Cinephile: Only Angels Have Wings

Plot: “At a remote South American trading port, the manager of an air-freight company is forced to risk his pilots’ lives in order to win an important contract as a traveling American showgirl stops in town.” 

Review: Years ago, I attended a break-out session at the Seattle International Film Festival. The session featured a panel of local film critics speaking about the craft, their approach, and how they watch movies. As a new film critic, I went to learn and seek some guidance on how to improve.  

One of the film critics there gave me fantastic advice. “Watch a lot of movies that came out before you were born.” For me, this advice has morphed into a goal of watching these movies with a critical eye. I analyze pacing, writing, delivery, cinematography, directing, acting and the score of the film. I try to remind myself of technological limitations and attempt to appreciate a film in the time and space in which it was created.  

Some weekends, when there is not a new film to be seen, I will find a classic movie playing at a local independent movie theater and do some homework. The goal of seeing more movies that came out before I was born delivered me to Only Angels Have Wings starring Cary Grant as Geoff Carter and Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee.  

On a remote South American trading port, where pilots often must traverse dangerous mountain passes to deliver the mail and other items, we first meet Geoff and Bonnie. The route is so dangerous that shortly after Bonnie Lee’s arrival at port, a tragic plane crash takes place due to fog. Charged with balancing the safety of his pilots against fulfilling delivery contracts, Geoff is the man making the impossible decision to send men out into these harsh conditions. In the wake of a pilot’s death, I found my first real complaint with this film. No one seems to care that a man has died. Beyond a few drinks and quips, everyone at the port’s bar seems to care very little about the danger the pilots face.  

Bonnie Lee is supposed to be staying just for the evening. Wrapped up by the unpredictability and an attraction to Carter, she misses her ship and stays. Watching the movie, it was apparent to me she found herself engulfed by the moment. This brings me to my second complaint about the movie. The dialogue is often nothing more than quips, comebacks, and writing you will only find in the movies. More than once, I thought to myself, no one talks like this. Based on the writing alone, it surprised me to see Carter and Lee falling in love with each other (something they do incredibly fast). Those quips and comebacks mask moments meant to reveal two people falling in love.

Their love story is not the most interesting thing about this movie. To me, the most mysterious character is Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess). In desperate need of a new pilot, Bat emerges, but he does so with a darkened past. This past will sow distrust among his fellow pilots and will leave you questioning his character.  

As he flies over and through the mountains, I found myself impressed by the aerial work captured on camera. On multiple occasions, I had to remind myself that they filmed this movie in 1939. Seriously, it is that impressive. But the beauty is dangerous, and another crash happens. This tragedy brings us back to where this journey began.  

Coming full circle left me wondering about the point of this film. More than the love story or learning to trust someone again, the idea of an unhealthy obsession with work moved me, no matter the costs. People matter more than things. No piece of mail or delivery is worth a man’s life. Settling on this idea made this movie worth the trip.

Be good to each other,  


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