Only Angels Have Wings
Electrified by the verbal wit and visual craftsmanship of the great Howard Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings stars Jean Arthur as a traveling entertainer who gets more than she bargained for during a stopover in a South American port town. There she meets a handsome yet aloof daredevil pilot, played by Cary Grant, who runs an airmail company, staring down death while servicing towns in treacherous mountain terrain. Both attracted to and repelled by his romantic sense of danger, she decides to stay on, despite his protestations. This masterful and mysterious adventure, featuring Oscar-nominated special effects, high-wire aerial photography, and Rita Hayworth in a small but breakout role, explores Hawks’s recurring themes of masculine codes and the strong-willed women who question them.
Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings receives the Criterion treatment on Blu-ray, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes a 4K restoration performed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which was taken from a scan of the original 35mm camera negative.
This was briefly released on Blu-ray by Turner Home Entertainment through their exclusive Turner Classic Movies line not too long ago. I missed out on that one (it disappeared quickly) so can’t compare this to that release, though it’s noted elsewhere that the same restoration was used for that edition. Whatever the case may be it looks fantastic here. The restoration work is certainly impressive. I don’t recall any blemishes popping up (at least I didn’t note any) and the image remains clean and stable throughout. And despite maybe a couple of sequences looking to have a slight bit of a haze to them (not counting the foggy sequences, of course) the level of detail is striking in just about every shot; clarity is really astounding at times.
The transfer is clean, encoded nicely with the film’s grain structure looking natural. Even the foggy sequences are handled nicely, and the smoky fog looks clean and natural, without any issues with noise or banding. Contrast is nicely balanced for this black and white film, with solid black levels and excellent tonal shifts in the grays. Crushing isn’t much of a concern and shadow delineation is excellent.
Ultimately it’s a very sharp looking image, impressive for a film that’s just a few years shy of its 80th birthday.
The lossless PCM 1.0 mono track sounds fine but, unsurprisingly, it is hampered a bit by its age. Fidelity is weak but dialogue is clear and sharp, and music at least sounds decent without too much of an edge to it. But it’s been beautifully cleaned up and nothing sticks out in the way of damage.
There’s a handful of decent supplements included, starting with an excerpt of an audio conversation between Peter Bogdanovich and Howard Hawks. The conversation, running 19-minutes, focuses a lot on the origins of the story (based somewhat on actual incidents that were mixed and reworked here), and the cast, with some focus on the casting of newcomer Rita Hayworth. I was most intrigued by comments Hawks makes about Jean Arthur: Bogdanovich seems to suggest that Hawks once told him he did not like her in the film, though Hawks quickly corrects him (or retracts) by saying the issue was that she didn’t have the confidence in herself for the role, something he needed to work with her on. Criterion used an excerpt from the same interview on their release of Hawks’ Red River, and similar to that getting Hawks’ thoughts and recollections on the film prove vital. The segment runs 19-minutes.
David Thomson next pops up to talk about Hawks and his filmmaking style, stressing particularly how Hawks plays with expectations as well as how Hawks—along with Hitchcock—was one of the few directors who could pull out Cary Grant’s darker side. It’s a decent but not overly revelatory 17-minute interview.
A bit more interesting is an interview with Craig Barron and Ben Burtt, found under Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies. This 21-minute segment, easily the best feature on the release, presents the two talking about aviation films of the period, and how films like this, Dawn Patrol and even Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels laid out the ground work for films to follow, especially in sound design, and also admire Hawks’ way of conveying so much information visually in how planes worked, how pilots flew them, and the dangers that were faced (like the maximum height a plane could reach). We get some great insights into the model work and effects, Barron—who has talked about effects on quite a few of Criterion’s releases now—again offering simulations on how particular sequences were shot, and the participants have also dug up some outtake footage of test shots and/or outtakes involving the model work. And, if all of that wasn’t enough, they also contextualize some things for modern audiences. It’s an outstanding addition to the set, filled with great material, and I was thrilled by the simulations provided.
Criterion then closes off the release with the film’s theatrical trailer and the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film, performed May 29th, 1939, around the time of the film’s release. It features most of the cast reprising their roles, including Grant, Arthur, Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, and Richard Barthelmess. For a radio adaptation it’s not too bad, of course rushing through some plot points and spending more time explaining certain things. Like similar features on other releases it’s great to have more for historical purposes. The included insert then includes a nice essay by Michael Sragow, first going over how Hawks’ critical reputation grew and then goes over the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
Overall it might feel a bit light, and admittedly I’m somewhat surprised no commentary has been provided, but the material is good, particularly Barron’s and Burtt’s material.
A couple of strong supplements, but the real sale here is the superb presentation. This new edition comes with a very high recommendation.