Wednesday, May 25, 2005

In the first twenty-odd minutes of Only Angels Have Wings, director Howard Hawks pulls off a miracle. With barely a shot of a flying plane, or the pilot’s point-of-view, he creates a scene, which in its intensity, is more than a match for any special-effects action extravaganza that I have seen.

A young woman has just arrived in a South American port on her way back to the States. This is the time of the birth of aviation, before the First World War. The port has a small air-base which uses propeller-driven airplanes to ferry cargo to and fro. The hitch? A mountain which needs to be flown over and which often gets obscured by fog. The woman is befriended by two pilots, who’re clearly in need of some feminine company. She takes a fancy to one of them, a handsome all-American type; even his name is Joe. He asks her to have dinner with him; she agrees but he has to make a flight and a thick fog has settled in. He promises her he’ll be back soon and takes off; she stays with the crew and the head of the station. But the fog is too much; he cannot reach his destination; the captain asks him to come back and land; but now the airstrip is almost invisible. The crew on the ground try and give him directions by simply listening for the sound of the engine and using their intuition to judge where he is; Joe almost crashes while landing; the captain asks him to stay up till the fog lifts; Joe says he wants to land; after all, there’s a pretty girl he wants to have dinner with; he tries landing again, crashes and dies.

All of this happens in the first twenty-five minutes and it is breathtakingly orchestrated. In complete and supreme control of his material, Hawks introduces the early days of flight, unsafe, and without the instruments that are so indispensable to flying today; the early pilots, pioneers all, who risked death every time they flew and who did it, for the money, for the adventure, for the sheer joy of flight, who knows why! Best of all, he constructs a scene of a plane crashing with barely an aerial shot, where the reactions of the onlookers take us right into their heads (and hearts) and the tragedy that results feels exactly as it would have felt to someone in the situation: disconcertingly sudden, strangely disorienting, and suffused with the kind of sadness that is known rather than felt.

But Only Angels Have Wings is not a sad film. It is a film with a heart of gold, which knows that its asset is its heart of gold and its belief that adversity brings out the best in men, which tries charmingly to put up a tough exterior, but only so much so that it’s golden heart comes through. Do I sound cynical? If I do, it’s unintentional because I genuinely loved this film. It is a superlative example of populist film-making; a film without pretensions to profundity; helmed by a director who knows exactly what he wants and populated by actors who know exactly what their director is aiming for. It works brilliantly.

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