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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Only Angels Have Wings (Blu-ray)
Only Angels Have Wings (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // Unrated // April 12, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 18, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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I confess that for years I assumed -only Angels have wings* (1939) was an adaptation of a play. A superb drama about courageous airmail pilots in treacherous terrain and weather conditions over South America, nearly everything important that happens in the film is confined to just a few dimly-lit sets. There's a mixture of full-size aircraft and mock-ups with special miniature effects, as well as some real aerial photography, but none of it is as intense as scenes of star Cary Grant and others talking to unseen pilots over the radio.

Though it definitely would make a great play, near as I can tell no one has ever attempted to mount one. Rather, the film is an entirely original work, adapted by Jules Furthman from Howard Hawks' story, which in turn was based on real pilots and incidents that Hawks, a flyer during WWI (albeit a flight instructor who never saw combat), knew or witnessed personally, or heard about secondhand.

It's emblematic Howard Hawks: male bonding in a hazardous environment in which their fears and feelings toward one another go unexpressed; a strong female lead, always or eventually an equal to the men; big groupings of actors, each playing a distinctive character, speaking in overlapping, naturalistic, sardonic, and witty dialogue. By that same token -only Angels have wings is also rather unusual. For one thing Hawks had envisioned a female protagonist more in line with Lauren Bacall's later characters in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Instead Hawks paired Grant with Jean Arthur, who refused to stray far from her established screen persona. She later regretted her decision, but is still excellent, offering a different but appealing take on the classical Hawks female. Likewise, the movie taps into the darker side of Grant's personality that filmmakers and audiences usually had no idea was even there (Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious being another rare example of this). It's figuratively and literally dark (most of the picture takes place in fog-shrouded night) and grim, yet also funny, romantic and, at times, even exhilarating.

Criterion's Blu-ray, licensed from Columbia Pictures (the film's original producer-distributor), looks great** and supplemented, but not overstuffed, with good extras.

Bonnie Lee (Arthur) is a piano-playing entertainer, a "specialty act," who arrives in the South American port town of Barranca. Two airmail pilots, Les (Allyn Joslyn) and Joe (Noah Beery, Jr.) try picking her up, and she eventually agrees to a steak dinner with the latter, more out of hunger than his company.

Their plans are put on hold when Geoff Carter (Grant), pilot and co-owner with saloon keeper "Dutchy" Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman) of Barranca Airways, orders Joe to carry a load of mail through the treacherous pass deep in the Andes Mountains. Bad weather sends Joe back to their airfield, but he dies in a spectacular crash just short of the landing strip.

Geoff and the other pilots' apparent callousness toward Joe's fate, barely minutes after his death, horrify Bonnie. "Who's Joe?" they ask repeatedly. Initially, she can't comprehend their fatalistic attitude but, attracted to their world and to Goeff particularly, she decides to hang around, though Geoff wants no part of her. He'd been burned once before in a relationship with a woman who couldn't hack it.

Other pilots are introduced, including "Kid" Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), the veteran of the group, whom Geoff suspects may have to be grounded for failing eyesight; and Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), a pariah among the men because he once bailed out of a burning plane, leaving Kid's brother aboard to die alone. Geoff, however, short on pilots after Joe's death and Kid's grounding, takes him on, even though Bat's married to Judy (Rita Hayworth, in her first major role), Geoff's old flame.

Arthur's Bonnie is, as the audience's surrogate, immediately drawn to these glamorous men, the Hollywood-generated image of South American exoticness. She's startled and bemused by their fatalism, their willingness to take huge risks for little compensation or personal glory, and their steadfast refusal to talk about their fears or mourn their dead colleagues. As film critic David Thomson notes in his excellent video essay, included on the disc, it's an environment that we, the audience, want to be a part of, even if only as passive observers, just as we do in other ensemble Hawks pictures (the cattle drive of Red River, the safari of Hatari!, etc.) and similar pictures (Thomson mentions one very good example, Michael Curtiz's Casablanca.)

To this end, -only Angels Have Wings is the kind of picture one wishes those with an aversion to old black-and-white movies would try on for size. Though it would adapt easily to the stage it never once feels stage bound. The actors, often with four or more in the frame at one time, sitting around a table or huddled around the radio, all but invite the viewer to pull up a chair to join them, absorbing all the crackling dialogue, always tense, funny, or observant of human nature, often all at once.

As in Hawks' best films, -only Angels have wings moves effortlessly between playful dialogue, here between Grant and Arthur, dialogue nonetheless tinged with bitterness expressed by him and a growing understanding by her, with genuinely harrowing scenes of pilots facing death around every corner. One death scene toward the end is a real gut-wrencher, so powerful that Hawks, never averse to recycling good material, used it again almost verbatim for the beginning of his last film, Rio Lobo (1970).

And as Hawks would revisit in The Thing (from Another World) (1951), some of the film's best moments consist of nothing more than the nervous ensemble gathered around the radio as solo pilots courageously bluff their way through harrowing mail runs. Occasionally there are cutaways to miniatures planes, always phony even by 1939s standards (Columbia had an especially weak special effects department at the time), but these shots are mostly unnecessary and the sweep of Hawks' first unit footage is just enough carry them along. Equally unneeded but, on big screens especially, undeniably effective, is a brief sequence of a real plane (piloted by Paul Mantz, legendary Hollywood stunt pilot), landing Bat's plane on a tiny plateau.

Predictably, the entire cast is great, though Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, and Sig Ruman stand out, and Grant is more than up to playing his hard-biting, at times even cruel Geoff. (Better known for his comedies, Ruman is almost a revelation here.)

Video & Audio

Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, -only Angels have wings was transferred at 4K by Sony using the original nitrate camera negative, with the original mono audio (English only, with optional subtitles) at 24-bit from the original 35mm soundtrack. Criterion's team performed additional tweaking. It looks great, with much detail, rich blacks, and excellent contrast. The disc is Region A encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements include an audio-only interview from 1972 with Hawks, conducted by director Peter Bogdanovich. The latter keeps pumping him for examples of auteurism but, like Bogdanovich's earlier conversation with director John Ford, Hawks is entirely unpretentious, with answers like, "That turned out good." David Thomson's video essay is mostly very insightful, though it stretches when hinting at homosexual longing between Grant and Mitchell's characters. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt discuss the film from an aviation historical perspective, confirming its great verisimilitude, and there's a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast from 1939, with virtually the entire original cast intact. A trailer that's included looks pretty awful, the kind of thing one used to see on VHS tape from PD labels, but that's offset by an interesting foldout essay by Michael Sragow.

Final Thoughts

One of the all-time great American films, and among Hawks' three or four best, -only Angels Have wings is essential viewing and, short of a pristine 35mm nitrate print, the way to see it. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.

* Though popularly known as Only Angels Have Wings the onscreen title card reads, in full: Howard Hawks' "-only Angels have wings." And, if you read enough of these reviews you'll know I'm a stickler for what's onscreen is the title of the movie.

**I recall seeing what I think was an original nitrate print of the film at a UCLA Film & Television Archive-sponsored Hawks retrospective. Excellent as this transfer is, I remember that print somehow being even more glorious.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.

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