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We’ll Always Have Barranca – Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) – in cinemas

May 13, 2015 by Simon Kinnear in In Cinemas, Retro with 0 Comments

The amazing title – at once wittily sardonic and swooningly romantic – doesn’t lie. The film that accompanies it is one of classic Hollywood’s greatest achievements.

1 Only Angels Have Wings - Copy

Only Angels Have Wings
(Howard Hawks, 1939)

An American abroad in an exotic town, blasé in the face of the death that surrounds him. An old flame, stepping into his gin joint. A disgraced has-been who finally has to man up in the name of redemption. Themes of heroism, comradeship and professionalism. Sound familiar?

Casablanca might today be regarded as the definitive statement of the Hollywood Golden Age, yet three years earlier Howard Hawks got their first with Only Angels Have Wings, his mighty romantic adventure about air pilots in South America – and easily my favourite of his films, even considering the strength of competition.

Hawks was already a brilliant director; he would continue to be so for several decades more. Yet Only Angels Have Wings is the ultimate distillation of his themes. Hawks was famous for bringing his style to other genres, yet there’s a kind of purity here. Undiluted by screwball comedy, film noir or Western, this film is truly Hawksian, from its focus on guys’ adherence to a professional code, to the strong women who give as good as they get; to the relaxed tone that encompasses humour, tragedy, romance and even the occasional musical number, with the same unruffled cool.

Hawks was an adventurer at heart, and it’s perhaps no surprise that he helped to devise the story here, a tribute to the pilots he’d met during his travels. In Only Angels Have Wings, these real-life inspirations find their on-screen surrogates in Barranca, a fictional banana republic where there is only one place to go in town – the hotel / bar / post office run by hotelier Dutchy (a lovable comedic performance by the great Sig Ruman, of To Be Or Not To Be fame) and his ace flying team, led by Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter and Thomas Mitchell’s Kid Dabb.

Most of the action takes place in and around this location, yet it never feels stagey because Hawks moves between rooms at speed, the dynamism of his actors – Grant especially – giving it that essential movieness. Besides, if it’s action you want, the flying sequences (especially the brave landing on a tiny mountaintop, captured in a single 360 degree aerial shot) offer a more tangible power. It helps that the film is lit by Joseph Walker with a woozy allure, whose crispness is softened by cigarette smoke and the haze of matches being constantly lit. The real world isn’t like this, but Barranca is the stuff that Hollywood dreams are made of.

Specifically: the dreams of Howard Hawks, and any students of auteur theory are advised to watch this alongside its bleak flipside, The Wages Of Fear, made by Henri-Georges Clouzot fifteen or so years later. Both films deal with ex-pats involved in hazardous work in tropical backwaters; for good measure, a sequence in Only Angels Have Wings anticipates the later film’s plot about the transportation of nitro-glycerine. Yet where Clouzot believed that this lifestyle was hell and created a metaphor for mankind’s instinct for selfishness and brutality, for Hawks it is about all team spirit. Even Tex, the guy who spends the film stuck in a hut on a mountaintop with only a donkey for company – frankly, these two deserve their own film! – never once grumbles about his lot, recognising his importance to his colleagues’ chances for survival.

This is a film about the best in human nature: friendship, redemption and love, all forged in the crucible of a shared task. It’s a brilliant workplace movie, one of many that Hawks would deliver – His Girl Friday and Rio Bravo are to follow – and this sets the serio-comic tone. The first act is a witty delight, as the flyers all try to impress newcomer Jean Arthur; yet when one of them gets in flight trouble, the film effortlessly flips into excitement – and then back into pitch-black humour as tragedy strikes. Jules Furthman’s enviable screenplay is a masterclass in creating likeable characters with immediate impact, while laying a breadcrumb trail of motifs, gags and plot points that will pay off later.

As a narrative, there are flaws, hinging on a huge double coincidence – Grant’s old flame (Rita Hayworth) turns up married to ‘McPherson’ (Richard Barthelmess), the cowardly pilot who let Kid’s brother die – but it doesn’t matter. Hawks’ world has been so well developed that it makes perfect sense while you’re watching it. Few people would find this life palatable, so of course the few that do will cross paths.

Grant is exceptional but well matched by Arthur and Mitchell; the latter two, of course, also starred together in Mr Smith Goes To Washington the same year, and there’s the sense of these actors’ effortless, Capra-esque repartee being repurposed, brilliantly, to suit Hawks’ less sentimental tone. Hayworth is underused but clearly a star in her breakthrough, while silent star Barthelmess uses his sound-era career downturn as meta-resonance for his character – it’s not quite up in the Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard school of comebacks, but it provides proof of Hawks’ capacity to take advantage of the resources of a major studio.

Only Angels Have Wings is re-released by Park Circus and is in cinemas from Friday 15th May.

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