Film Threat archive logo


By KJ Doughton | September 11, 2007

Imagine being at the auditions for “Cruising.” Rehearsing for his role of a jaded hankie salesman, Powers Boothe might crouch pensively behind a desk, memorizing leather bar etiquette. (To solicit for a golden shower, did the yellow bandana go in the right back jean pocket, or the left?) It would also be reasonable to find Bruno Kirby dousing both hands in oil, gearing up for his lurid fisting cameo. The reliably seedy Joe Spinell might also lurk about… just to look creepy in a black leather cap and jacket. Handcuffs and face-hugging zipper masks could be sized up.

Sound controversial? “Cruising,” the 1980 murder mystery directed by William Friedkin and based on Gerald Walker’s novel, is lucky to be in existence at all – yet, it’s seeing a first time DVD release on September 18th. That the Warner Bros. movie got made at all is astonishing, and it’s unlikely that any studio would touch the film today. Even so, the film’s most critical mistake is its unwillingness to go far enough.

“Cruising” focuses on the gay, S&M leather bar lifestyle of pre-AIDS New York City, combining it with a mad-serial-killer plot. Having weathered more than its share of unsympathetic onscreen portrayals, the homosexual community didn’t welcome this unsavory combination, protesting the film during its production and initial release. Meanwhile, S&M (or BDSM, the more contemporary term) in and of itself makes the mainstream squeamish.

However, there’s a more surprising reason why “Cruising” would most certainly be shunned by contemporary studios. Viewing the film today, it’s clear that Friedkin wasn’t just exploiting his subject matter for kicks. There’s an almost art-house vibe that permeates the movie. Unsettling (some might say unsatisfying) ambiguities are chosen over neat and tidy wrap-ups.

More lurid “explorations” of S&M that have materialized since this film are basic and obvious. “8 Millimeter” and “Hostel” are two examples – while, admittedly, neither one threw homosexuality into the equation. Studios prefer paint-by-numbers perversions to more ambitiously complex fare, but Friedkin, who appears fascinated with human transformation (“The Exorcist,” “Bug”), is actually trying for more profound insights into the human condition.

“Cruising” is, on the outside, the story of Steve Burns (Al Pacino), fresh-faced puppy of a cop who naively takes on an undercover mission towards “Gold Shield” promotion. “Ever had your pole smoked by a man?” asks his superior, NYPD’s Captain Edelson (tired-eyed Paul Sorvino), before sending Burns into the sweaty, blue-tinted underworld of New York’s gay S & M leather bars. Essentially, the duration of “Crusing” sees Burns posing as a leather bar patron in his efforts to attract and flush out a killer who’s dismembering fellow gay sadomasochists and tossing their limbs into the East River.

Beneath the trashy leather jacket and jock strap it’s wrapped in, Friedkin’s film asks several fascinating questions, even if it fails to answer any of them.

On one level, “Cruising” appears to be about Pavlovian conditioning. As Burns immerses himself deeper into the primal, extreme sensations of the bar scene, his lovemaking sessions with fiancée Nancy (Karen Allen) seem more physically aggressive. If a straight man is tossed into a sea of rough, sadomasochistic gay sex, will he begin craving this lifestyle? Will he stop appreciating the more tender, delicate advances of a woman? As it turns out, the film chickens out and never clarifies its stance on this issue of heredity versus environment (on the film’s DVD commentary track, the director admits that his movie “asks more questions than it answers”).

Friedkin insists, however, that he never meant to correlate homosexuality and murder with “Cruising.” Even so, it’s easy to understand why gays would respond defensively to the film. Who wouldn’t balk after seeing their lifestyle coupled with both lurid, public orgies of rough ‘n tumble copulation and an epidemic of grisly murders?

Playing the devil’s advocate, however, perhaps Friedkin deserves to be cut some slack. The film’s terrain is clearly a limited, select subculture of the larger homosexual community, and one that did exist. Friedkin insists that most of the bar patrons featured in the film were true-to-life participants from The Day. We’re guided through heavy leather districts like Central Parks’ Rambles, and underground West Village clubs hiding between industrial meat packing plants (meat hooks dangle ominously in the foreground during several scenes).

During one hilarious sequence, customers pack a crowded bar donning patrol uniforms for a cop-theme costume night. Pacino’s character, unaware of the dress code and wearing more casual attire, is kicked out when managers accurately suspect that he’s a law enforcer. In a sea of blue police shirts, billy clubs, and dark slacks, Burns is the only real policeman in the joint – and he’s thrown out on his ear.

Not only did these clubs exist – so did the murders. According the “Cruising” press kit information, a cluster of killings dubbed the “Bag Murders” occurred from 1973 to 1979. The Homicide Division of the New York City Police Department had their work cut out for them, collecting limbs and torsos from the shores of the Hudson River. Four of the bodies were allegedly those of leather club patrons.

Despite these factual linkages, is “Cruising” still as hostile and unfair to homosexuals as its detractors claim? Perhaps. But the film’s most sympathetic character is Burns’ gay neighbor (Don Scardino), a sweet, struggling playwright who befriends the undercover cop and instills in him a sense of empathy, friendship, and compassion.

Meanwhile, the film reaches a kind of emotional crescendo (which is never completely actualized) when Burns angrily questions the police tactics used in a grueling interrogation of a gay waiter suspected of the murders. He knows the fuzz f****d up (on the eve of the Democratic Convention coming to town, Edelson is desperate to resolve the murder case), and is enraged by their degrading (and illegal) attempts to force a confession. “Cruising” could have morphed into a more interesting film had it followed Burns’ emerging insight that the gay community, the leather bar S&M scene, and the realm of brutal psychopathy were three entirely different entities, seldom co-adapted.

“Cruising” does succeed in suggesting that – gay or straight – people regularly take on risky dual identities, which are often violently in conflict. It’s a fascinating theme. Why does the televangelist seek out prostitutes on the sly? Why would a conservative senator solicit sex from an airport men’s room? It’s clear that “Cruising” is intrigued by this duality, even though it doesn’t entirely succeed in explaining the phenomenon.

During the commentary, Friedkin admits, “What interested me was the make-believe aspect of it. Most of the guys who were in that world dressed in outlandish, often S&M, costumes. Where by day, they worked in shops on Madison Avenue, and were stockbrokers and lawyers. They had one life over here, and they had this other life in the leather bars.” On this note, might Burns’ relationship with straight-laced Nancy somehow be rocked not so much by the gay element, but by too many nights of strobe lights, playful flogging, and amyl nitrite? Extreme, excessive experience colors anyone’s perception and ability to appreciate a “normal life.”

In fact, the closest “Crusing” gets to suggesting that one might surrender to this routine of sensory overkill shows Burns sniffing popper fumes off a blue bandana with another pepped-up patron. He gets into it, dancing, flailing his limbs, and smiling an intense, goofy grin. Another amazing scene shows various leather bar customers sizing Burns up. One face after another is seen in close-up, scoping him out. If Friedkin had really wanted to take his film all the way, this sequence might have been repeated at the end – with Burns’ mug also appearing in the parade of faces, sniffing out a new patron. Might burns have been bisexual all along, using this foray into a new lifestyle to confirm his suspected orientation? Alas, all we get is Burns stumbling back to Nancy days after an unbelievably casual break-up.

“Cruising” is a fascinating who’s who of great screen icons. Boothe, Kirby, and Spinell (the most convincing presence in the film, whose truly frightening oiliness also permeated “The Godfather II,” “Taxi Driver,” and exploitation fave “Maniac”) show up in early career bit parts. Ed O’Neill (TV’s “Married With Children”) and real-life NYC cops Randy Jurgensen and Sonny Grosso provide supporting roles. While Friedkin claims that he cast Allen because of her feminine qualities, this seems an odd choice. Coming off her triumphant turn as Indiana Jones’ feisty love interest at the time of filming, she was hardly a dainty, helpless presence.

Pacino, the most virile American actor of his generation, takes on an uncharacteristic role with Burns. When Edelson initially offers the assignment, Pacino’s young recruit laughs at his superior’s blunt interrogation. There’s a warmth and naivete that you wouldn’t expect from Pacino. In fact, fans expecting Tony Montana-style tirades are bound to be disappointed. Pacino plays Burns as an unschooled observer and audience chaperone through unfamiliar landscapes. The focus is not on him, but on what he sees. (Interestingly, neither Pacino nor Allen is featured on the DVD commentary or special features, and both reportedly had their misgivings about the film.)

In mining complex human behavior from controversial subject matter, “Cruising” is a unique moment in cinema. Despite considerable controversy, the film bombed upon its initial release, suggesting that it was too arty for the geek crowd, yet too subversive for the mainstream. Friedkin could have made a much more straightforward thriller (“gay killer foiled by macho cop”), and reaped bigger box-office receipts. His willingness to push for deeper insights suggests that a real artist is exploring new levels of drama – rather than peddling titillation for a quick buck.

Do I recommend the film? Ironically, writing a review of “Cruising” puts me in much the same state I imagine Friedkin being in during the making of the film. It’s hard to bring the entire experience into focus. The mystery is a vague bust. The film defies political correctness. The acting and dialogue are, for the most part, flat and by-the-numbers. The film’s most glaring fault is its inability to deal with the can of worms it has so daringly opened. Does Burns have gay yearnings? Does he have a newfound empathy for the gay community? In temporarily adapting to an extreme lifestyle, is Burns forever changed in some way? We never really find out.

Yet… after watching “Cruising,” I had a thousand questions on my mind; questions that would never follow “Transformers,” “Shoot ‘em Up” or most multiplex films I’ve seen over the past few months. For this reason alone, the movie merits viewing consideration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon