To say that Nighthawks is ordinary or even mundane is not meant as a criticism, but rather a celebration of its power. The first major British gay film, it takes us through a few weeks in the life of Jim (Ken Robertson), focussing on the minutiae of his existence: the days he spends as a geography teacher at a London comprehensive; the nights in which cruises the capital’s gay bars and clubs. At first it appears as though the once adventurous nature of its subject matter has rendered it cinematically less so, yet it soon becomes apparent that director Ron Peck (“assisted by” Paul Hallam, as the opening credit has it) is applying a subtle documentary veneer which gradually draws us in towards this character and his milieu.
Indeed, the opening shot is of London by night, the 16mm film stock making it possible for us to only discern the street lamps and neon, through which we slowly travel until entering the nightclub in which much of Nighthawks will take place. Watching the film today these opening minutes are strangely reminiscent of, though far less technically dazzling than those which greeted audiences into Irréversible. The difference is that here we are faced not with confrontation but rather observation. Certainly, it is a full six minutes before any significant dialogue is heard and even then it is of an awkard, almost belated fashion – instead we are invited to simply take in the sights and sounds which surround our lead.
Of course the title of Peck’s film can’t help but bring to mind that of Edward Hopper’s most famous work (almost definitely intentional given that Peck would make a documentary on the artist two years after this film’s completion), and much like that painting it is the atmosphere which is integral. Primarily Nighthawks conveys this through its use of improvisation and mostly non-professional actors who drew on their own experiences. Understandably this may produce the odd bum note, as it were, but then this isn’t the only technique at Peck’s disposal – far more important are his more overtly cinematic devices.
Almost all of Nighthawks is constructed from long, unedited takes. In most cases these are simple two shots whereby the camera is set up in front of a pub table or on the back seat of a car, though Peck also adopts them in a more adventurous manner. A scene at a small party in some artist’s studio doesn’t receive a single cut, in doing so perfectly capturing the shifts in Jim’s mood, whilst the nightclub moments truly allow to get under the skin of such environs as we glide past its patrons or slowly track towards Jim’s eyes.
The effect of this is to keep us permanently close to our lead. Had Peck gone for a more elliptical editing style, he would no doubt have lost much of this. Rather we are with him at all moments, whether they be awkwardly chatting up some guy in bar, drinking a cup of tea (well this is a British film, after all) or simply sat alone in a pub. Indeed, there is an air of miserablism to Nighthawks, but importantly it’s not of the self-loathing kind which occupied, say, Murray Melvin’s character in A Taste of Honey, or Dirk Bogarde’s in Victim. Of course, this atmosphere is in part because of the manner in which Peck has reflected the London of the time (if you don’t believe me then consider the non-concert footage in either D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or Lech Kowalski’s D.O.A., both documentaries and both incredibly bleak looking to these eyes), but then Jim was also dismissed as “such a miserable sod” by Geoff Andrew in Time Out upon the film’s release. However, this isn’t to say that Nighthawks is a downbeat work, merely that it reflects its character.
It’s also true that some of this criticism – Andrew wasn’t alone in finding problems – was in part down to the film’s significance. Being a major gay work at time when they were considerably rare, it was of course expected to conform to certain agendas depending on what various individuals hoped such a work would signify or represent. Approaching the film 30 years after its initial conception (it took three years to raise financing) such considerations no longer exist as gay cinema has since gone on to accommodate numerous forms and configurations. As such we’re left with a piece whose importance cannot be ignored, but more importantly stands up as a fine example of cinema in its own right.
Shot on 16mm, Nighthawks comes to DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Given the film stock the film is understandably grainy, but the work Second Run have put into its presentation (overseen by Peck) is clearly impressive. The grain and the like are, of course, intentional and as such remain, plus we get a fine handling of the colours, with rich reds and blues during the nightclub scenes as well as strong, solid blacks. There are occasional signs of print damage, but on the whole this is an impressive presentation.
The soundtrack is similarly fine and takes the form of a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. Again certain flaws, if you will, are inherent from the film’s production meaning that at times the dialogue is barely audible (Margaret Nolan in particular struggles to make herself heard at times). However, this never harms the film - on the contrary it only serves to enhance its realism. That said, optional English subtitles would have been a welcome addition.
As for the extras, Nighthawks is accompanied by two featurettes and an eight-page booklet including handy biographies for Peck and Hallam as well as a new essay by Andy Townsend. (Sadly, Peck's 1985 short, What Can I Do With a Male Nude?, which accompanied Nighthawks previous VHS release is not present.) The first featurette, entitled ‘Nighthawks Revisited’ is a 30-minute piece hosted by Matt Lucas of Little Britain fame. Over its duration he interviews many of the film’s main players (Peck, Hallam, Robertson, Don Boyd, Stuart Craig Turton and others) and in doing so provides an interesting overview of the film’s production and its reaction. Refreshingly, those interviewed are also decidedly honest with Turton admitting that he finds it a little too downbeat for his taste, whilst Margaret Nolan “hated it” on first viewing.
The second piece is slightly longer at 35 minutes and covers Peck’s approach to improvisation. Stylistically, this is a difficult piece to get through at times as it consists almost solely of a single shot of Peck speaking to camera in tight mid-shot. That said, much of what he has to offer is of interest, whilst those moments which punctuate it consist of a fascinating alternative take from the film as well as rare test footage for Empire State, Peck’s second feature made in 1987.
As with the main feature, all extras come without optional subtitles, English or otherwise.
Anthony Nield has reviewed Second Run's Region 0 release of Nighthawks. Notable as the first major British gay film, it nowadays transcends such importance and stands up as a fine example of cinema in its own right.