"Things happen awful fast around here!" exclaims Jean Arthur, after an unceremonious smooch from curmudgeonly wooer Cary Grant. It's a great moment - not only for being one of the few pieces of Hawksian snappy patter in a largely more serious film, but equally a piece of dialogue that serves not only microcosmic for Only Angels Have Wings, but Hawks' machine-gun-bantering career as a whole. Here, the breakneck pace bypasses the zippy frivolity of Bringing Up Baby and the Machiavellian mania of His Girl Friday, and lends itself to something altogether more grim. Only Angels Have Wings may not be a war movie, but it's undeniably coloured by the political climate and distant rumblings from Germany of its time. It's a film driven by acrid fatalism, yet seasoned with peppy resilience, both stagnantly stationary yet driven by furious momentum. And the drama and energy generated by its duelling influences are both infectious and superb.
In the aviation outpost of Barranca, cheating death is always only a phone call away, as the ominously omnipresent drone of background planes reminds us. Then, enter the players. We start with innocent enough flirty repartee, as Arthur is intoxicated with the fumes of adventure and derring-do of her pilot pursuers. Then, as suddenly as it is matter-of-fact, one of our cheery protagonists is killed - a bad crop of weather turned botched landing. And the comrades of the departed sing a raucously mocking song as they pick up and send his replacement out before his crash fumes have dissipated. And we wait for a punchline to come, to defuse and save the situation, and code it as safe and all in good fun. And it never comes.
Are these men, formerly charming and debonair, secretly sadistic and cruel? No - they've simply been ground down by too much death to react any differently. And this heady realism, and the grim humour it spawns, is what helps Hawks' drama soar above (ha) the heads of its fellow flyboy films. Hawks doesn't valourize his pilots with cloying heroism: he drags them through the muck - literal and emotional - and paints them with such a belligerently unwavering code of honour (as their peer bullying dynamics when introduced to one whose self-preservation cost the life of his mechanic demonstrates) that they're not heroic so much as simply standing. But, courtesy of his characteristic overlapping dialogue (employed with more restraint here) and flair for vivid, colourful ensemble characterizations, we see the cracks and misty eyes behind their devil-may-care gregariousness. And it's hard to imagine a more magnetically compelling human drama for it.
It helps that the film is gorgeously shot, melding classical grandeur with a noir murkiness, as valiant pilots, striding towards their aerial steeds, are besieged by shadowy torrential rain, mud, and blood. The impressively textured sets add to the film's rustic grandeur, as do the spectacular aviation sequences and aerial scenery shots (again, had the U.S. entered the War at this junction, it's impossible not to imagine such sequences being twisted into enlistment propaganda, a-la Top Gun). At two hours in length, the film isn't as lean and concise as it could be, though this length does allow for considerable immersion into the world of the pilots, as if rapt attention will help them cling to life. Similarly, the intertwining love subplots, particularly Arthur's lovesick pining amidst this world of fast-living, toe the line of being Classical Hollywood plot devices of convenience (the accidental gunshot is really pushing it), though this slightest breach of realism is only a mite bothersome.
Still, Arthur's careful performance sells it all beautifully, undercutting her playful banter with an undercurrent of acidic self-loathing. She may not act like the quintessentially spunky, take-charge, sexually aggressive 'Hawksian woman' (as was legendarily to his chagrin), but she's certainly kicking herself for it, and enjoys her nimble wordplay too mirthfully not to enormously take to. Similarly, Cary Grant at his surliest is still infinitely charismatic (albeit somewhat wolfish), and he's on top form here. Guarding himself against the hardships and horrors of his profession with an armour of sarcasm, like a fast-talking Rick Blaine from Casablanca, he metaphorizes the pilot experience by refusing to carry a match, but plays it as a surprisingly tender trope, which makes his rakish commander a lot easier to warm to. Richard Barthelmess gives a tremendously nuanced performance as the ashamed pilot who left his mechanic to die, his craggy gruffness perfectly etching out self-loathing yet self-preservation on his face, while Rita Hayworth is impressive indeed for holding her own sparring with Cary Grant in her first major cinematic role. It's a Wonderful Life's Thomas Mitchell is nearly unrecognizable here as aging but still twinkling pilot 'Kid', while Sig Ruman demonstrates consistently pitch-perfect comedic timing as the beleaguered yet lovable owner of the aviation company.
Only Angels Have Wings is a top-notch, classy affair, as Hawks' airtight, bravado directorial work and the cast's stellar performances help keep grim emotional realism aloft with spirited, thrilling storytelling. Exhibiting taut, magnetically thrilling storytelling far ahead of its time, the film is a prime example of Classical Hollywood with which to charm the acquainted and lure in the uninitiated. Those on the fence should be sure to call heads with Kid's lucky coin when deciding whether or not to check it out. In so many ways, this film has wings.
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