Sick of CGI? Yearning for the good old days of practical effects? Then take a trip to the BFI Southbank for this glittering restoration of Howard Hawks’s punchy 1939 flyboy drama, where the cutting edge of movie technology is a toy plane bouncing down a cardboard runway between rows of papier-mâché palm trees.
We’re in the fictional South American city of Barranca, where daredevil mailman Geoff Carter (Cary Grant, bullish and Brylcreemed) is facing the closure of his beloved air-transport business. Enter Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a dame with a sharp tongue, a dark past and her sights set firmly on our fiercely independent hero. Will Geoff seize this chance at a brighter future – or will he push that rickety crate too far and die in a ball of flaming balsa wood?
Like much of Hawks’s finest ‘serious’ work, ‘Only Angels Have Wings’ uses its paper-thin plot as an excuse to mount a scalpel-sharp analysis of men under pressure: bitching, blaming and refusing to back down. First and foremost it’s a film about professionalism and dedication, and how those admirable qualities can be used as an emotional smokescreen.
Landing somewhere between the macho grit of ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘Red River’ and the pistol-crack romcom repartee of ‘His Girl Friday’ and ‘Bringing Up Baby’, this isn’t quite tense or funny enough to become the masterpiece some Hawks lovers claim. But it is smart, incisive and often very funny – and was there ever a better character name than Bat MacPherson?