One of legendary director Howard Hawks’ early classics, and arguably the most impressive of his many air-based features, Only Angels Have Wings – his second of five collaborations with Cary Grant – is a late 30s gem.Featuring some spectacular aerial cinematography, the story – which basically centres on a failing business running airmail across the Andes Mountains – plays out as far more compelling than you’d assume, with Cary Grant’s assured manager, and fearless pilot, struggling to keep the company afloat by any means necessary, including taking treacherous side-jobs running doctors into impossible-to-land locations, and unstable explosives across the mountain pass. Further confusion is added to the mix by the arrival of Jean Arthur’s forthright barroom pianist/entertainer who gets drawn to Grant’s daredevil but abhors his near-suicidal aerial antics, as well as an old flame played by Rita Hayworth, whose new husband wants to join the flying crew but is universally loathed for having previously bailed out of a plane only to leave his mechanic and co-pilot to crash and burn.
Hawks – who co-wrote it – weaves a number of different strands and interesting character backstories into the mix here for a surprisingly potent cocktail which transcends the simple ‘postal service’ premise to deliver action, suspense, drama, romance and even some effective comedy. A young, pre-Hitchcock Grant still commands the piece with the assuredness that made him a captivating, convincing hero well into his late fifties, whilst the interplay between both Jean Arthur and the arguably more striking Rita Hayworth (making her film debut) makes for an interestingly inverted romantic triangle. Of course, both the locations used and the real-life, and miniature, aerial effects define the piece, with air racing stunt pilots hired to perform some particularly dangerous manoeuvres; all the more impressive because they would never have been agreed to these days.
Picture QualityAlthough some might argue that it doesn’t have many contemporary qualities to make for a demo release, Criterion’s Region B-locked UK Blu-ray release of Only Angels Have Wings is undoubtedly a demo example of what you can do with a movie of this age; it’s likely never looked better, with a fantastic 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition transfer framed in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 ‘Academy ratio'.
As part of Criterion’s flagship wave of UK titles, Only Angels Have Wings shows off its relatively recent 4K digital restoration, remastered to deliver this 77 year old movie with staggering quality.
Detail is, at times, excellent. Sure, there’s a heavy swathe of grain that pervades the piece, but it could be argued that this is very healthy for a feature of this vintage and certainly gives it a lovely, textured, filmic quality. There are a few shots that struggle with softness, and even focus, but it’s largely only to be expected and, across the span of the entire 2 hour feature, it’s more than acceptable. Contrast is strong, allowing for a full, natural, range across the monochromatic spectrum and, overall, Criterion have done a top job at delivering this film in the best shape it’s ever been.
Sound QualityThe uncompressed monoaural track is also a faithful, worthy accompaniment.
Criterion’s linear PCM 1.0 track promotes the movie with its correct, original mono. Obviously it’s all front and centre, a tightly-channelled affair which is steeped in the kind of tinny high-end prevalence indicative of the period of production, but it still does a remarkably good job, remaining faithful to the feature and the classic vintage, and delivering the dialogue with clarity throughout, the effects with decent enough coverage, and the strong score perhaps most impressively. It’s a top job.
ExtrasFirst up we get 20 minutes of audio excerpts taken from a 1972 conversation between the legendary filmmaker Howard Hawks and fellow director Peter Bogdanovich, who, at 32, had just had hit first hit with The Last Picture Show. There’s also an Interview with film critic David Thompson which runs at 17 minutes and looks back on the film and the director’s work. The 21 minute retrospective Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies has filmmakers Craig Barron and Ben Burtt look at this theme in Hawks’ oeuvre.
Porting over all of the extras from the US release, Criterion’s UK edition continues to impress.
Perhaps the best addition, however, has to be the 57 minute 1939 Radio Theatre adaptation of the film, featuring all of the main cast – including Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth, hosted by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. The disc is rounded off by a Trailer for the main feature.
VerdictOnly Angels Have Wings remains one of the most impressive of the Cary Grant/Howard Hawks collaborations, and is one of the six flagship titles for Criterion’s UK Blu-ray bow.
With excellent video and audio, and their usual impressive extras – all identical to the US counterpart, UK Region-locked fans should be relieved that they finally have easy access to the classics in the Criterion Collection, and should start lapping them up now, starting with this one.
You can buy Only Angels Have Wings on Criterion Blu-ray here
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