When Bonnie Lee’s (Jean Arthur) boat docks in Barranca, she gets off the boat thinking she’ll just be in town for the night. But when she meets American pilots Joe (Noah Beery, Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn), she’s happy to meet some fellow Americans and starts spending the evening with them. The three of them stop into a bar, but then an order comes in that one of them has to fly out with some mail. It’s very foggy that night, but their boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is trying to land a mail delivery contract for his airline and has to stay on schedule for six months. It’s decided that Joe must make the trip, but once he gets a ways out, they decide that it’s too dangerous for him to continue and is ordered to turn around. When he gets back, he can’t see the runway to land. Carter orders him to stay up until the fog clears, but he doesn’t listen and tries to land anyway. He hits a tree on his way down, crashes, and dies.
Bonnie is deeply affected by Joe’s sudden death and is rather disturbed by the cold, distant attitude Carter seems to have about the incident. But when some of the other pilots explain that they understand the risks of the job and that casualties are just a fact of life to them, she softens up toward Carter. The two of them have a wonderful night together, drinking, singing, and playing the piano. She even starts to fall in love with him! Carter is attracted to her, too, but he’s had a bad experience with a woman that’s put him off the idea of love. Plus he doesn’t want to give up flying and knows a lot of women couldn’t handle being married to a pilot. Their evening is suddenly interrupted when Carter has to leave to deliver that mail. Bonnie’s next boat is due to leave before he’d be back, but she decides at the last minute to skip the boat and stay in town for another week. Carter is very surprised to find her waiting when he gets back, but not in a good way. Bonnie feels stupid for having stayed, but she sticks around anyway.
But Carter is in for an even bigger surprise when Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and his wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) suddenly arrive. Bat’s come to town under an assumed name because he’s had a bad reputation in the flying world ever since he bailed out of a plane and left his mechanic to die. The mechanic that died happened to be fellow pilot Kid’s (Thomas Mitchell) brother. Carter immediately recognizes him and is hesitant to hire him at first. The other pilots don’t want him there, but they really need the help and Bat is assigned to the most dangerous flights. Not only that, but it turns out Bat’s wife Judy is the same woman who broke Carter’s heart. Meanwhile, even though Carter had hurt Bonnie earlier, she continues to fall in love with him. But after seeing one of his flights nearly go horribly wrong, she really begins to question whether or not she could handle being married to a pilot. Then the time comes time to make the final delivery to get that mail contract. Carter had planned to make the treacherous flight himself, but before he can leave, Bonnie accidentally shoots him in the arm and he can’t go.
Bat and Kid make the trip in his place. When they realize they can’t fly as high as they need to, they’re told to turn around. But on the way back, a bird hits the windshield and breaks Kid’s neck. The plane also catches on fire and Kid tells Bat to go ahead and parachute out of the plane. But this time, Bat is determined to not leave his companion and the two go down with the plane. Kid doesn’t make it, but Bat survives and earns the respect of his fellow pilots. By then, Bonnie is ready to catch her boat and move on. When she goes to say goodbye to Carter, he gets word that the weather is clearing and he starts rushing to make that mail delivery. But before he leaves, he tells Bonnie they should flip a coin to decide if she stays or not. She doesn’t want to decide anything so glibly, but then she realizes he’s flipping a two-headed coin.
Even though adventure movies aren’t typically among my favorite movies, I really enjoyed Only Angels Have Wings. I really liked that it managed to find a balance between being an action film and a romance without feeling like two different movies got stuck together. And the best part is that both parts are carried out equally well. Plus the cast is fantastic! Of course, I like Cary Grant in just about anything, but I really loved him and Jean Arthur together here. I mostly know Richard Barthelmess from his silent films and a handful of his pre-codes, so it was nice to see him in this. This was one of Rita Hayworth’s first substantial roles. She doesn’t have a particularly big part, but she made herself noticeable and this movie really helped her career. And to top it all off, it’s got superb direction from Howard Hawks! All in all, an excellent movie.