Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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.

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Would you like Rita Hayworth to light your cigarette?

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.

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There Never was a Woman Like Rita

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a never-ending two-way street. The action on film has countless sets of onscreen pairs (two cars drag racing, two Castigliane brothers), plus a showstopping double narrative: midway through the film, we enter a new story altogether, with the same actors playing different characters in a hauntingly distorted mirror of what came before.

One of the most exciting match-ups is the dual performance by Laura Elena Harring, with two main roles but ultimately playing no fewer than four characters throughout the film. In the first half, she is an unnamed woman who takes on the persona of Rita, and in the second half, a venomous rising star named Camilla. These are two women existing in two realities, but somehow piece together in this dreamlike puzzle.

The film opens with an unnamed, dark-haired woman in the back of a car driving up in the Hollywood Hills. She is well-dressed and wearing vivid red lipstick, ready for a night out. The car pulls over and stops, and the two men in the front seat turn around with guns pointed at her. The hit is prevented by a sudden crash, as a pair of drag-racing cars on the opposite side of the road hurdles into the stopped car. The woman, suffering from temporary amnesia, stumbles out of the wreckage like a broken doll, and descends into the glowing Los Angeles night below.

She sneaks into an apartment as the tenant (Aunt Ruth) departs for a trip. While alone, she takes a shower but is interrupted by another young woman, Betty – Aunt Ruth’s niece who is staying there while Ruth is away. Betty apologizes and leaves the dark-haired woman alone to dress. The woman looks at herself in the mirror, and notices a poster on the wall behind her.

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gilda-movie-posterThe poster is for the classic film noir Gilda starring Rita Hayworth. The tagline reads, “There never was a woman like Gilda!” As she dries her hair, the dark-haired woman introduces herself to Betty: “My name is Rita.” A fitting choice, as there never was a woman like Rita either. She knows nothing of her past or her true identity, and takes this opportunity to build a new persona for herself. Another connection with Gilda is the notion of rebuilding oneself. The three leads (Johnny Farrell, Ballin Mundson, and Gilda herself), all recent arrivals in Argentina, often reassure themselves they have “no pasts, just futures.” Like Rita, they seize the opportunity to shed their old life (though unlike Rita, their choice is voluntary) and build a new identity.

The first half of the film is driven by Rita and Betty’s quest for what trouble is following Rita: investigating the car crash, following leads, and even climbing into other people’s apartments (paralleling the dark-haired woman’s gutsy hiding spot from earlier). These actions are driven mostly by Betty, a more dominant, proactive personality foiled with Rita’s more timid, passive approach. Rita is fearful of what they might find, and is content to stay in the apartment drinking Coke  Throughout the journey, the two fall in passionate love.

The story soon diffuses into the second parallel reality. The actress playing the sincere, smiling Betty is now a dark, demented woman named Diane, in a less romantic sexual relationship with the same dark-haired woman, now named Camilla, who suddenly breaks things off with Diane. Theirs is not a relationship of equals: Camilla calls the shots, while Diane takes whatever she can get.

Camilla is also a rising star, arguably related to her falling in love with the director Adam Kesher. She does helps Diane by getting her supporting roles in films, but clearly doesn’t reciprocate the romantic feelings Diane has for her. Whether through genuine romance or for getting ahead in Hollywood, Camilla has made her choice in pursuing Adam.

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All films, especially those by David Lynch, are certainly open to interpretation. A common a theory to piecing together Mulholland Drive is that the first half of the film (Rita’s story) is a dream, and the second half (Camilla’s story) is the reality. This is reflected in the different relationships between Rita and Betty, vs Camilla and Diane.

Both worlds feature the duo in a sexual relationship with different power players in each. The “dream world” has Betty in the dominant role, helping and guiding Rita as she struggles to understand her past. Their romance is pure and sincere, in a beautiful love scene where they declare their passion for one another. This is a stark contrast from the “reality” where a desperate Diane tries to keep Camilla for herself, and is left behind and humiliated as Diane pursues love with a man.

Both worlds also place the dark-haired woman in a victim role. She is nearly killed by hit men, and is fearful of pursuit through the “dream world” storyline, clinging to Betty for protection. In the “reality,” her rebuff of Diane’s affections turn violent, as the vengeful Diane takes out a hit on her former flame. The dream version has the blonde woman as protector and savior, the polar opposite of the reality of the blonde as killer.

