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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: Only Angels Have Wings

So much happens in Howard Hawks’ 121-minute Only Angels Have Wings that it would be easy to overlook the outstanding production design in the opening scene: a boat arrives at a South American port to drop passengers and mail, and pick up bananas. Other than introducing a couple of characters, the segment seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the film, set at an airfield on the other side of town, as well in the air itself.  The production design is impressive there, too, integrating believable models with flying sequences, to the point where you can’t always tell what is shot practically and what was not.  ut the opening scene, as the ship negotiates the dock, teeming with workers and merchants, is a testament to how great the film is when you’ve forgotten it by the time the movie ends. Every element is impressive, and we’re only at the opening chord.

Our heroes have one more week to ‘earn a mail contract,’ and a pretty disastrous week it will be, with pilots dying and planes coming apart. But that is what great entertainment does, squeeze a lifetime’s worth of adventure into an afternoon’s interlude. Jean Arthur or Cary Grant stars, depending upon what perspective you want to take on the action and drama. Arthur’s character, fresh off the ship and not intending to stay, finds herself caught up in the camaraderie and intensity of the flyers’ world, and despite her intentions, but inevitably from the history of motion pictures, she falls for Grant’s character, the boss of the outfit. Grant’s character is intent upon getting the mail contract, not for the wealth it represents, but because he feels it is his responsibility to support the livelihood of his co-workers. He’s attracted to Arthur’s character primarily because she is more intelligent and anchored than the women he is used to being involved with, but his closest relationship is with his partner, played by Thomas Mitchell, who is, in essence, Arthur’s principal rival. And then? Rita Hayworth sashays into the film.

A classic production from the greatest year of classic American movies, 1939, the action scenes are terrific, not only because of realistic special effects, but because the editing is precise in its suspense, and the dramatic sequences are equally dazzling, with Hawks’ legendary overlapping dialog and complex yet organic character blocking. Criterion’s blu-ray release is spotless, and exchanges the softness of earlier DVDs for the texture of projected celluloid. The fog in the film’s fog sequences no longer looks phony, and you are absorbed by the movie’s images, regardless of how dark and stormy the environment becomes. The mono soundtrack is also stronger and crisper, with the film’s sound editing standing out. There are optional English subtitles, a trailer, a very good 17-minute analysis of the film’s artists and artistry by David Thomson, and a fascinating 21-minute piece about airplanes in Hawks’ movies and early aviation, along with some terrific original behind-the-scenes footage and a thorough analysis of how the flying sequences were achieved.

Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews with the famous film directors are always interesting—and valuable, now that they aren’t around any more—but the directors are often catty when discussing intentions or handling thematic queries.  But Hawks nswers every question Bogdanovich pitches his way in an excellent 20-minute audio-only interview clip, explaining how the film reflected his experiences working in planes during World War I, what it was like working with the individual actors and actresses (when Hayworth, who was just starting out, had trouble crying, he set the scene in a rainstorm so no one would notice), and more information on how they staged the flying sequences.

It is difficult to catch what has been cut in the excellent 57-minute abridgment presented as a radio play on Lux Radio Theatre in 1939, which has also been included on the BD. All of the principal cast members are on hand, and even Alan Ladd, before he became a star, has a couple of lines. Grant, as usual, is not as into it as the others, but Arthur is terrific and the program does quite a good job of conveying the story’s action while exploring its various themes about emotional bonding and responsibility. There is also, during an intermission, an excellent report about the first commercial flight across the Atlantic, which occurred shortly before the broadcast, as well as the usual plugs for Lux soap.

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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
~ Steve James On City So Real

“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho