Criterion put out six movies when they launched in the UK last week. Only Angels Have Wings was one of them and it turns out Paul Duane is kind of fond of the film.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to say about a film. With Only Angels Have Wings, my only problem is figuring out how to stop saying things about it.
I don’t know exactly why this particular film has taken up residence as part of the furniture of my mind. I only know that I’ve spent long hours turning over the craft and beauty of certain scenes, trying to figure out what makes them tick, trying to analyse the creative workings that so seamlessly drive this most perfect of action/adventure films. Now that Only Angels Have Wings is one of the first of the new Criterion UK Blu-ray releases, I have space to examine the reasons why it’s so important to me.
I hope – if you give it a chance – it will also become important to you. I don’t think I could dislike anyone who loved it, and I doubt I could love anyone who hated it. It’s that kind of film.
Let me talk about Howard Hawks first. The producer, co-writer & director of Only Angels Have Wings is one of the most extraordinarily gifted creatures to come out of Hollywood, but he’s less fêted than, say, Hitchcock, Ford, or even David Lean, I suppose.
Maybe it’s because he strived to do what Oscar Wilde said was art’s aim – to reveal art that conceals the artist. Hawks doesn’t go in for showy use of the camera – he keeps it at about eye-level, and sticks to wide shot, medium shot and close-up. There’s very little subjective camera in his extensive filmography, and absolutely nothing that could be called ‘expressionist’, unlike, say, the early works of Hitch or Ford. Hawks strives for clarity, showing us people, doing things, falling in love, killing, dying, building or destroying, failing or succeeding. He doesn’t hide behind visual extravagance. He leaves it bare, plays it in wide shot, and the result, when it works, works better than anything else.
To me it’s the visual equivalent of the way Hank Williams wrote songs. You won’t find many polysyllables in I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Hank didn’t need ’em.
Hawks didn’t even feel he needed a story. He famously said that all a movie needs in order to work is three great scenes and no bad scenes. He amplified that with, “As long as you make good scenes you have a good picture–it doesn’t matter if it isn’t much of a story.” If there was one thing Hawks knew how to do, it was to construct scenes. Maybe that’s because he knew how things – pretty much everything – worked. Hawks knew how to fly planes and drive race-cars, but he also knew how to design them and build them. His easy competence underpins the films he made. You have to concentrate really hard to see his craft, because it’s designed to be invisible.
I’ve been writing a lot of scripts recently, so I found myself watching this from a particular point of view. Here’s what I think.
If you want to write movie scripts, or just to understand how stories work, throw away your screenwriting manuals – DO IT NOW – and invest in a copy of this film. Watch it over & over again. Try to figure out how it works, and why. See how it breaks every rule, but still doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Only Angels Have Wings doesn’t break down into any easy formula, Inciting Incident, First Act Turn, whatever. It works musically, and Hawks knew as much about music as he did about cars, planes and movies. The film’s first ‘movement’ is something to behold, an interlocking series of encounters and reversals, punctuated by diegetic music and song, all designed to bring two people together despite themselves.
We’re in Barranca, Ecuador, in 1939. Two guys – Joe and Pancho – go walking on the docks one night, looking for fun. A boat headed for NYC has just docked so they chat to the purser to find out if there’s any action to be had, and by action they mean beautiful female passengers. The purser says no, and Joe notes his black eye, which the guy claims comes from walking into a doorknob. At that moment, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) descends the gangplank, causing the purser to flinch at the very sight of her. Joe asks him, “Why didn’t you mention her?” only for Pancho to interject, “You sap – that’s the doorknob.” They turn to follow her and with that, we’re on our way.
Bonnie’s a travelling piano-player (’30s movies are filled with characters who have careers of that sort) and meeting these guys is going to change her life, even though neither of them is the protagonist of this film, and one of them’s going to be dead in less than an hour.
But by then she’s become fascinated by the guy who runs Barranca Airways, the sombrero-wearing, sardonic, unreachable Geoff Carter, played by Cary Grant. Bonnie’s the daughter of a trapeze artist. She’s spent her whole life looking for someone who genuinely accepts that risk and death are parts of life, and now that she’s met one, she can’t quite take it in. Geoff, for his part, has heard women say before that they’re okay with him risking his life every day, they can live with the prospect that one day he won’t come home. He knows that, whatever they say, they don’t really mean it. He tells Bonnie, “Follow your nose – your boat’s that way”, but she thinks he doesn’t mean it, so she sticks around, only to discover that he wasn’t playing hard to get. He genuinely doesn’t want to fall in love, let alone have anyone fall in love with him.
