Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Review: Only Angels Have Wings

Death is a cloud that hangs low and heavy over the mountain outpost of Howard Hawks' 1939 masterpiece; an impregnable fog that chokes its peaks, its unscrupulous claims defiantly answered with second-hand steaks and glasses raised to the strains of an old joanna.

The town is Barranca - launch site of a dangerous mail run through the skies - where troubled pasts take root in the dank air and lives come and go as fast as the liquor. It's a far-flung breeding ground for the quintessence of the Hawksian value system: where men are only as good as the jobs they do, a stoically present-tense social order with its back squarely turned to nostalgia.

Of course, we've been here before, if only in a dramatic sense. John Ford's Air Mail set the stage seven years earlier, one of many a genre framework Hawks would embrace and filter through his own distinct sensibilities over the course of his career. There's little room here for the hero-worship afforded Ford's fliers, nor the romanticism that permeates that director's vision. Hawks' men are as pragmatic as their director's style, rejecting sentimentality in words and action as surely as Hawks' camera. Just as Ford exquisitely lays the building blocks of myth, Hawks shatters them for his motley crew to negotiate the rubble.

We learn our first lesson the hard way, much like our ticket into the hermetic group: just-off-the-boat showgirl, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur). Jokes are shared and shots ordered as her two eager escorts vie for attention. A radio-summons calls an unlucky Joe to the sky; the mail won't wait, his steak will have to. Of course, the plane doesn't make it back - neither does its pilot - but a hot dinner can't go to waste. "What am I supposed to do, have it stuffed?" asks Cary Grant's careworn leader when Arthur questions the callousness of his response. "Who's Joe?" echoes through the group, as she runs out in tears. Entry to this closed circle comes only via acceptance of the status quo, a coping mechanism that can't afford to look back, but finds solidarity in the huddle; the bright sounds of the band staving off - however temporarily - the looming shadow of death.

While the fragility of such emotional safe-guarding is tested in the latter stages of the film, as elsewhere in Hawks' work actual meaning is often tacitly expressed, gesture and action - whether loving or redemptive - do the real talking. The patter may at times move as fast as the later screwballs, but a shared cigarette says more than pages of dialogue.

That moment-by-moment the film feels so entirely effortless is testament to its remarkable direction, not least with regards its actors - Jean Arthur belying her struggles with Hawks; Thomas Mitchell giving one of cinema's great supporting turns. For all its spirit of daredevil adventure, it's the interpersonal tensions and dynamics of the group that transcend its genre conventions. Lessons aren't learned come its heart-rending denouement, just respect - mutual and individual - attained and retained; lives slowly moving forward, even as it soars.

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