NIGHTHAWKS (1978)

  • Director: Ron Peck
  • Writer: Paul Hallam
  • Starring: Ken Robertson, Tony Westrope, Rachel Nicholas James, Maureen Dolan, Stuart Craig Turton, Clive Peters, and Robert Merrick
  • Accolades: 2020 Rolling Stone 50 Essential LGBTQ Movies
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), buy or rent with Amazon Video

If you are a regular reader here at Movie Valhalla you know that we regularly feature films by non-white male directors, some of which you might not have been aware of previously. We are continuing to do this, and we also hope to feature more films representing LGBTQ themes. With this mind, today’s feature is Nighthawks, an ultra-indie time capsule of the gay scene in London prior to the AIDS epidemic. Rather than attempting to make some large statement about society, it is a specific portrait of a specific person. Its director, Ron Peck, gave voice to the anxiety many minorities feel when making films about specific characters while many tell them they have a larger responsibility to the less-represented groups they are depicting. “The film only shows one part of the gay scene… Almost any film starts off with the burden of trying to redress an imbalance, to make homosexuality visible in the cinema. We need hundreds of gay films, not half a dozen.” In the years since, perhaps to Peck’s surprise, we have achieved this goal in at least a numbers sense.

Nighthawks centers around the character of Jim, played perfectly by Ken Robertson, who is living one of those classic double lives. During the day he makes a respectable living as a teacher at what I think we Americans would call a private high school (UK school terminology has always confused me). He then spends his nights trolling gay dance clubs, seemingly more out of compulsion than general enjoyment, going home with various men he meets. It’s not that he isn’t interested in long-term relationships, it’s just that all of his relationships seem to end after a couple of dates. We seem him watching the dance floor intensely (the soundtrack seems to only have had the budget for one somewhat weird dance tune, which you will have drilled into your head before all this is over), sipping a beer, engaging in increasingly rote small talk with some of the other denizens of the scene. Then we cut to him at home with various guys, never quite seeming like he’s getting what he wants out of whatever’s going on.

This is a very straightforward depiction of gay life consdering its time period, and I would say the most memorable scenes in the film all involve Jim being very open with other people about his experiences. The scene the movie is best known for comes near the end, when Jim walks into class and a particularly obnoxious boy raises his hand and asks, “Is it true you’re a queer?” Jim answers in the affirmative, and then proceeds to calmly answer a long series of questions about the particulars of his life in the same manner he might approach any class discussion. Though there is a great deal of tittering, the students seem more studious than anything, and at one point one of them tells off another for asking if Jim is “ashamed.” Other questions include, “Do you carry a handbag?” “Do you dress in women’s clothes?” “What do you do in bed?” (“Sleep, mostly”) and “What does your family think about it?” The scene is played almost entirely from Jim’s point of view, looking out at the students in long takes. Jim later meets with the Headmaster (aka the Principal) (Ernest Brightmore) and is basically told, “yeah, don’t talk about this in class again,” and life seems to continue as before.

There’s another “coming out” scene in Nighthawks that also really struck me in its own way. Jim hangs out with a new substitute teacher named Judy (Rachel Nicholas James), who is married to an unseen husband, but I at least was left to wonder whether she sees Jim as a potential romantic partner. Then there’s a scene at a bar after work where she complains about her relationship with her husband and Jim sympathetically replies with a few anecdotes about his past “boyfriends.” He’s the one talking, but the scene shows us Judy freeze with a beer glass halfway up to her mouth, then lower it without drinking. She seems not to have considered this possibility. But after he’s done talking she casually moves on with the conversation. We realize that this seemingly very casual and normal conversation on Jim’s part was actually very courageous, as he easily could have lost his friend by revealing this information. Later he and Judy have a long conversation in a car on the way back from a school dance they chaperoned, where she basically calls him out on his serial bed-hopping. He defends himself and says he’s happy. One of the interesting things about the movie for me is that it doesn’t really seem to take a position on whether anything its characters do is right or wrong. It just observes them.

So in the end, I found Nighthawks fascinating if imperfect. It has several long scenes that are just long shots of the crowds at gay discos while bad non-copyrighted dance music plays, and I’m not sure why they’re here. I think what attracted me to the movie is the way, like many great movies, it serves as this near-perfect window looking back on people and places and a time that no longer exist, and in this case it is a person and a place and a time that I haven’t seen in a zillion other movies. It is also not trying to really celebrate its main character or hold him up as some sort of hero, or, alternatively, martyr. Few movies have made scenes of a crowd of people dancing seem more melancholy, it is sort of the anti-Saturday Night Fever. I read one article that turned out to be from the modern gay comedian Matt Lucas (amusingly, I did not realize who had written the article until I finished reading it, while simultaneously watching Lucas host an episode of The Great British Bake Off), in which he stated that Nighthawks was his first introduction to gay London and that he was turned off by how unhappy everyone seemed. It was only later he came to appreciate the movie for showing gay people as they actually were, rather than how they wanted to present themselves.

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