But now she’s stuck in Barranca for a week until the New York boat comes by again, and the only people she knows there are fliers.
The story, from here on in, is about what it’s like to be around fliers – men whose first, foremost and only interest is in flying. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life, and one that involves dealing with a lot of death. They carry on flying, despite the low pay and the high probability of not coming back or coming back burned and crippled, because it’s what they love to do and what they do best. That’s all there is to it.
This Blu-ray is a great way to discover a masterpiece. It’s everything you’d expect from Criterion – immaculate visually and sonically, and with some beautiful extras, my favourite being an audio extract from Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Hawks. Listening to it immediately after watching the film is to be reminded that this is a film that’s vividly drawn because it’s taken from lived experience.
Hawks knew all about this world. He’d flown in WWI and his own brother Kenneth was killed in a peacetime mid-air collision, during a film shoot. Hawks had advised him not to fly that day – not because he doubted his brother’s abilities, because he doubted those of the other flier, the one whose plane crashed into his.
But the death of a loved one didn’t stop Hawks from flying. He knew what he wanted, and he understood the risks. He continued to fly, and he also made the best imaginable film about living with risk and dying because of it.
There’s a scene, early on, involving a steak dinner. The guy who ordered it has died in a crash by the time it’s cooked. To Bonnie’s outrage, Geoff takes it and eats it with great relish. Here’s the existential question at the centre of the film. What’s the point in wasting a good steak? Crying over it all night won’t make the guy one iota less dead. It exemplifies Hawks’s code, and the code of the flyers – a stoic understanding of life and death as equally meaningless and ridiculous. All that’s important is to live and die by the code.
Once you understand this, then you know why Only Angels Have Wings is the most knotty of love stories. For our lovers to find each other, they will have to find a way to be in love that doesn’t violate the code, and how is anybody supposed to do that? How can love exist in a world where life is meaningless, death is a punchline and all that matters is professionalism, doing your job, whatever it costs?
Every incident in this film is drawn from real life. A piano-playing showgirl falling for a guy who risked his life every day running a penny-ante airmail service? Check. A guy who parachuted from a burning plane, leaving his co-pilot to die, and was shunned by other fliers the rest of his life? Check. (Hawks even used actor Richard Barthelmess’s real-life scars, from botched plastic surgery, to enhance the role.) A dying man who, knowing he’s on the way out, asks to be left alone, because this is his first time doing it and he doesn’t want to screw up? Check.
It’s a truism that seeing people weep in a film doesn’t make you want to weep yourself – it’s seeing them not weeping even though they want to. Geoff lets his best friend know he’s dying by telling him, “Your neck’s broken, Kid.” He owes it to him to tell the truth. Even death, says Hawks, can be handled with care, professionalism, dignity. He’s right about that.
Hawks had one of the greatest storytelling minds in cinema history, and he set himself a challenge here. As often happens, the greater the problem a story has to overcome, the better the result.
Who cares whether two people get together, if they’re just soft-hearted simpletons looking for love? But make them a cold-hearted sonofabitch who just wants to keep his planes in the air, and a tough-minded saloon girl for whom men hold no mystery… now, you have a love story that will either ignite into a conflagration that blots out the sun, or fall flat on its face. Hawks didn’t like falling on his face, so he worked out how to do the other.
Not many love stories are resolved by having one of the lovers shoot and wound the other one, and not many adventure films have a third act where the protagonist is sidelined, rendered helpless by a bullet-wound inflicted by his lover. But Hawks, easily bored by formulaic storytelling, kept his characters busy, finding new ways to fall in love, new endings that aren’t ‘Hollywood endings’.
The final scene of Only Angels Have Wings manages to square the circle – how do you create a deliberately flippant, unsentimental character, stay true to him and his world, but also craft one of the great ‘happily ever afters’ in screen history?
Here’s how. Watch this. You’ll find out. Then try to do it yourself. You might fail, but you’ll do better than you might have by emulating a lesser film.