The stories of Mulholland Drive are as winding as the road itself. It travels in and around the world of Hollywood, taking visitors through turns and twists throughout their journey. The dark-haired woman is at the center of it all, whether the helpless victim of Rita or the cruel heartbreaker Camilla. Like Gilda herself, this femme fatale is victim, antagonist, and atomic bomb all at once – a true force to be reckoned with. There never was a woman like Rita.



This blog post is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon: One Actor ~ Multiple Roles hosted by Christina Wehner. Check out the full lineup here!

Criterion Goes to Carnaval

You’ll end up going [to Carnaval]. No one can resist the madness.

In Catholic tradition, the pre-Lenten season is a time of gaiety and celebration. It is right before a period of fasting and penance, all culminating into one final wild night of the season: Carnaval. In classic film, however, Carnaval is less a celebration and more an ominous warning. Black Orpheus and Gilda both depict Carnaval not a festivity but a means of fate, bringing upon an inevitable doom.

Eurydice, the young heroine of Black Orpheus, fears for the worst the entire film. She is chased out of her home by a man she believes is out to kill her, and escapes to live with her cousin Serafina in Rio de Janeiro. She is oblivious to Carnaval, and the world she’s entering, but Serafina assures her she is safe from her pursuer.

blackorpheus383She is anything but, however, as Death appears to her her first night in Rio, follows her all throughout Carnaval, and eventually completes his chilling mission.

Death, and his pursuit of Eurydice, is so unsettling for two reasons. First, the sheer inevitability of the tragedy he brings. Eurydice takes a boat away from home, and immerses herself in the kinetic chaos of Carnaval, and yet this same man manages to single her out in the crowd. Second, for how he hides in plain sight. Sure, he comes after her late at night, in her cousin’s home, but he watches alongside the Carnaval-goers and blends right in the crowd, as another dark figure in the spooky masquerade. Evil is not only an unstoppable force, but an omnipresent one who walks among us.

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These same fears plague Gilda, the deeply troubled tour de force of Gilda. Tragedy strikes for her the night of Carnaval as well – in the midst of a gay affair in Buenos Aires, a body killed by her husband Mundson is discovered. Mundson escapes from the police, apparently committing suicide, allowing her to marry her ex-lover Johnny Farrell. Death comes to Gilda less explicitly; her social and private life is cut off, and she finds herself in the control of Johnny and his henchmen at all times. She is widowed out of one oppressive marriage, only to wed into another.

Like Eurydice, Gilda is destructively paranoid, though perhaps less justifiably so. Early in the film, she is tossing and turning over toasting “Disaster to the wench” in reference to Johnny’s former lover – herself. This spirit carries on as Carnaval approaches. She watches below, trapped in her prison of a bedroom, and asks her servant Maria what it means. Maria replies that Carnaval is “feasting and merry-making. Then comes the fasting and the penance.” Gilda chuckles and says, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m awfully superstitious. […] I have the funniest feeling that [….] for me, too, it’s Carnaval.” Even before the aforementioned murder takes place in the casino, Gilda’s instinctive reaction is that tragedy will strike, and her own end is drawing near.

It’s not an accident that both stories build up to the drama heightened by Carnaval. In Black Orpheus, Orpheus has all but shunned his overbearing fiance Mira for the sweet Eurydice, spending the night and later dancing through the streets of Rio together. The narrative pivot, and tragedy that befalls on Carnaval, parallels the end of this happy splendor, a dream world that is too good to be true. Such is the case in Gilda, where the fractured romance between Gilda and Johnny seems to repair as they dance together in the night, and she offers him to “get in practice” again – to rekindle their love. The events of that night, and Gilda’s new prison, are the harsh reality that crush false hope.

Pairing Carnaval, a festive time, with such tragic events is an interesting tonal dichotomy as well. The joyful Carnaval celebrations of Black Orpheus and Gilda mismatch the darker drama unfolding before us, brushing aside a major cultural and religious event before more intimate, personal conflict. Setting the dramatic events of Black Orpheus and Gilda within the context of Carnaval make the narrative elements even more powerful when framed within a supposedly happy time.