While waiting for her boat, Bonnie Lee stops at a small airport in South America. The pilots there deliver mail over a dangerous and usually foggy mountain pass. Geoff Carter, the lead flyer, seems distant and cold as Bonnie tries to get closer to him. Things heat up as Judy MacPherson, Geoff’s old flame, shows up with her husband who is an infamous pilot.
A ship docks at the South American port of Barranca. Out comes a woman, Bonnie (Jean Arthur), subsequently pursued by two flirtatious pilots who fly shipments of mail over treacherous terrain for a barebones operation manned by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Within minutes of their meeting, one of these men, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.), is called to fly despite potentially dangerous weather conditions. Geoff demands that he go, and thus begins the series of tragic deaths and defiantly stoic responses that supply a large part of the emotional and philosophical flow of Howard Hawks’ brilliant Only Angels Have Wings.
(Because it’s impossible to discuss the film at length without divulging crucial plot points, spoilers lie ahead.) A bizarre and gorgeous film to say the least, this masterwork (based on a story fragment written by Hawks in 1938 titled “Plane from Barranca”) embodies a fantastic range of opposite states of mind and being: stoicism/grief, pragmatism/mysticism, stasis/change. It is one of Hawks’ films where his standard ethos is most fully autocritiqued. The director seems to ask: How can one be entirely professional, practical, stoic, and strong in the face of such great emotional (and material) loss, mutability, and uncertainty?
Part of the film’s ingenuity lies in the positioning of familiar Hawksian professionals (often an isolated male “group”) as white Americans in a South American mountain-and-jungle terrain. Not only is the exotic, romantic appeal of boyish adventure there (a familiar angle in the director’s films), but the setting also stresses that these professionals are in some way out of place or, more accurately, that they are in a different place than the one that shaped them and provided them with their deepest values and mores. In Hawks’ films, the Group is often insulated and tightly knit, but his characters are generally not displaced from their original environment, culturally or geographically, as they are in Only Angels Have Wings.
With Joe’s death, it’s apparent that these professionals are used to bad news, formulating a type of callousness as a coping ritual (“Who’s Joe?” is the mantra Geoff and the others use to teach Bonnie how to deal with these sudden tragedies). On an intuitive level, Hawks is acting as an armchair sociologist, and he documents the efforts of (and effects on) the film’s central group to consciously erect new ways of dealing with the patterns of loss and grief that their adopted environments force upon them. But the loose, amateur, and intuitive nature of Hawks’ sociological insights should be stressed. For one thing, they are hardly scientific, and what’s more, Only Angels Have Wings is not exactly an analytical film.
It’s important to recognize that Hawks allows for a sudden emotional deluge in his characters’ responses to crisis, embodied in the moment when the reserved Geoff weeps over the death of his best friend. There comes a point where the coping devices simply give way to the emotions bubbling beneath these characters’ tough, professional, can-do surfaces, so the ultimate, perhaps unattainable goal the Hawksian Group strives for is to reconcile these dueling energies. Hawks always has this kind of duality in mind in his Group films—but it’s never literalized and critiqued as overtly as it is here.
The other reason why Hawks’ film can’t be approached as a pure sociological interrogation is that it’s, quite visibly, a Hollywood production with certain inescapable commitments to entertainment convention. This is not to downgrade the movie, though, as there is a reason why Hawks and other Old Hollywood filmmakers have become so revered. The film organizes its space within a nodal web of slightly claustrophobic locations, always shrouded in fog or cigarette smoke. Barranca comes alive in its very “movieness.” The strength of these locations is in their charming specificity and artifice: look at the bachelor-flat plainness of Grant’s room and office, or the bright warmth of the local bar singing after Joe’s death, and its dimly lit loneliness later that night.
Consider one early scene after Joe’s death, where Geoff and Dutchy are in a room. The tall, imposing Geoff (in a wide-brimmed hat and leather jacket) paces and barks on the radio on the right side of the screen. A disheveled Dutchy is sitting down in the bottom left corner, very sad and guilty about “sending” young men to their deaths. An overhead lamp stretches out in an ellipse above Dutchy’s body and mirrors Geoff’s hat, creating a three-quarter, L-shaped compositional domination of Dutchy’s figure. We’re witnessing a spatial, pictorial, and psychological depiction of one energy (Geoff’s sureness and stoicism) dominating another (Dutchy’s doubt and grief).
Late in the film we see a startlingly similar composition with reversed meaning—not long after the death of his best friend, Geoff sits alone in his office at a table, grief-stricken, with a lamp overhead. Bonnie enters the office and stands to the right of Geoff, fulfilling the same three-quarter L-shape composition as in the Geoff-Dutchy scene. Bonnie is planning to say goodbye to Geoff despite her love for him, a calculated choice she makes in order to cut her (emotional) losses; it parallels the pilots’ stoic responses to death. This time, however, Geoff is in Dutchy’s earlier position—spatially, pictorially, and psychologically. Bonnie begins to speak, without much confidence, but her attempt at emotional repression fails once she sees that Geoff is crying. Her defenses begin to fall apart as we cut to a close-up of her face, and then to her movement to Geoff’s level as the two, in medium close-up, hold one another. Geoff and Bonnie finally share a communal, open moment, and those dueling energies are for a moment reconciled.
Hawks is never one to end on such a note of resolution. Suddenly, there’s a jump in the film’s adventure when a reconciled Geoff dashes off to make a flight, leaving behind with Bonnie a certain, steadfast token of his affection. Right after Hawks has established some balance and stability, he gives his audience a final exhilarating rush.