Monday, February 7, 2011

Only Angels Have Wings

The rousing, boisterous opening of Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings is misleading in its jubilation, the shots of a bustling Latin harbor giving the impression of adventures to come. But the music fades out, and the peppy opening proves merely to be the setup to a decrescendo that lasts the rest of the film. With its romantic title and setting among pilots in hazardous terrain, Only Angels Have Wings seems the film that should be a classic melodrama. Instead, it communicates a deep, affecting melancholy, and also a keen sense of gallows humor that parlays the screwball credentials of its stars into something with more kick.

Off the boat sailing into the Andes port town of Barranca strides Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a piano-playing chanteuse, so confidently and forcefully that a fresh sailor winds up with a face looking as if a puma swatted it (hilariously, he acts like a cowed spouse, blaming his swollen and scratched eye on falling into a doorknob). Two American airmen, gobsmacked by the sight of this blond beauty in the middle of the teeming harbor, nearly fall over themselves trying to win her attention. She prepares to box them as well, until she recognizes their accents and joyously tags along with them, thrilled "to hear someone talking in something that doesn't sound like Pig Latin." They take her back to their home base -- a building that combines elements of a general store, bar/restaurant and air delivery service -- where they attempt to ply her with American luxuries such as steak. The place is run by Dutchy (Sig Ruman), named for his national origin, and his presence creates a marvelously Hawksian microcosm where different ethnicities casually rub against each other without comment, save for Bonnie's initial spat of racism, but then she is cast as the outsider even among the Americans.

The two men behave as if college lads on vacation, forgetting all their duties and sporting over the woman right in front of her. With Dutchy chuckling good-naturedly in the background as his employees cost him time and money, the atmosphere shifts fully from the confusing bustle of the harbor to a lively but homely setting, a place where all the various people populating this port town can meld into one friendly group. Fueled by a steady supply of machismo, Dutchy's store looks to be one of the most appealing groups of Hawksian individuals in the director's canon.

Then reality finally seeps into the picture: at last, the men can put off their jobs no longer and one of the two, Joe, heads out to fly a mission in the dense fog around Barranca, and on his return he crashes and dies. Suddenly, the carefree nature of the film turns deadly serious, and it never particularly lets up again. The word "Hawksian" exists because the director centered so many of his movies on the same topic: men walking the line between individualism and teamwork to overcome obstacles. Here, however, the only obstacle is death, and it is insurmountable. No matter how high those planes climb, they won't be able to stay up forever, and eventually they'll crash down into death's infinite maw. These men band together, sure, but only in mutual emotional support. They do not have a luxury of a villain: they struggle against inevitability.

Ingeniously, Hawks decides to rest the split between the lighter tone of the beginning and the more macabre feel of the rest of the film entirely on the shoulders of Cary Grant. For my money, Grant's entrance into the film eclipses even that of the most famous of appearances in 1939, that of John Wayne in Stagecoach. Where Ford's film made its impression by literalizing Wayne's magnetism by sending the camera so quickly at the star that it seems to have broken free of operator control, Grant's entrance here relies on his singular ability to stand back just far enough to let the wave of talent emanating from him crest and crash onto the camera.

Grant simply appears in a door frame as the two other pilots fail to contain their drooling over Bonnie, sporting a cowboy hat and gaucho as if he looked at the leather jacket and sunglasses of the stereotypical pilot and thought, "Too subtle." Where everyone else bustles around the place in Dionysian revelry, Grant's Geoff Carter gently saunters in from his mission, laconic even in body language. Things quiet down when he arrives, not because he intimidates anyone but because they want to see what he'll do.

The remove in Geoff's carriage becomes evident when Joe dies, his steeled emotions a defense against the constant risk of losing a friend. The others fall in line too, responding to Bonnie's anguish over the man's death with feigned ignorance, everyone acting as if Joe never existed now that he no longer does. Only a quiet gesture Geoff makes in private with Dutchy reveals just how badly he feels every time someone in his command crashes. But he cannot display that outside the room, and his emotional distance extends to Bonnie, who is incensed outwardly that Geoff is boorish to her and, inwardly, because he man be the first man in many years to ignore her.

