Directed by: Ron Peck
‘Nighthawks’ is considered to be one of the most important films in the history of British LGBT cinema. It is also one of those films which appear to be horrifically dated, although I don’t think its datedness takes away how ‘brave’ or ‘daring’ the film must’ve been when initially released.
The film opens with some jarring synth; a creepy tune which sounds like the kind of music which might accompany an rum drunk overweight clown as he enters the circus tent. The director drives us through London at night. We arrive at a night club, which features more atrocious nagging synth. I need to pause and address this because we’ve been told how pioneering gay culture was in relation to the early electro and house music scenes, but from the evidence of this film I can only assume that this was post-’78 because by Christ the soundtrack to ‘Nighthawks’ is bloody unbearable. It’s like listening to Iggy Pop’s ‘Nightclubbing’ after spending six hours spinning around in a cement mixer. They seem to use the same song every time we are taken to the night club. It causes my ears to leak blood.
So, the night club scenes. They occur frequently as the main character Jim keeps returning for hook-ups. There’s awkwardness in the air inside the club. Early on, there’s not a lot of conversation at the club, or even checking out of talent. Men mostly dance alone; they seem to be looking at the floor. Was this what it was really like? Or is it a London thing? Similarly to the vibe you get today in the capital’s unsocial hipster bars.
‘Nighthawks’ is about Jim, a closeted Geography teacher, who balances his rather straight job with his night time gallivanting. The film provides a glimpse of how difficult it was for gay men back in the late seventies to be open about their sexuality. Arguably they couldn’t have picked a worst profession to demonstrate this, because even in 2014 teachers don’t disclose all that much about their private lives. Why couldn’t Jim have worked in a factory in Dagenham alongside a group of uber-masculine cockney geezers?
A lot of the film is bleak, as Jim lives this Work, Work, Work (Pub, Club, Sleep) lifestyle. Towards the end of the film his incongruent personal life begins to catch up with him. He’s late for class after an encounter. Then when having to share his classroom with another class whose teacher was absent, the rowdy pupils from the other class out him in front of his own class. Jim then holds an inpromtu open forum discussion about his sexuality which gets him in hot water with the school’s headmaster. It’s a fascinating scene, which is one of the most politically loaded in the film, expressing the conflicting views of those who don’t really understand homosexuality. The subject is broached initially after an acne scarred youth asks “Is it true that you’re bent?”
The film has amazing depth to how it deals with shame. Jim’s struggle isn’t necessarily all about his sexuality, but his inability to actually form any lasting relationships. Jim even lies about being in a steady relationship to his supply teacher friend. It seems he doesn’t want to be judged for what he gets up to, despite his ‘honorable’ intentions to find that special someone. In a sense, the director seems to be saying that straight or gay when you’re single, you’re constantly overwhelmed by the weight of this heavy anchor of existential loneliness which you have to drag around with you.
I think when viewing ‘Nighthawks’ today you have to ignore the clunky dialogue, and generally poor acting. The film is a social study, a glimpse into the reality of London’s gay scene. It was unchartered territory on screen, and it took a determined director to make it happen.