It can be fairly said that Howard Hawks's ripped-from-real-life adventure story Only Angels Have Wings is one of the most influential films in history, although I haven't personally encountered that argument before.

Here's what the logic looks like: it was the first Hawks film to really make a splash in France - not the first Hawks film to find release in France, of course, but the first one that was a smash hit. A while later, in the middle '50s through the early '60s, the gang at Cahiers du cinéma developed a new theory (or it might be better to say, they codified the rules of a theory that had been fluttering about amorphously since at least the 1920s), based primarily on the work of Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, that the director of a film was the individual most responsible for that film's meaning and overall quality, that it was possible to analyse a director's films largely in terms of how it fit in with his (or rarely, her) pet themes and characteristic style, and that it was therefore best to group films primarily by director. This was the famous and infamous Auteur Theory, and it remains the dominant force in film theory today, although I'm not certain that many of its most enthusiastic practitioners - fanboys - are conscious of it. But it's Auteurism, through and through, and nobody honest could say that they're free of it; we all know or are people who would see every single film that Quentin Tarantino directed, or Wes Anderson, Chris Nolan, David Gordon Green, Tsai Ming-Liang, Werner Herzog, David Fincher, Steven Spielberg - but can you think of a single person who would go see a movie just because Roger Deakins or Robert Richardson shot it? Hell, some of my best friends are cinematographers, and I don't think even they would go see a movie just because Roger Deakins shot it.

So my point: a debased version of Auteur Theory is the dominant mode of Thinking About Cinema right now, there would be no Auteur Theory without a French love of Howard Hawks, and there'd be no French love of Hawks without Only Angels Have Wings. I'm not saying that OAHW "caused" Auteur Theory - there are other directors than Hawks who could have inspired the Cahiers crew to the same conclusions - but in our particular universe, it's certainly a major link in the chain, and as good a place as any to settle down to sing Hawks's praises - and by any definition of the term "director", whether Auteur Theory is true in its most far-reaching and ambitious form, or the director a film is simply a soulless professional whose job it is to make sure everything fits into place correctly, Howard Hawks is without doubt one of the finest directors in the annals of Hollywood.

What makes a Howard Hawks film? The classic answer, the one the French boys gave us back in the '50s, was that he liked studies of male bonding, unafraid to commit fully to the weepy emotionality of that process when it suited him; and that his male-female relationships were marked by excessive sparring, banter and one-upsmanship: the "battle of the sexes" taken exceptionally seriously, although the battles were almost exclusively verbal. What makes Only Angels Have Wings something of a special entry in the Hawks canon is that unlike a great many of his films, which tend to be about men and men or men and women, it clearly explores both of these themes, sometimes in exactly the same moment.

The film takes place in Barranca, Colombia, where a rag-tag aviation company is responsible for carrying mail over the Andes Mountains. We meet this company through the eyes of Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), spending a few hours ashore while her steamer anchors in the port: three hotshot pilots , the addled owner Dutchy (Sig Rumann), cantankerous old flyboy Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), and the company's manager, Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Instantly attracted by the freespirited life these pilots lead, and to Geoff - who, being played by Grant, is handsome, witty, and has a beautiful voice - Bonnie stays on when her ship leaves. Geoff doesn't take kindly to that, but there's not much that can be done: the next ship headed her way doesn't show up for another week.

Everything is there: Geoff's paternal/brotherly relationship with Kid, his treatment of the young men under his command, eager to fly no matter how dangerous (Barranca is perpetually fog-shrouded, and the only way over the mountains is a narrow, high pass), and of course the romantic plotline (well, we know that Geoff is going to fall for Bonnie eventually, whether he plans on it or not), which looks back a little to Bringing Up Baby and forward to To Have and Have Not; the latter film in fact owes one of its most memorable lines of dialogue to one of Bonnie's final quips. Since both were directed by Hawks and written by Jules Furthman, it's hard to call this plagiarism; let's stick with "laziness".

And then there are the characteristics of Hawk's filmmaking style: the overlapping dialogue that his films more or less invented, the extensive use of offscreen audio, and his lovingly cluttered frames; Hawks, more than many of his contemporaries, dearly loved to put things in front of his actors. That he was a technically great director is acknowledged, of course, but I think it's worth harping on it for a bit: this was a man who really cared about the use of sound in his movies, in a decade when that wasn't very common. Hawks was not the first American with elaborate soundtracks, but there weren't many besides him to play around with such deeply layered sound effects; space in a Hawks film is defined as much by what we hear as what we see. And of course, one can never say it enough times, so I'll repeat myself: that overlapping dialogue! Even nowadays, when our films are oh-so-realistic, it's kind of weird to encounter people in a movie talking over one another, speaking in half-formed sputters, trying to get a word in edgewise - you know, exactly like people talk. It's part of the director's famously hurried pace - his films aren't "rushed", per se, but dammit if they don't move at a swell clip.

None of this, of course, means that Only Angels Have Wings is a particularly good film, just a typically Hawksian one; but it is good. Extroardinarily so (and in that respect, it is also typically Hawksian). And this is not because Hawks is a great auteur (which he is), but because he was a great studio workhorse. There are not all that many directors who were so extremely good at constructing films (John Ford is one, and now I've fulfilled the mandate of never talking about Hawks without mentioning Ford), and hardly any who were great at that and could hop genres so readily. Hawks made adventure movies, gangster pictures, comedies, Westerns, war movies, and in every single one of those genres, he made at least one film that is widely held to be at or near the very pinnacle of the style. You don't get that way by being just some studio schmuck, and you don't get there by being an auteur (since an auteur, almost by definition, mostly works with one kind of film); you get that way by knowing the right thing to do in every given situation, and doing it.

Only Angels Have Wings is, basically, perfect. I will stand behind that to death. It is formally and structurally perfect. Look to the opening sequence, the way it introduces our setting, Barranca, then brings in Bonnie, fleshes out the setting by adding color (the hotshot pilots) which itself contributes plot and drama; continuing to add color to the wider setting (Barranca) and the smaller setting (the bar where the pilots hang out and, apparently, sleep), introducing person after person with just enough specificity that we'll know them for later when they get filled out, finally introducing our protagonist; and then abruptly move from the accumulation of expository details to perfectly-tuned suspense (a plane in the air; will he land or will he crash?), that is itself expository (since we'll need to know, later, just how dangerous this job is). Information is being puked at us at a fairly alarming clip in the first 30 minutes of this film, and helped by a perfect screenplay that he helped shape (much of the film is based on events he personally witnessed), Hawks manages to make it thrilling and funny instead of lecturing. There's a sort of voodoo to really perfect filmmaking that defies simple analysis like this, or even rigorous formal analysis, and all I can really say is this: watch the film and be amazed, be delighted, be bowled over by its perfection. If you wish, spare a thought every now and then to the framing, the lighting, the editing, the acting, and how none of them could be materially improved. If you can do that for more than a few seconds without being sucked back in to the story, then you are a better scholar than I. And for me, that perfection that defies scrutiny, that is Howard Hawks.