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Only Angels Have Wings

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One of the greatest American films ever made, Howard Hawks' 1939 picture chronicles an air-mail delivery unit in a mountain-encircled Colombian town, where treacherous conditions make practically every flight a suicide mission. Brooklyn native Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) happens upon two of the pilots, one of whom crashes by the second reel. Lee's disgust at the callous air team, especially chief Geoff Carter (Grant), sets the plot in motion.

But calling it a "plot" is a stretch, and this is part of what makes Wings so special — and Hawks' place in the cinematic pantheon so unique. Francois Truffaut famously referred to Hawks' "invisible directing," a style that isn't as readily apparent as that of Hitchcock, Welles or Ford. Hawks' greatness lies in the deft orchestration of multiple characters and plotlines within a unifying set of goals, usually contained by a workplace. Collective effort reveals men's substance, not grand speechifying.

What you get in Hawks' films is a sense of "people hanging out," but with a surprising degree of tension. (Steven Soderbergh is Hawks' closest contemporary analogue.) Only Angels Have Wings is a reluctant love story, a tale of redemption, a study in light and fog, and a rare chance to watch Cary Grant drop all vestiges of foppishness and go full-tilt badass. In other words, don't miss it. (April 24-25 at The Belcourt)

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