Virtually a textbook example of Howard Hawks' macho mode, Only Angels Have Wings takes place high in the Peruvian Andes. Cary Grant heads a ramshackle airmail and freight service, forced to fly in the most perilous of weather conditions to the most treacherous of destinations.
Facing death on a near-hourly basis, Grant and his flyers have adopted a casual, all-in-day's-work attitude towards mortality. If a pilot cracks up and dies, it's simply because he didn't have what it took, and that's that.
Stranded showgirl Jean Arthur can't stand this cavalier attitude at first, but before long she becomes, in true Hawksian fashion, one of the guys. Complicating the story is the presence of Richard Barthelmess, who has been persona non grata with the other pilots ever since his carelessness cost the life of one of their number.
In addition to a surfeit of guilt, Barthelmess is saddled with a faithless wife, played by Rita Hayworth in her first important A-picture role. Hayworth makes a play for Grant, but he spurns her, finally realizing that, in spite of himself, he's in love with Arthur.
Grant himself is riddled with guilt when near-blind pilot Thomas Mitchell insists upon taking on one final flight. Having lost his best friend, Grant drops his hard-bitten shell, and for the first time opens himself up emotionally to Arthur-which of course leads to a nail-biting climax wherein Arthur suffers mightily as Grant faces certain death.
Scripted by Jules Furthman from a story by Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings is a treasure trove of terse, pithy dialogue: our favorite scene occurs when, upon discovering that he's about to die, Thomas Mitchell says he's often wondered how he'd react to imminent death-and, now that death is but a few moments away, he'd rather that no one else be around to witness his reaction.
Though sometimes laid low by obvious miniatures, the aerial scenes in Only Angels Have Wings are by and large first-rate, earning a first-ever best special effects Oscar nomination for Roy Davidson and Edwin C. Hahn.