Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Sig Ruman, Victor Kilian, John Carroll, Don 'Red' Barry, Noah Beery Jr., Manuel Alvarez Maciste, Milisa Sierra, Lucio Villegas, Pat Flaherty, Pedro Regas, Pat West
Written by: Jules Furthman, Howard Hawks
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 121
Date: 05/12/1939

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Dark Victory, Gone With the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. This was the lineup of the 1939 Academy Awards, considered by many to be the finest year for movies. But, typical of the Academy, they forgot perhaps the best film of the lot, and not because it was some forgotten, no-budget indie either.

Cary Grant stars in Only Angels Have Wings as the captain of a dinky post office in South America, where pilots fly the mail to hard-to-get places. A lot happens in the movie, but the main plot concerns a bet made with some corporate folks; if Grant can get the mail through every day on time for a month, they can get re-funded. Their planes are falling apart, there are often storms, and we see at least one spectacular crash during the movie.

The movie starts as Jean Arthur rolls into town, and she's followed by two of the pilots. She thinks they're creepy, until she finds out they're Americans, then she has dinner with them. One of the pilots has to make a run in the fog, and he dies trying to land. The rest of the pilots spend the night drinking and carousing. She doesn't understand at first why they don't mourn, but as the night goes on, she catches on that death is common there. It's a very intense sequence, and it's only the first half hour of the movie.

Cary Grant, one of cinema's greatest actors, gives maybe his finest performance here. (It's hard to say, there are dozens.) If asked to picture Cary Grant, you may see him as a fop, trying to be funny, doing double takes, trying to con somebody. In Only Angels Have Wings, he's a tough guy, often cruel, holding his feelings on the inside, letting them out only at calculated moments, and subtly. The performance surpasses even the one he would give seven years later in Notorious.

Howard Hawks, next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, was the greatest Hollywood director ever. (And like Welles and Hitchcock, he never won a Best Director Oscar.) Hawks had a style that Francois Truffaut dubbed "invisible directing," in that he made great movies with no apparent style. When you watch a Hitchcock or Welles movie, you know who the filmmaker is just by looking at a few scenes. With Hawks, the only signature was that of a great storyteller. Only by watching many Hawks movies in a row can you begin to get a sense of his preferences, including codes of honor, and a preference for teamwork (including both men and women).

Only Angels Have Wings is a lusty movie, an action-adventure, a manly-man movie, but also an emotional one. It is all the more special when you consider that the other four movies Grant made with Hawks were screwball comedies; Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), and Monkey Business (1952). Plus, if I still haven't convinced you, the luscious sex-goddess Rita Hayworth is also in the movie, in an early star-making role.

Columbia released this essential Hollywood entertainment on a DVD way back in 1999, and then in a Cary Grant box set in 2006, and both seem to be out of print today. So thank goodness the Criterion Collection came along, with their second Hawks classic to be released on Blu-ray (after Red River). It boasts a 4K transfer with rich blacks and soft grays, preserving film grain, and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It comes with a snazzy new cover by Francesco Francavilla, and a liner notes essay by my esteemed colleague Michael Sragow. Another esteemed colleague, David Thomson, gives a new video interview about the film's greatness (17 minutes). Peter Bogdanovich provides about 20 minutes of the tapes of his 1970s interviews with Hawks, and we also get a radio play, a new 20-minute featurette ("Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies"), and a theatrical trailer.

Movies Unlimtied