By Gary M. Kramer.
Arrow Films’ new Blu-ray edition of William Friedkin’s Cruising offers viewers the opportunity to reconsider this “controversial” thriller nearly 40 years after it was initially released. The film is fascinating, not just because of its history – the gay community disrupted the film’s shooting and objected to its depiction of the S&M subculture – but because of how it plays with the police thriller genre.
Based on the 1970 novel by Gerald Walker, the story has Steve Burns (Al Pacino) going undercover to solve a series of murders in the gay community. He takes the assignment from Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino), as a means to be quickly promoted to Detective. However, as he gathers information, his immersion in this underground gay world starts to affect him. While he bonds with his gay neighbor Ted (Don Scardino), he grows detached from his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen).
Cruising may be offensive in its presentation of gay men as hedonists, fetishists, or self-loathing (which is arguably a motivation for a murderer in the film). There is also the possible encouragement of hate crimes and other homophobic activity, such as policemen abusing the cross-dressing DaVinci (Gene Davis). In addition, some suggested and explicit scenes of graphic sex acts occur throughout Cruising; a scene of fisting a guy in a sling in a club is kind of surprising. (The film had to be edited and submitted numerous times before it received its R rating).
But to its credit, Cruising also shows the camaraderie of men in the clubs and on the streets where guys are often seen with their arms around each other’s waists, laughing or having a good time. And the bromance that develops between Steve and Ted as they get food and talk about their lives is rather sweet. The backdrop of the gay milieu is, the filmmakers insist, just a setting for the story. (Friedkin did helm The Boys in the Band a decade earlier, which also featured some self-loathing gay men, though Cruising is far removed from that landmark production).
What is interesting is how Cruising portrays its cops as harassing and corrupt – from the aforementioned treatment of DaVinci to a strange sequence where Skip Lee (Jay Acovone), a possible suspect, is mistreated and humiliated during an interrogation. The police are also largely inept, as Captain Edelson mishandles the investigation at various times, and other policemen are unable to get their surveillance equipment to work.
Despite these flaws, there is something oddly compelling about Friedkin’s film. The director imparts a real style, depicting the sex and violence in a gritty, lurid fashion. (The high definition Blu-ray makes all the reds and blues and blacks pop). There is a brutal murder in a peepshow arcade that Friedkin films artily, with a silhouette of the knife against a screen projecting images from a porn film. Likewise, there is some real tension during a few of the murder scenes, where a slow-burn seduction ends in a slaying. There are even a nifty zooms and editing during a sequence where Steve is staking out Stuart Richards (Richard Cox), a suspect.
The strong visuals help carry the disjointed story along. So too does some of the sound design. According to the Blu-ray’s extra, “Exorcising Cruising,” some of the film’s dialogue had to be looped because of protesters’ noisy actions during filming. Likewise, a voice used by the killer is dubbed for several characters at different times in the film, to blur and complicate the truth.
That there are so many ways of “reading” Cruising is another reason why the film deserves a(nother) look now. The whodunnit aspect of the film is intriguing. The knife used as a weapon is an obvious metaphor for (sexual) penetration, but that knife switches hands, which makes it unusual. What is this film saying about gay serial killers? One murder takes place in a hotel room where the victim is naked and tied up; another slaying happens in the rambles at Central Park, a notorious gay cruising ground; and a third in a peepshow booth. (A fourth killing, which happens offscreen – only the corpse is seen – is in an apartment, and that murder goes unsolved). These scenes are perhaps designed to be seductive, because they are full of erotic promise until they are not. Are these gay victims being “punished” for their desires, and wanting sex? The film is purposefully unclear. The reason for each killing – including the corpse in the apartment – is never fully revealed, which make them unsettling. The murderer’s phrase, “You made me to that,” is deliberately cryptic.
Another curious aspect of the film is how it plays with the idea of identity swapping and/or code-switching. Steve is selected for the undercover assignment because he is the “same physical type” as the killer’s prey. He is sent out to attract a murderer, a risk he accepts because of the reward. Steve’s education about the gay scene is a way of instructing viewers about the subculture – consider a terrific scene of Steve asking a store clerk (Powers Booth), about the hankie code. Steve is chided for inappropriately sporting a bandana by a gay man who hopes to pick him up. How Steve assimilates (or doesn’t) in the S&M bars and clubs is telling. He is ejected, ironically, on “Precinct Night,” for not being in uniform. The scene features various guys brandishing nightsticks in and out of policeman’s garb. Another knock against cops, perhaps?
Steve’s experiences in, and doubts about, his undercover assignment also prompt him to return to Nancy periodically to reaffirm his heterosexuality. But he also tells her, enigmatically, at one point early on in the film, “There’s a lot about me you don’t know.” Steve’s personal interest in the gay underworld goes largely unexamined, so viewers don’t know either. But they can guess. This, too, appears to be intentional. Steve does not judge what he observes, and he has empathy for some of the men he meets (like Ted), admonishing Captain Edelson for mistreating gay guys because they are gay.
Notably, Steve has very limited gay sexual activity in the film. He is naked and tied up by Skip in a scene that ends abruptly (when they are arrested), but most of that activity is heard, not seen – and badly; the cops are unable to get their audio equipment to work. Steve also has an encounter late in the film with Stuart that features the classic query, “Hips or Lips.” (It would be interesting to know how that line was received back in the day.)
In addition, Steve’s scene with Ted’s boyfriend/roommate Greg (James Remar) is, perhaps, the film’s most intense. Greg, who is seen in a t-shirt and underwear, while Steve is in leather and jeans, pulls a knife on Steve and they fight. Each man is asserting their masculinity and being protective of Ted. That the Steve-Greg-Ted triangle remains somewhat unresolved at the film’s end may be unsatisfying to some viewers, but it actually is quite tantalizing.
Equally mysterious is an end scene where Nancy dons the killer’s leather cap, jacket, and sunglasses. It, like so much of Cruising, is deliberately ambiguous. But it makes the film especially provocative to watch and unpack.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.