Golden-Age Film Features Men in Constant Peril
On May 15, 1939, “Only Angels Have Wings” hit theaters during a golden-age of film.
In the 1930’s, movies were becoming much more widespread and accessible to the public, and the films’ actors, too, were starting to become household names.
“Only Angels Have Wings” is directed by Howard Hawks and stars Cary Grant as its charismatic, strong male protagonist, along with Jean Arthur as his insistent, polar-opposite love-interest.
The plot follows Grant’s character, Geoff Carter, as he manages a remote ramshackle South American trading port that conducts airmail and freight services.
Every day, the pilots at the trading company are forced to risk their lives as they fly through perilous weather conditions, and since they are constantly facing the prospect of death, Carter and his fellow pilots have developed a rather carefree attitude toward mortality.
At its core, “Only Angels Have Wings” is the quintessential Howard Hawk’s film: extremely well-done aerial sequences for its time, a strong sense of fatalism and an easy-going, maturely written storyline full of machoistic characters.
Although it is well-written (particularly the dialogue), the melodramatic plot is paper-thin and doesn’t bring anything into any impactful or grandiose directions; it’s just background noise.
The real focus of the movie is the thorough analysis of men under immense pressure—how do individuals react when faced with near-constant peril?
It toys with this idea of imminent peril and interprets it in many ways—namely, by showing the men having casual conversation, cracking jokes and creating a dense cloud of emotional distancing.
There is a near-constant sadness hanging over the group. By living so close to death, the men must learn how to live quickly and riskily.
The romance and chemistry between Carter and Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is well-established and infectious. The dichotomy of their relationship is interesting to see unfold, and Bonnie’s sharp wit is fun to watch.
The classic notion of ‘opposites attract’ is a trope that a lot of storytellers have used over the years, and “Only Angels Have Wings” places it on full-effect.
Throughout the film, the director relies on this relationship to pull the audience in for an emotional investment and in that regard, it succeeds.
The dialogue between the two characters is fluid for the most part, though there are instances where it feels forced.
With less of a reliance on visual storytelling, the movie needed gritty acting to captivate its viewers.
The worst aspect of the relationship is Bonnie’s constant pining for Carter, which creates a few dry spots in the pacing and feels cumbersome.
While the interactions between the two characters start out fun and interesting, it devolves—at points—into aimless longing that really doesn’t accomplish much besides creating some annoyances and weak drama.
The cinematography is simple, old film-school style that relies heavily on the rule of thirds for composition—but it works to marvelous effect.
Each scene has well-crafted backgrounds, and the necessary dramatic tension is often built up through character blocks.
The real technical achievements should be awarded to the effects team, who conducted some truly impressive visuals—granted, the film is of its time, but when considering the limitations that were relevant in the 1930’s it is an exceptionally crafted movie.
As an American classic, “Only Angels Have Wings” is worthy of a viewing or two.
It produces strong acting, effects and cinematography that anybody could learn from.
Despite a few lapses in the pacing and its thin plot-line, this movie holds up surprisingly well.