Ron Peck’s remarkable 1978 film, “Nighthawks,” playing April 25 at
9:00 as part of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” program, feels like a
documentary, though it is not. This story about Jim (Ken Robertson), an affable
gay man in London who looks for love in bars at night after teaching geography
at a comprehensive school all day, has an anthropological, ethnographical
quality to it. Peck, who co-wrote the film with Paul Hallum, shows Jim going to
a bar or discothèque, studying the crowd, and sizing up the men until he finds
someone suitable for spending the night. (“Nighthawks” could be renamed “Dating
Jim’s first encounter, Mike (Tony
Westrope) seems viable, but there is not much of a connection between the men.
Jim almost seems to instinctively know this as well, but he wants so badly to
make a connection. Peck’s presentation of the men’s small talk and body language
indicate that this is a one-night stand that is stretching to the breaking point.
Jim returns to the club and bars over several lonely nights. He picks up other
men, including Neal (Stuart Craig Turton), a dancer, Peter (Clive Peters), a
student, and an unnamed American banker (Frank Dilbert). Jim earns the viewer’s
sympathy in these evenings, especially when he is stood up one night. In one
remarkable shot—featuring a young Derek Jarman in the background—Peck moves his
camera in to a tight close-up on Jim’s eyes, conveying the depths of his
During the day, Jim is seen
teaching, and he befriends Judy (a rather stiff Rachel Nicholas James) whom he
comes out to in an intimate scene in a pub one evening. It’s a quietly powerful
moment, played with remarkable naturalism. When Jim mentions later that coming
out should not be a big deal, but it is, the magnitude of what is means to be
queer in 1978 London is put into bold relief.
This realism and the film’s
historical significance are as good a reason as any to see “Nighthawks,” but
the film’s charm stems from how matter-of-fact it is (despite its many quaint
or dated qualities). Robertson may play Jim as a slightly aloof, unhappy
character, who is longing for affection, but he is also incredibly
self-possessed and morally upright, even if he is afraid to tell his parents
that he is gay.
A striking scene towards the end of the film has Jim discussing his
homosexuality with his pupils in his classroom. After attempting to dispel
stereotypes and educate his class about being a gay man, a subsequent exchange
has Jim in trouble with the school headmaster for his “lesson.” This scene shows
him impassioned, standing up for his beliefs, taking responsibility for his
actions, and defending the courage of his convictions. It is an inspirational
sequence that captures Jim’s attitude and resilience in ways that are
empowering for both the character and the audience.