Grant brilliantly plays Geoff in the manner that made him the most irresistible leading man of all time. I never could play hard to get. I was always too invested in the outcome, too reliant on that need for reciprocity. Most people strike me as being bad at playing the game, only ever succeeding when they genuinely do dislike the person pining for their affections, or are at least uninterested. At best, they're just scared of commitment and decide to waste time with a game they are never good at. But Cary Grant, to steal from Richard Schickel, never played hard to get. He was hard to get. He could stand in the corner seemingly oblivious to the existence of everyone but himself, at last leaning out of his solipsistic bubble to kiss the woman near desperation for longing for him. There are endless fantasies of the suffering man entreating his ideal love until she finally relents, but Cary Grant did his bit made up for the massive gap, letting potential loves come to him, never making the trip himself. Bonnie cannot wait to leave this flea-ridden cesspool, but Grant's presence allures her so much she eventually cancels her ride home to keep seeing him. Wouldn't you?

It is easy to lose sight of the entire film's copious rewards for the looming redwood that is Grant. It's difficult to even call him anything but his full name, as if to use Grant alone is akin to using Excalibur without its scabbard, a mistake that cost Arthur his life. The more I see of him the more I find myself unable to call him anything less than the greatest film actor who ever lived, and Only Angels Have Wings boasts a performance that cements itself among the ever-changing list of favorite Cary Grant roles. His Geoff retains some of the comic timing that made Grant famous, but even his interplay with Arthur, another screwball icon, is tinged with melancholy.

Where Grant always gave enough space to make love interests come to him, here the reasons for doing so are sadder, more vulnerable. Not only does Geoff have to consider the danger of his job, he must also take into account how that danger would affect Bonnie. His first wife left him because the stress of worrying about him made the constant threat of his death more difficult to bear than death itself, preferring Geoff to crash and die simply to let of her the damn seesaw. Bonnie, naturally, falls for Geoff, but this time he won't allow his feelings to intervene and break his terrible shield.

That same dour tone on romantic love extends to the platonic realm of the male interactions. Kid (Thomas Mitchell), Geoff's best friend, has grown old, his failing eyesight forcing a reluctant Geoff to ground the man to save his life. But what is life for a man who can no longer fly, who must return to the mortals after soaring above them for a lifetime? Kid's sadness turns to anger when a disgraced pilot, Bat (Richard Barthelmess), returns to the base. Bat bailed on a falling aircraft, trapping the engineer, Kid's brother, as the plane plummeted. Compounding the hostility of the men toward a traitor is the fact that Bat shows up with Geoff's ex-wife (played by Rita Hayworth, which can only deepen the sting). But even that level of ire cannot last, and a heroic act by Bat absolves him of his earlier sin, an act presented just as stoically as the more dire material.

That's the damnedest thing about the movie: it never lays off the gloom, even when it appears to lapse back into melodrama. Bat's triumph of platonic commitment reflects Geoff and Bonnie's budding romantic relationship, but both cannot lift the pall covering the film. Hawks maintains the fog around Dutchy's service, as if it were not merely condensing moisture but the ever-billowing smoke from the plane crashes around the perilous area, that mist reminding everyone inside of what awaits him someday.

That quiet tone allows from some understated beauty, such as Bonnie displaying her first touch of interesting humanity when she fails to detect the sarcasm in Geoff's voice when he meets her and condescendingly asks if she thinks airplanes make her think of birds. "No, I didn't," she responds with breathless awe. "That's what makes it so wonderful. It's really just a flying human being." Even Grant nearly breaks and lets on his attraction in the moment. That touching moment is contrasted with the chilling quality of Joe's flat voice over the radio when he attempts to return and crashes, his monotone not letting the audience relax or anticipate the worst. Occasionally, the humor comes through, such as the wordplay of Bonnie asking Geoff if he still "carries the torch" for his ex-wife and he holds up a cigarette and asks "Got a match?" There's also the time Bonnie uses a literal act to mock Geoff's macho proclamations: "I thought you never got burned in the same place," she sneers, and Grant's snicker lightens up the screen as if it were always a comedy. But the somber tone is unlike practically anything I can recall seeing out of mainstream Hollywood fare at the time. Only Angels Have Wings stops short of the cynicism of film noir but goes quite a bit further than the lavish emoting of a melodrama.

