Nighthawks (1981)

t03374sqdlyI love movies that feature New York City during the late 70s and early 80s, they capture a space on celluloid that I want to constantly remind myself existed once upon a time. And after watching The Hitcher a little while back, [[Rutger Hauer]] reminded me of the classic Nighthawks which is an excellent example of a NYC film during this period. And while it’s a post-[[Rocky]] [[Sylvester Stallone|Stallone]] vehicle (he is beautifully 70s in this film), I don’t remember it so much for him—although on re-watching it he has a gem or two in there which seem like preparation for his role as [[John Rambo]]. The real push to return to this film came from one of my favorite character actors, the great [[Joe Spinell]] of Maniac fame. When I drill down even further, I actually re-watched this film for just one scene. A short, seemingly throwaway moment wherein Stallone is emphatically bitch slapped by Lt. Munafo (Spinell), possibly the most beautiful in the history of Spinell’s rich career:

Understand this, sucker!!!” It doesn’t get any better than that, especially when it’s aimed at Stallone. Although, let’s face it, I’m a child of the 80s and I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I have a fond affection for Sly—and anyone who says otherwise during this period is lyig through their teeth. Let’s face it, Stallone is an over-actor’s actor who, like [[Charles Heston]], is earnest in his inability, unlike the dreadfully saccharine [[William Shatner]]. An excellent example of which can be found in Nighthawks, the following clip is from the memorable subway chase scene and it would seem that Stallone is preparing for his classic monologue at the end of First Blood the very next year. Wait until the very end of this short clip for the pay off:

Subway Chase

Last, but definitely not least, the opening of Nighthawks offers up a couple of treats. Not only does it feature the lithe keyboards of [[Keith Emerson]], whose impact on 80s music and culture more generally is just starting to sink in, but also frames one of my favorite visions of New York City during the 1970s and 80s, a crime ridden wasteland in which being mugged by switchblade-carrying Puerto Ricans was a foregone conclusion. And this opening scene actually marries a couple of aesthetics from NYC films of this period, it frames the classic thugs mugging helpless victim in abandoned streets, à la Death Wish (1974), but ends with a cop foot chase and subway platform battle that reminds me a lot of The French Connection (1971). Seems like movies in the 90s and 00s forgot the importance of a compelling opening scene, which are far more common among even mediocre films during the 70s and 80s.

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7 Responses to Nighthawks (1981)

  1. Brad says:

    Your classic opening scene of ’81 rivals (but only barely) one of my all-time favorite classic opening scenes from ’91: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze (how sick of a title is that, by the way).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQFuwXXW0Uc

    I can’t tell you what a flood of memories this scene brings back for me. And Vanilla Ice was in this movie, so I think maybe I win this round…

  2. Brad says:

    All things considered, they’re very similar openings, now that I really think about it. Maybe it’s a tie.

  3. I saw this film in the theatre when it came out. I was working in Austin, Texas, on a night shift, doing a three-month stint at the Texas Instruments home office. So it was sort of appropriate.

  4. Reverend says:

    @Brad,
    You know I love you, but you really can’t compare The Teenage Ninja Turtles with Nighthawks, not only does it make a mockery of my nostalgia, but the Ninja Turtles may very well suggest the gentrification of NYC that is happening in the early 90s, a trend you can also see in State of Grace (1991). The Ninja Turtles are campy, and that has some value, but the vision of New York in the first two minutes of the clip you link to suggests a safe, happy place that is preotected by Turtles, not a Stallone and Billy Dee Williams who have to go decoy. Moreover, the villians are faceless, they have no race or etncity, they are irrelvant, as is the actual crime. It’s not even violent crime, but stealing from vans. So while I can almost understand your enjoyment of that clip for its utter retardedness, it also suggests why 90s babies aren’t afraid to colonize NYC — they seem to believe they can tramp around there and make citizen arrests of anyone they want. It’s because of films like the Ninja Turtles that NYC has gone to the wealthy dogs, and civilian life there is populated by a bunch of happy, pizza-loving zombies. This opening is the very antithessis of Nighthawks, and marks the slow decline of NYC as a livable city.

    Oh yeah, also, I saved you comment, it was being spammed by the filter, I’ll have to look into that, odd it didn’t happen to the second part.

