Thursday, April 14, 2016

Like Being in Love with a Buzzsaw

There's this way people have of dividing films into two camps -- in a way that implies one is better than the other, although I suppose that goes without saying -- that has been popular for a long time and which drives me totally batshit. Once so divided, the camps are "plot-driven films" and "character-driven films." The idea, I suppose, is that when a film's narrative is driven mainly by plot mechanics, it is therefore a worthless chunk of shit when set next to a film that's really just about people. The problem as I've always seen it, when this division is used on modern films, those films labeled "character-driven" are quite often films in which specific characters move through a plot that may be loosely or tightly constructed, but is still a plot, and the characters are the characters because of how they react to or are affected by that plot (this being also more or less what happens in "plot-driven" movies). So when discussing or judging or thinking about movies, typically I've never gone for this sort of thing.

On the other hand, Howard Hawks.  Though the great director was no stranger to working with plots, even complex ones -- the plots to comedies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby hardly take a second to breathe; plus, you know, The Big Sleep and everything -- but his unique signature can be found in what Hawks super-fan Quentin Tarantino refers to his "hangout movies." This term has most famously been applied to Hawks's Rio Bravo, but is in fact best exemplified by his follow-up to Rio Bravo: 1962's Hatari! While Rio Bravo does have a bare sketch of a plot (and an engaging one) used to bring its characters together, Hatari! doesn't. In that film, Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett establish a group of characters, a job, and a location, and for 157 minutes invites the audience to watch it all just colorfully exist. Hatari! is truly, almost radically plotless. Though the exoticism of the African locale and of the job the characters have to do (capturing animals for zoos, etc.) are not insignificantly engaging, the film is almost entirely, purely character-driven. One of very, very few films I've ever seen that earns that description. Classic Altman looks almost like House of Games by comparison.

But Hawks had already done this, and even more gracefully, over twenty years earlier. In 1939 Columbia Pictures released on of that legendary film year's true masterpieces with Only Angels Have Wings, Hawks's light but weighty, balletically, grinningly serious adventure about airmail pilots in South America. Just released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion, if Only Angels Have Wings wasn't almost eighty years old it might play like a supremely confident rebuke of the currently accepted wisdom that the mark of a good film is that every scene moves the plot forward (although, to reiterate, and just as an aside, Hatari! walks up to the prone body of that accepted wisdom and steps on its neck).

The film begins with Bonnie (Jean Arthur), a singer/piano player/all-around entertainer arriving in the South American port town of Barranca. She's supposed to be there only for a layover, but very soon she becomes caught up in the whirlwind existence of Barranca Airways, the airmail service owned by Dutchy (Sig Rumann), who also manages the restaurant-nightclub out of which Barranca Airways operates, and managed by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), a seen-it-all pilot whose attitude to the dangers he and the other pilots face on a daily basis Bonnie soon learns seems to mask, but in fact reveals, a deep humanity. Within about twenty minutes of her arrival, Bonnie has already witnessed the death of a pilot when his plane crashes trying to land on the runway outside the nightclub. His former comrades eat the steak he ordered before he had to fly an emergency mail-run, and pretend he never existed. Disgusted at first, Bonnie very quickly learns this isn't heartlessness; it's a means of staving off heartlessness, and panic.

The cast of Only Angels Have Wings is filled out with a host of ringers, from Allyn Joslyn as pilot Les Peters (I actually think Joslyn's casual naturalism is one of the film's secret weapons) to Rita Hayworth in one of her earliest roles, as Judy MacPherson, an old flame of Geoff's, to, as the two most crucial characters in the film outside of Geoff and Bonnie, and perhaps even including Geoff and Bonnie, Thomas Mitchell as Kid, Geoff's right-hand man, and one-time silent film star Richard Barthelmess as Bat MacPherson, Judy's husband. Bat arrives in Barranca looking for a job as an airmail pilot, but his reputation for cowardice due to an incident years ago in which he abandoned Kid's brother to die, is known to everyone in Barranca Airways, and his request for work is met by everyone with mockery, anger, and disdain. "I don't think even you can spoil good liquor," Geoff says to him (the script by Jules Furthman, based on an original story by Hawks, is as sharp, funny, and moving as that writerly era ever produced). But Geoff takes him on anyway. So the film has a villain! Except, no.

It's strange to me that Barthelmess would only make three more films after Only Angels Have Wings before retiring from acting, having failed to carry his silent film-stardom over to talkies. Because he was too low-key, perhaps? I don't know, I was unfamiliar with him prior to this, but I think his performance here is extraordinary. It's so tamped down, too, and to play Bat's shame and determination to work pitched so low, and still stand out among the big, wonderful, Hollywood presences of Grant, Mitchell, and Arthur, strongly indicates that his instincts for film acting weren't confined to one style. In any event, I must now stress that the appearance of Bat (and Judy) comes maybe halfway into Only Angels Have Wings, and as great an impact as it has on the film, and the characters, it plays in the film as just another of the things that happens in the world of Barranca Airways. A very dramatic thing, to be sure, but one that doesn't overwhelm the film's last hour. Though Bat, and Kid, turn out to be the guts of the film, this reveals itself only gradually. It doesn't become plot; it becomes incident.

There are some iffy plot things -- or anyway, there's one -- that keep Only Angels Have Wings from going full Hatari! But otherwise the films are two of a kind. The audience is at first introduced to an environment they would most likely never know, and then they are immersed in it. It's a matter of atmosphere as much as it is character, to be honest, but either way the viewer lives among the characters. To say a film is absorbing is to pay it a compliment, and Hawks's films is almost literally absorbing.

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