once; we owe God a death." Shakespeare's Henry IV provides the basis for the poetic expression of the fatalistic storm ever brewing on the horizon of Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings. "If we pay it today, we don't owe it tomorrow," goes the typically practical Hawksian suffix. Unlike the actual meteorological ructions that plague the pilots flying out of the fictional South American town of Barranca, that ultimate tempest is one they prefer to leave unmentioned. "Who's Joe?" asks a chorus of airmen in the bar when Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a showgirl passing through, brings up a young buck that just perished in a crash.

If they talk about it, or think about it, then how can they carry on risking their lives time and again on perilous mail runs? And how can their chief, Geoff Carter (the unmistakable Cary Grant) keep sending them out? After all, a man's only as good as his job. If Carter can't manage his boys - who affectionately call him "Pop" - and they can't deliver the mail, then expiration seems just as likely for all of them, though with somewhat less excitement. Their high-flying feats are the stuff of boys own adventures, but Hawks' intention is not to mythologise. Bonnie's only been on terra firma for a matter of hours, stopping over on her way back to America, when the hull is punctured.

And still, she finds herself unconditionally falling for the brusque Geoff, though their romance is complicated by the arrival of his old fiance, Judy (Rita Hayworth) - the woman to whom he attributes his emotional reticence. In reality, though, that cruel mistress is the one thousands of feet in the air and it's also the siren that calls Judy's new husband, and Geoff's new flyer. A past transgression has made a name for him amongst jobbing pilots, and cast him as a professional pariah. However, he bears that burden stoically, never confiding in his wife and continuing to take to the skies. Of course, there is point at which the facade will slip and the film probes this area with precision.

The local bar may be full of laughter and merriment in the wake of the early death, but just hours later a sombre, melancholic mood has descended as quickly as the crates rattling onto the soggy landing strip. Grant is absolutely superb as the impassive Geoff, adept at being unfeeling and ever on the wing, but even he has those he can't help but mourn - try as he might. Gravity is destined to catch up with them all in the end, but whilst they're airborne Only Angels Have Wings soars, not least during its incredibly taut bad-weather flights which pound with the slow thudding tension of the depth-charges in Das Boot. Like a rhythmic heartbeat sounding for the masculine flock that dare not acknowledge their own.

Only Angels Have Wings is released on blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection in the UK.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson


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