Their reticence is surely misplaced though for when Bonnie discovers that they're Americans, rather than local lechers, she practically jumps all over them. Hence the trio soon find themselves in the Dutchman's (Sig Rumann) combination shop-hotel-bar, where Joe and Les toss for who'll get to have dinner with Bonnie. The loser, unfortunately, will have to go to work, flying the nightly mail plane over the Peruvian Andes. Luckily for Joe he comes up trumps, at least until their boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) crashes onto the scene. One look at Bonnie and Joe's headed for the pilot's seat while Les gets dispatched dockwards. Before any wooing can take place though, Joe's got to take off in the soupy fog and successfully negotiate the 14,000 ft pass which serves as a gateway to the interior.
Luckily Joe gets away safely, leaving his comrades Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), Gent Shelton (John Carroll) and Tex Gordon (Don "Red" Barry) to hope that the return trip is uneventful. This proves to be so much wishful thinking though, with Joe forced to turn back and attempt a blind landing. The thought of Bonnie proves too enticing for caution though, putting Joe in a coffin. What really gets Bonnie is how blase the flyers are though, seemingly unaffected by the tragedy other than to dismiss it as a risk of the job. Geoff knows that a new pilot, Bat McPherson (Richard Barthelmess), is on the way so at least the future of the ramshackle company is assured (Dutchman's rattled nerves have difficulty seeing it this way though). Faced with such stony reticence, Bonnie is determined to return to her ship for the 4am sailing, at least until Geoff takes his life in his hands by flying the mail personally.
An examination of a tight-knit, pressurised and isolated environment, Only Angels Have Wings proves tense, convincing and dramatic. The centre of a just-in-time airline which provides thrills and a paycheck for a steady stream of pilots, Grant is superb as the focused, coldly professional Geoff. Unwilling to commit himself emotionally to anyone, partly as a result of a relationship gone sour, driving himself and his men is all Geoff has. Under these almost military conditions, death is treated extremely casually, almost as a matter of course, by the pilots and crew. Following Geoff's lead, anyone showing the least emotion (such as Bonnie) is put down and humiliated, a trial by fire for anyone wishing to penetrate the macho camaraderie of the team.
The cast are utterly right as a group of foreigners pretty much stranded in a strange, foreign land where any reminder of home is gratefully received. Handed characters which conform to stereotype yet still fall perfectly into the set-up of Only Angels Have Wings, the ensemble adeptly handle the tangled plot threads (such a mess of storylines adds a certain feeling of veracity to the proceedings). Grant is, as already noted, magnificent in his portrayal of the tough but fair Geoff, dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of Rumann, Mitchell and Barthelmess (who are fine themselves). To survive and flourish in these surroundings, the two main female characters have to be strong on their own terms yet willing to react like men in order to gain acceptance. Arthur manages to pull off the tricky combination of vulnerability and resilience, yet still looking radiant, while Rita Hayworth (playing Judith McPherson) adds a note of danger and uncertainty to an already complex script.
Only Angels Have Wings is impressively directed by Hawks, never letting up in its incredible pace after the slightly cheesy beginning. Plot twists that would seem artificial and false in any other film are seamlessly woven into the fabric, somewhat a result of the anything-goes atmosphere that permeates the airline. On top of this, there are some genuinely impressive flying sequences with seat of the pants take-offs and hair-raising landings cropping up all the time. The assorted characters really do feel like they're in a state of instant readiness (even when they're in the background), a mercurial emotion to capture successfully on film. The only drawback of this intense concentration on the job in hand is that the characters are distant and clinical, too self-absorbed to be utterly enthralling. The smooth camera-work is a help here though, sweeping through the confined space of the bar and expanding on individual personalities when required. All in all, Only Angels Have Wings comes very close to greatness.
This film was nominated for review by Terry Arnold.