Only Angels Have Wings is an annunciation: already a major director, Howard Hawks here becomes a definition of cinema. And yet Angels is not radically different from previous Hawks films, nor a model of seamless perfection.
One's first thought might be that Hawks benefitted from an evocative visual plan, courtesy of Lionel Banks' art design and Joseph Walker's dazzling, Oscar-nominated cinematography. But Hawks exploits that plan with a directorial freedom greater than he had previously permitted himself. More than ever before in his work, we experience the set as an actors' hangout, a place to linger over drinks, to come together in musical interludes, to catnap while waiting for the mail plane to return.
Hawks always liked to send strong genre signals, in order to increase the frisson when acting and action play out quicker, quieter, more informally than the genre backdrop leads us to expect. And the beginning of Angels is a genre pileup of major proportions. The traffic and bric-a-brac of the port of Barranca are swirled together with lively non-stop south-of-the-border music, and main characters are introduced gradually as the party travels from the streets into the Dutchman's lively restaurant/hotel/airport. Hawks and his screenwriters (Jules Furthman gets the credit, but a host of others participated, including Anne Wigton, who seems to have devised the basic story concept) introduce the love story and the comic relief early, but instinctively hold off on the film's really distinctive elements until its first set piece, the tense team effort to guide Joe Souther's plane home. The extraordinary impact of this scene depends upon Hawks discarding genre trappings a bit at a time, stripping the set and the performances of adornments, leaving us exposed to darkness and fog. The peak moment is when airline boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) impatiently orders that the musicians in the café stop playing: the order is passed along in the background, and after a few seconds the movie's chief genre signifier drops off the sound track, leaving ominous silence.
Only Angels Have Wings has an unusual structure that bodes well for Hawks' future career. The film's first and last thirds are devoted to lengthy, well-orchestrated dramatic interludes, centered on action and suspense while weaving in other story threads. No doubt Hawks' most dazzling coup is the Joe Souther interlude, with its surprising and understated expansion of the character of Kid (Thomas Mitchell), Geoff's second-in-command, who reveals both an unusual skill at tracking Joe's plane and an uncanny symbiosis with Geoff. If the biplane flight at the climax is inevitably less evocative and suspenseful, it takes us closer to the film's emotional center, with wild-eyed Thomas Mitchell and pulled-in Richard Barthelmess shoved together in a tiny cockpit, neither one revealing all his mystery, different acting styles checking each other out, competing archetypes of Hawksian existentialism.
Between these two integrated dramatic interludes, the film's middle third, alternating between chit-chat at the Dutchman's and adventures in the flying trade, is more meandering and lighter on plot than any previous Hawks passage. Yet this looser middle section points the way into Hawks' future: it contains the highest concentration of uninhibited behavioral play, the reflexive fun-on-a-movie-set that Hawks would hang onto after he had stripped away every other component of his style. Geoff and Kid wrestling for possession of Kid's double-headed coin, or Geoff patting the Dutchman's head while talking baby talk to him, belongs to a non-narrative, almost Warhol-like layer of the Hawks universe that can be regarded as either foreground or background, depending on where we focus our eyes.
As Hawks' directorial personality flowers in Angels, so do his idiosyncrasies. Love interest Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) perhaps suffers from the competing subplots that flourish in this relaxed environment, to the point where she has to draw a gun on Geoff at the climax to regain lost dramatic stature. The odd character dynamic between Geoff and the disgraced Kilgallen (Barthelmess) - Geoff has great empathy for Kilgallen's plight, yet treats him with contempt to his face - will surface again in later Hawks films, where it will sometimes be mysteriously labeled as a form of therapy. Angels also sees Hawks beginning to convert his world view into an ethos, with both Bonnie and Kilgallen's wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) forced to capitulate to Geoff's ideas of right and wrong. Some viewers may be fazed by the full revelation of Hawks' personality - and yet this is what we have to deal with when an artist becomes so confident and so comprehensive that the cinema becomes subordinate to him instead of the other way around.