Only Angels Have Wings/A,B+

Columbia/1939/121m/FS 1.33 

     One of the great films of 1939 makes its DVD debut in a exquisite transfer from Columbia-Tristar. The lustrous black and white images are transferred with the snap, there are few scratches and scant evidence of dirt. There must have been some diligent digital clean-up done to the master for this DVD, but it certainly has not dimmed the luster from the presentation. Focus is consistently on target, and the subtleties of light are meticulously maintained. The mono sound is clean, no hiss disturbs the details of the jungle or the drone of the airplanes. 
     Only Angels Have Wings
creates a small, cozy, easy to understand world. The story of a small mail carrying airline trying to survive in the South American jungle takes place in a space carved out of the surrounding tropical forest. The town consists of a few flimsy buildings with a cantina as the center of this world. Director Howard Hawks knows that much of his mise-en-scene is static, so right at the outset theres a musical set piece to stimulate the juices. A cavalier spirit is established as local fliers follow a good looking blonde touring the night streets during a banana boat stopover. Bonnie Lee is the wayward blonde, a singer  heading back to the States who happens upon these brave men in the isolated jungle. Something about the men keeps her from boarding the boat to leave.

Mine's bigger than yours!. ©Columbia

     While the flights must get through to preserve the airline, even under the toughest weather conditions, the atmosphere ignites sparks between the characters, and Only Angels Have Wings is about character first. Hawks looks at these characters under the greatest pressure when they have to make life and death choices as casually as saying "I'll go out for the papers." The strengths and weaknesses of the characters show up under the director's microscope and the trip to the jungle is emotionally rewarding.  Hawks overcomes aspects of the artificial sets with a strong command of character.      
     Hawks is a no-nonsense director who does not sacrifice story to character, but uses character to move the story at a swift pace. Only Angels Have Wings never loses speed from it's opening moments. Like the dialog, like the bravado of the character, Hawks' sure, clean direction is a pleasure to experience.  Hawk gets such great performances from his actors; perhaps the secret's in the casting.
     The lead actors are nothing short of wonderful. Cary Grant plays airline boss Geoff Carter with an gun-metal toughness on the outside, while holding his emotions in control with a rough masculine veneer.    Jean Arthur is all charm as Bonnie Lee, the girl that lands smack dap in the middle of these life hungry flyers. Thomas Mitchell, one of the great third wheel actors, has easy chemistry with Arthur, as demonstrated from their wonderful work together in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even Rita Hayworth has a chance to steam some sex into the flick with her role as former Carter flame Judy McPherson, now married to tainted flyer Bat McPherson.
The look of the film is pure chiaroscuro. Joseph Walker's photography captures the mood and ambiance of the Hawks world. You can even feel the tropical heat through the Walker's lens.  Hawks and Walker work so well together that what should be hokey airplane flight scenes look great. The tension that develops is beyond what's photographed. Hawks collaborated with Jules Furthman on the script. Furthman, a veteran with a fine record of films such as Mutiny on the Bounty and Come and Get It, marries well with the Hawks style.
     The heart of Only Angels Have Wings is the characters.
The men are tough on the outside but hidden below the surface, caught in glimpses of the camera, is a softer, more feminine side. The women have a world-weariness about them, but the sparkle is not drained. They have ocean's of reserve. Hawks, famous for the sharp, snappy dialog between characters, gives Grant and Arthur the goods to ply their magic. Grants wise-cracks are only topped by Arthur's. It's remarkable how natural the dialog seems from these well drawn characters. These are characters that will stay with you for years after watching the movie. Don't miss this terrific gem from one of the greatest of all Hollywood years.

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