Only Angels Have Wings: ‘An abundance of effervescence and energy’

At 76 years young, Howard Hawks’s depiction of the ‘war of words’ between the sexes remains as pin-sharp as ever

Only Angels Have Wings turns 76 this month, but reaches across the decades with such an abundance of effervescence and energy, wit and charm, that every other new release looks tired and worn-out in comparison. It’s the movie that tilted Cary Grant into megastardom, introduced the world to Rita Hayworth and saw director Howard Hawks crystallise his unmistakable authorial imprimatur. Cahiers du Cinema considered it the living embodiment of its auteur theory and it laid the groundwork for a solid decade of classics.

On a single set that is somehow part control tower, part head office, part flophouse hotel and part riotous restaurant-honky tonk, on a remote South American airstrip, it’s a tale from the St-Exupéry-Charles Lindbergh glory days of pioneering aviators, exactly the kind of hard-bitten, soft-hearted macho men to whom Hawks – a friend of Hemingway – was always drawn. Grant is the boss and chief pilot, once wounded in love and now unable to trust another woman but happy to risk his own life flying mail across the Andes. Jean Arthur is the itinerant showgirl who shows up and falls in love with Grant just in time for the woman who ruined him (Hayworth) to turn up as well, now married to a disgraced pilot (Richard Barthelmess) who bailed out and left his navigator to die, and who now seeks any insane risk to avoid the label of coward.

All this should be – and often is – ridiculous. There’s Grant’s white gaucho-cum-pilot’s outfit, with bandoliers, gunbelts and a straw hat that’s a crime against haberdashery. Or the moment Arthur proves her own worth at the 30-minute mark by sitting in with the house band and belting out a wild jazz solo on the piano. What holds it all together is the sparkling dialogue, which ranges from American street demotic to the heights of pulp poetry. “He’s quoting from Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part One, I think...” says some entirely random toolroom mechanic at one point, a line that sits sweetly against Arthur’s can’t-fool-me diagnosis of Grant’s psychic ills: “Say, someone must have given you an awful beating once. What was her name?”

The dialogue is in service of Hawks’s conventional depiction of the never-ending war of words and wits between grown-up men and women. Between the men there is a silence that pulses with the love and respect the fliers feel for one another, particularly between Grant and his friend “the Kid” (played by Thomas Mitchell, who’d just aced the drunken doctor in Stagecoach). Among other things, Hawks was Hollywood’s first poet of professionalism (Raoul Walsh, Donald Siegel and Michael Mann are others), and the most serious question one of his men can ask of another is: “Is he any good?”

Hawks isn’t just “good”, he’s great, one of the greatest, and this is one of his most perfect works – evergreen, ever young.


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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