English Title: Nighthawks
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Four Corners, Nashburgh/Cinegate
Director: Ron Peck
Cinematographer: Johanna Davis
Runtime: 113 minutes
Genre: Art/Social Realism
Jim is an exemplary geography teacher at a London secondary school whose sexual preference is an open secret to most except his parents and his pupils. Outside the classroom, Jim photographs a grim and distressed London, whilst at night he cruises gay clubs looking for ‘Mr Right’. He begins a friendship with Judy, the new supply teacher, who is intrigued by his seemingly free and independent lifestyle. Successions of men come into Jim’s life for a time and then disappear or simply fade away. The only stability he has is his work and friendship with Judy, and his impatience and desperation become increasingly apparent. When a confrontation with students causes Jim to make a big decision, it does not have the liberating impact he anticipated.
Nighthawks was Britain’s first explicitly gay film that chronicled life for a single gay man in London at that time. Not only an important film in terms of its style and content, it is an authentic picture of London before Thatcherism, and of the gay scene before HIV/AIDS and after Stonewall. Previously, gay characters' sexuality was the origin of a problem, as in Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961), or treated as a peripheral matter, as in Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey (1961) or Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968). Nighthawks made a clean break from previously camp representations of gay men on film. Though controversial upon its release, for its frank nudity and use of actual locations frequented by gay men, the film opened at the 1978 Edinburgh Film Festival and had some commercial success.
Paul Hallam and Ron Peck’s grainy realism offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of Jim’s (Ken Robertson) life that can feel at times like an all-too-intimate intrusion. The lingering nature of some scenes, the abrupt ending of others, and the use of extraordinarily long takes and close-ups either alienate or enthral. A five-minute, slow, camera tracking shot from a club dance floor to Jim’s hungry eyes show what it is like to cruise and be cruised. Peck has said that the real-time duration of some scenes bestowed a tension that both the actor and audience had to move through until the very end.
Robertson leads a mixed cast of actors and non-actors (including the director-artist Derek Jarman) such that some of the performances are amateurish whilst others capture the awkwardness of one-night stands and rendezvous. The inquisitive Judy (Rachel Nicholas James) is a stand-in for the straight 1970s’ viewer as she interviews Jim about what life is like for a gay man, asking: ‘What do you do in these bars? What are they like?’
The film’s pacing and shifting between Jim’s cramped flat, cruising spaces, conversations with Judy and the morning after the most recent conquest underscore the cyclical, mundane nature of his life. But how different is Jim’s life from his straight colleague's life or even the viewer’s? Work, socialize, try to find someone to be happy with, repeat. It is on this point that Nighthawks succeeds supremely. The film’s leisurely pacing works toward a crucial scene with Jim’s students, and its aftermath that upends expectations for the film’s climax. Narrative pleasure in the resolution is withheld from the audience and pleasures of transformation and resolution are withheld from Jim, as the film situates him almost in the place where he started. Though not a polished film, Nighthawks is a demystifying time-capsule that says much about the life of gay men in 1970s’ London. It is also a testament to the vibrancy and do-it-yourself nature of independent film-making during the era.
Author of this review: Deirdre Devers
Peer reviewer: Deirdre Devers