Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we fly. The emotional highs, the sensational thrills and the bottomless despair that can hit at a moment’s notice, in Only Angels Have Wings, a film where uncertainty is certain. In the hands of Howard Hawks, the emotional journey is magnificently built, a myriad of swelling glee and deep emptiness rolling over the audience. 

How fitting that a film weaved around emotional highs and lows would be about pilots. Their leader is Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), a gruff man who never repeats himself and always expects things his way. His group flies mail back and forth through the unpredictable and dangerous mountain passes of South America. Cast into this whirlwind of men living on the edge is Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), who decides to live a bit on the edge as well by extending her few hour visit into an indefinite stay.

The music in the raggedy bar sets the tempo, fast and lively. The men are eager and forward with Bonnie, swift to strike a deal for which lucky man will have the pleasure of dining with her for the evening as it might be their last meal. Living is vicarious, if only because these men have learned how frail and swift life can be.

In contrast, the moments in the air, those risky bits where a landing in a thick fog can mean the difference between life and death, are agonizing and drawn out. The screws are on, everyone waits, listening to the horrific drone of the plane engine as it descends for a landing, hoping, just hoping the sound doesn’t end with a crash.

Yet the haze and darkness is not just restricted to the airfields and mountaintops. The entire film is engulfed in an aura of mystery, a haze that creates soft images. It’s more than an aesthetic, it’s an ever-present reminder of the uncertainty of life. While the initial idea is that this haze clouds the future, it also conjures up the murky past that many of these characters have.

It’s the histories that make these characters deep, the events that laid the foundation. These are men of risk and they all have burns to show for their frays in the past, burns that get nagged at and wounds that reopen as their pasts comes back to haunt them.

There’s also something haunting about the way this subculture deals with death. It’s harrowing and gut-wrenching, brutally honest and blunt. It’s a world where death must be drowned out, accosted and removed as soon as possible, and yet a world where death and absence constantly lingers, like the smoky haze that surrounds the mountains.

And it’s the idea of tempo and pacing that makes Only Angels Have Wings fascinating. Music, more than anything, sets the pace and constructs this place where time is simultaneously precious and spent out as fast as possible. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we cry.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing