Nighthawks (1981)
May 29th 2023

In its opening moments, Bruce Malmuth’s Nighthawks (1981) feels like yet another gritty city take on the police procedural, echoing similar undercover-cop narratives as in The French Connection (1971) and Serpico (1973), only the undercover cop is played by Sylvester Stallone and the disguise is uncanny drag, aided by a mask that looks more like horror movie fodder. In a sign of what’s to come, Stallone then embarks on a foot chase through the streets of New York City before dragging his perp around on a subway platform while sarcastically reading him his Miranda rights. It’s safe to say that Malmuth is not going for the same docu-realism that other filmmakers had brought to the genre in prior years.

Stallone plays Detective Sgt. Deke DaSilva, and his latest assignment is to take down international terrorist Wulfar, a suave, nightclub-loving maniac played with aplomb by Rutger Hauer. It’s a rather generic plot which is better summarized by the theatrical poster’s tagline: “A terrorist holds New York in a grip of fear – and only Stallone can take him on”. The novel aspect of Nighthawks has very little to do with its characters or the predicaments in which they find themselves, but it’s central enough to the film that Universal Pictures included it prominently in their marketing: New York City.

Like the aforementioned The French Connection and Serpico, Malmuth’s film is (wisely) set on the streets of New York City, in all of its gritty glory. Malmuth hadn’t had prior experience working in NYC, but he aligned himself with people who did, including cinematographer James A. Contner (Cruising and Times Square, both 1980) and co-writer David Shaber (The Warriors, 1979), both of whom know their way around the city well enough to allow its locations to propel the action forward, taking its characters on a Manhattan-Queens-Brooklyn three-borough tour.

Alongside sequences in numerous subway stations and tunnels, the United Nations building, the Metropolitan Museum, and the 43rd Street disco Xenon, it’s the sequence shot on the Roosevelt Island Tramway that has become synonymous with Malmuth’s film. It’s a remarkably tense piece of filmmaking that features Wulfgar taking a tram car full of people hostage, stopping the car in mid air, causing it to dangle over the East River. The scene encapsulates the city as a whole with vistas of the city’s bridges and skyscrapers both through its windows and from the point of view of the helicopters circling it. To make the tension even more palpable, Stallone himself performs the stunt of repelling over the river in order to enter the tram car. Nighthawks will likely never be as canonical as Friedkin’s or Lumet’s policiers, but it may be an even better use of the city in which it is set. It also features Stallone in one of his best performances (and outfits).

Nighthawks screens tonight, May 29, in 35mm at Nitehawk Prospect Park as part of the series “B-Sides.”