Only Angels Have Wings [1939]

Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess, Thomas Mitchell
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Rating: Unrated
Runtime: 121 minutes

Hands down, Only Angels Have Wings is one of the most buoyantly entertaining movies in the American cinema. It is also a razor-sharp example of the action-oriented films of Howard Hawks, the wide-ranging auteur who would go on to make To Have and Have Not and Red River. This one is set in Barranca, a South American port city swathed in perpetual night fog, where a band of mail pilots struggle daily to get their planes through a treacherous mountain pass. They don't care about the mail so much as they live by the rules of adventure, professionalism, and friendly rivalry. Cary Grant is the leader of this daredevil group, a man who won't be pinned down to anything except his own code of stoicism. ("I don't believe in laying in a supply of anything," he says, which may be why he's always asking people for matches to light his cigarettes.) His cool style is tested by the arrival of a wisecracking blonde (Jean Arthur) and an ex-mistress (Rita Hayworth); Rita's now married to a pilot (Richard Barthelmess), disgraced by a single act of cowardice. Hawks always got great mileage from throwing a bunch of colorful characters together in an enclosed space, where death could strike in a moment. The great secret about Hawks is that although his feel for action was crackling, he was really more interested in the way people exchanged sidelong glances or lit each other's cigarettes--there's a lot of both in Only Angels Have Wings. --Robert Horton

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