This image is from 1:00:00 into Howard Hawks’ adventure yarn Only Angels Have Wings (1939). In the South American port city of Barranca, macho airman Geoff (Cary Grant) sits in his rickety office, facing a tough situation: he has just grounded his closest friend and much-needed pilot Kid (Thomas Mitchell). Despite cheating on countless vision tests, Kid has finally been cornered, and Geoff forces him to admit that his eyesight’s too poor for him to fly.
This scenario, in which Kid’s derring-do clashes with painful reality, is built on clichés that were already hoary in 1939. But in the all-too-capable hands of Hawks, Grant, and Mitchell, they make for essential cinema. Who needs an original plot when you’ve got three men who are the best in the world at what they do? Grant, as usual, plays a handsome daredevil, but he has to suppress his lighter, sillier instincts here as he doles out tough love in order to save his friend’s life.
Mitchell, as usual, plays an avuncular sidekick, but he’s never just a neutral accessory to the protagonist. His narrative role, here as in Gone with the Wind and It’s a Wonderful Life, is tainted with pathos, as he’s becoming old and obsolete. (Mitchell was 12 years older than Grant, and it shows.) Mitchell’s Kid sees himself as a potential hero, but like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, he’s “at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” That ridiculousness is compounded by his eagerness to sacrifice his life just so he can keep flying.
In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris briefly notes that “the heroes of Hawks [are sustained] by professionalism,” and that’s really the glue in Geoff and Kid’s relationship. They must balance their personal desires and their love for each other with the well-being of their whole flying team. That’s the pain in this scene, and it’s why they can’t look at each other. How do two rugged men of action express their complex, uncomfortable emotions? They don’t. Geoff castigates, Kid wheedles, and they awkwardly avoid each other’s eyes.
All of that is conveyed very cannily in the composition of this shot. It’s visually clean and legible, with criss-crossing slats and shadows filling in the background, and the physical relationship between the two figures in the foreground. Grant is glancing at the back of Mitchell’s head while assuming hostile body language; Mitchell fiddles with a cup. Hawks communicates emotion through ellipsis, by not saying anything. Their averted eyes say more about wounded masculinity than screams or tears could.