That is because the two primary relationships of the film, between man and woman and man and other man, are superseded by the connection of man to death. Gloom is rampant in Only Angels Have Wings, but it also contains the perverse optimism that comes with fatalism: when one knows of the finality of death, one strives to make the days alive count all the more. When Grant finally opens up, the promise of his relationship with Bonnie manages to overcome the burden of grief around them, something that might not have been possible had the film not earned that small breakthrough. But in classic Grant fashion, he cannot up and confess love to the girl: in the film's last act of stoic passion, Geoff leaves the fate of his relationship up to a coin toss, only for Bonnie to discover he rigged the game as he flies one last mission for Dutchy.

"I'm hard to get, Geoff," Bonnie says to him before the climax. "All you have to do is ask me." Any other man would have been on his knees an hour of screentime earlier begging, not asking, but that's the power of Grant, and of this film. It never screams or moans or wails. It just trudges on in its sadness, making the twinkling of sorrow in Geoff's eyes at the end as devastating as a full breakdown. That Only Angels Have Wings can somehow end this strain of thought on a happy, life-affirming note threw me so completely that I shall return to this, possibly Hawks' greatest masterpiece, in the hopes of figuring out how the son of a bitch pulled it off.


  1. // Grant's entrance here relies on his singular ability to stand back just far enough to let the wave of talent emanating from him crest and crash onto the camera. //

    Wonderful. Totally true. How did he do it?

  2. Sorry, I'm commenting left and right.

    This is my favorite movie. I was thrilled to see you cover it here. I never get enough of it. I love that opening sequence and its atmosphere - and also how Hawks seemed to populate the screen with real people, not professional extras. I wrote a piece on that somewhere. Thomas Mitchell's death scene is one of the most moving in all of cinema. Oh, hell, there's too much to say.

    Cary Grant at his crankiest and sexiest. I love that Richard Schickel quote (and Pauline Kael is very good on this movie as well, and what the dynamic is between him and Bonnie): He actually IS hard to get. those men are rare indeed. And she falls to pieces trying to enter his world and be close to such a creature.

    Slam-dunk on every level. And Richard Barthelmess? I've always loved him, but he is particularly good here.

  3. Thanks, Sheila. I spent about two weeks sitting on this because I just got swamped with about four separate journalism projects that have consumed all my time (I don't even think I've watched a movie in a week and a half, which is scandalous) and I was afraid I missed so much from not being able to get my thoughts down fresh. But damned if I don't remember everything about Grant. He just instantly sears into your memory in everything he does, and when he enters the film he instantly shoves aside everything that came before.

    I'm probably going to revisit the film in a few months when I'm not buried from work to get at the other details. There's so much going on here, from its astonishing atmosphere, toeing the line between dream and horrifying reality (all the more scary for the plodding dullness and inured ennui that always goes with the most dangerous jobs) to the dynamite supporting performances. It may well edge out Rio Bravo as my favorite Hawks before it's all said and done: I don't think I've ever seen a film quite like this, and I can't point to a hair out of place.

  4. And Hayworth is brilliant. Everyone is firing on all cylinders here.

    I love the lookout guy in his mountain hideaway with the donkey - the details Grant gets into his behavior with the bottle opener - the dialogue - It's exhilarating to this day.

  5. Wonderful. This is one of my absolute favorite movies, too, one of Hawks' best, one of Grant's best, just amazing. You perfectly capture the tone of sadness and melancholy that runs through the whole film - the fog hanging over everything seems to be death itself, and constantly living and working in the shadow of so much death has permanently shaped these men. I love the "wake" in which everyone sings around the piano, yelling out "who's Joe" even though the dead man's spirit hangs over everything. I love everything about it, really. I think it's honestly one of the best, if not the best movie to ever come out of Hollywood.

  6. There are maybe a half dozen perfect movies where nothing is out of place (The 39 Steps, Double Indemnity, Madame de..., Stagecoach) and this is one of them. And this review - along with Robin Wood's essay - is one of the best things I've read about this masterpiece.