    @Stephen,
    I’m pretty impressed with your ability to pin-point exactly when and where you saw this film. Am I aright to assume it made an impression on you? What was woprking for Texas Instruments like? Did it feel like being shaken down for pocket money on the way to a NYC subway? Inquring minds are dying to know.

    On a totally separate note (and given there was no where to comment about this on the Daily), the jobs you listed on the OL Daily today looked very interesting. Are you all going to be piloting the PLE tools you are researching and designing with schools, distributed people, MOOCs, etc.? Will there be a praxis built in to that research project? Also, are you planning on building a tool, or using existing ones to consolidate and exemplify what all can and might be done?

  5. Brad says:

    The way I see it, the Stallone NYC is super glamorized for Hollywood with its wide sweeps & quick cuts & dark corners in every space within the city, regardless of whether or not there’s a corner there to be darkened at all. It’s over-done to the same extent that Stallone over-does his acting, & that’s why they placed him in this setting — they pair up nicely. It’s believable that New York is that seedy & ultimately lifeless because the way Stallone does his job is lifeless.
    With the Turtles, though, there is no faking inauthenticity. The film presupposes that you are suspending your disbelief for the entirety of its 90 minutes, & so it mirrors its New York City in one of bouncy cheese-synths & romantic evenings by the bay eating pizza. It’s a New York of the optimist, & one that the average joe is more likely to see if strolling around casually. It makes sense because it doesn’t try too hard to be “HARD” or “REAL.” It doesn’t make an attempt at saying “LOOK AT ME I’M NEW YORK CITY HEY OVER HERE LOOK AT ME!” It just is.
    Statistically, more people are eating pizza in New York City than getting stabbed. This is assumed to be true, & you would be hard-pressed to disprove it.

  6. Reverend says:

    Statistically, more people are eating pizza in New York City than getting stabbed. This is assumed to be true, & you would be hard-pressed to disprove it.

    Brilliant! But I would have to argue that according to the films during the 70s and 80s (which are my only proof) there were not enough pizzerias open during these decades because they were being constantly robbed and the proprietors stabbed.

    But to your point, what each of these movies suggest in their own way is a changing idea of the city, and while I don’t entirely disagree with you about Stallone, at least he is trying to take himself seriously. The problem with the optimist vision of NYC and the pizza-eating Turtles is that they, like Crocodile Dundee, represent a new, triumphant vision of law and order in the big city that is cartoony and pleasant. Which makes me sick. It marks a cultural representation of the Disneyification of the big Apple which brings along with it rising rents and brave new real estate pioneers. I prefer the fear and terror vision of Hollywood in the 70s and 80s because I want to believe it keeps the riff raff out. That said, I grant you it is just as inauthentic as the Ninja Turtles, because at it’s heart it represents a campaign that ultimately primes the public imagination that this world is to be feared and avoided, which given the means of distribution beyond physical space next to impossible for most of the world to verify this vision as false. And by extension, these earlier films do everything in their power to make NYC far less desirable than it might truly be, effectively driving down any desire to live in the city, which ultimately means the vultures can move in and buy it up in the 90s. I guess the two mark a large continuum of cultural propaganda through Hollywood narrative which is almost an assumed and pervasive cultural trope that makes it all the more interesting. So by the time we get to the kind of all ages camp of the Turtles the narratives suffer accordingly. They have no more grit, they have triumphed and the message seems that much more transparent as if to be simply an outlet to sell toys.

    Moreover, I realize that I am trying to realize a huge capitalist inspired conspiracy theory around ground rents and real estate prices through films like the Ninja Turtles and Nighthawks, but this is part of an even bigger project I have been working on for years. If you are a masochistic, I’ll soon be putting online and linking to a presentation paper I did on films in NYC during the 70s, 80s, and 90s which trace the heart of the gentrification of this city through films like these. A piece I know is deeply flawed and irrational, but I love all the same 🙂 I’ll blog it when I get it up, and ironically, I didn’t have the Ninja Turtles in there, which I think is a nice addition, so thanks Brad 🙂

  7. Paul says:

    Billy Dee Williams , he was in Star Wars wasn’t he?
    I love watching these old, geez they aren’t that old are they, movies much the way I watch old British movies from the 60’s – as almost documentaries. The fashion, styles, cars and attitudes sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cringe.

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