Someday I’ll get a straight answer from you, and I won’t know what to do with it.
Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings is full of individuals lost in underlying turmoil but manage to dig themselves deeper, rather than find a way out. Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is a pilot and co-owner of a mail air line, who knowingly sends his men and himself in danger, accepting hazardous weather and unsafe working conditions as part of the job. Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is a former showgirl bound for home, who decides to put her trip on hold and stick around for Geoff, who admits he would never ask a woman for anything. Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth), Geoff’s old flame, chooses ignorance over learning the truth about her morally questionable husband Bat.
All of these characters, and more, are swirling around Barranca, South America (no country is given), in a world somewhere between Casablanca and Gilda (though it was made before both landmark films). Barranca is a bustling banana port o’call, and Geoff’s airline carries mail back and forth over the Andes. The large troupe of Americans who call Barranca home are seeking some sort of escape: from responsibility, from home, from their pasts.
This might sound like the perfect recipe for film noir, but Only Angels Have Wings doesn’t fit cleanly into any easy genre. It is part adventure thriller, with well-constructed, often heart-stopping, sequences of flight and their sometimes-tragic aftermaths. It is part romance, as Geoff and Bonnie become acquainted, and the feelings that echo back as Bonnie shows up. It’s even part western, with the standard themes of escape from traditional society, isolating oneself in a “man’s world,” and dropping domestic responsibilities.
To be honest, a lot about this movie is weird. Early on, we get cues that Brooklyn-born Bonnie is right at home in Barranca, engaging with the locals (despite referring to Spanish as “pig Latin”), and wildly playing “Some of These Days” on the piano in a scene that had me giggling nonstop. Later on in the movie she whips out a gun and shoots him in the shoulder. And, in an interesting subversion of gender norms, Geoff never has a lighter on him, and needs Bonnie or Judy to light it for him. The macho fella who wouldn’t ask a woman for anything, still needs them to get through the everyday.
But a well-rounded, genre-bending (albeit sometimes confounding) film suits Hawks well. The man who later brought us a subversive, challenging western in Red River and the excellent, tongue-in-cheek screwball comedy musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes proves his mastery of and flexibility within genre pieces, so a film that touches so many avenues is a perfect fit for a man of his talents.
In addition to the strong directing and crazy choices, we also get great performances, particularly by Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Jean Arthur plays what appears to be her usual “type” as the plucky pal, bringing on the gravitas when appropriate. Early on in the film (spoiler alert!) a pilot has a fatal crash, igniting a firestorm of emotions for her: desperate grief at the loss, anger and frustration at the men for (she believes) not caring, then tepid complacency as she learns that’s just the way things are in Barranca. Her complex, layered reaction both highlights her adapting to her new environment, as well as an early sign that she’s not just some fast-talking gal: she has depth and real emotion.
Rita Hayworth, in her too-few minutes onscreen, sets everything ablaze with her piercing eyes and deep, seductive voice. She’s not quite a fully-fledged femme fatale in this one, but she makes some gusty moves, even visiting her former flame in his bedroom. Jean Arthur even pops up at the end of this scene but scurries away, which is unfortunate — I would have loved to see some screen time between two archetypes during this era of film.
Only Angels Have Wings is an exciting, genre-bending film taking us into exotic locales, entrenching us with questionable characters, and dazzling us with complex performances.