Directed by Howard Hawks
USA 1939 121 min
Digital re-release 15-28 May at BFI (4K in NFT1, 2K elsewhere)
Restored in 4K from the original nitrate picture negative by Sony, Howard Hawk's 1939 drama Only Angels Have Wings zooms back into cinemas this month looking pretty spiffy, with the BFI having a full month of screenings booked at its Southbank centre. In many ways the ultimate example of a glossy studio picture, packed with golden era stars and exotic locales, Hawks's film nevertheless has a streak of darkness and psychological curiosity running through it that gives it more dimensions than you might think.
Hawks’ tale focuses on a group of American fliers based in the Andes, flying a clapped-out set of prop-driven mail planes on the coast of South America from their ramshackle, fog-bound port and tiny landing strip. The glamour of the image of a merry band of aviators, immortalised in countless war movies and propaganda, is nudged slightly leftwards in Hawk's film however. For one thing, as Jean Arthur's curious and sassy pianist player Bonnie Lee finds out when she arrives, years of flying crazily dangerous mail flights through the frequently fogged-up mountain ranges and seeing their friends killed has made the surviving pilots a misanthropic and fatalistic bunch. She is shocked when, following the sudden death of flyer Joe, the pilots and their cynical chief Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) simply sit down to eat the steak dinner he ordered earlier, and crack wise about sharing out his valuables. Black humour and denial are the order of the day, and no one suggests stopping flying.
This pretty dark scenario- a dwindling band of men who can't and won't stop flying no matter how crazy the odds- allows Hawks to expire some of his favourite themes: the connections between men and women under pressure, and the love and loyalty between groups of people. The film won't pass the Bechdel Test: Bonnie does spend much of her time on screen pining for Jeff as he heads up into the clouds again and again; this is a film where the men do the flying, the women the waiting. But Grant and Arthur's sparky flirtations, even if they follow a predictable path, allow some interesting explorations of the dynamics of people struggling with the dilemma of asking a potential partner to change, and how the chance for intimacy can get shot down from the start when one side fears change is impossible for them. Hawks's main characters here are all playing hard to get: Grant's character believes he will fly until he dies and a woman could (and should) never accept that, Arthur believes at first that her cynicism about his reckless life will stop her from loving him.
Yes, there a lot of hokum going on: a lady from Jeff's past conveniently arrives on the island (Rita Hayworth, in an early role) allowing Bonnie a peek into the gruff pilot's psychology, and there is the 'one last mission' final act scenario which allows the team a shot at saving the island runway from closure. But there is a lot to enjoy beyond the characters and banter: the set designs are lavish and looked lived-in, and the aerial sequences surprisingly tense despite all the strings and wires being clearly visible as the model planes soar past the camera.