In William Friedkin’s Cruising, New York rookie cop Steve Burns (Pacino) is given an assignment which will put him on the fast track towards becoming a detective. His mission: to go into the night-time gay underworld of S/M leather bars and find a killer. In order to blend in, Burns takes on a new identity and begins to trawl the clubs in search of the murderer. But in doing so, Burns begins to question his own identity and finds that the personal strain is greater than he expected.
I attribute the film to William Friedkin not simply because he directed and wrote it but because everything about it screams FRIEDKIN!!! The self-consciously gritty and ‘realistic’ visual style, the use of subliminal imagery, the explicit gore, the extensive use of location shooting; all of these would go someway towards identifying the film as belonging to its auteur but more than these is the overwhelming sense of his grabbing your lapels and screaming into your face before grasping your head and rubbing your nose in a pile of shit. As his entire career has comprehensively proved, William Friedkin is a screamer and, in one sense, Cruising finds him at his most shrill. You wouldn’t expect sensitivity from the director of The Exorcist but this portrayal of gay life verges on the hysterical; all black leather, fisting and the unfulfilled promise of on-screen golden showers. The first murder is inter-cut with frames from a hardcore gay porn film for reasons which escape me unless simple shock value was intended. The gay men who inhabit the leather bars all look like potential serial killers, complete with wildly staring eyes, and some of them evoke all the inner joy of an extra from Dawn of the Dead. No-one in these places seems to be having any fun except for Steve Burns and that’s only after he’s imbibed some amyl-nitrate. Perhaps fun isn’t the point but there’s an uncomfortable sense of this being a sub-culture examined from the perspective of a heterosexual outsider who is revolted by what he sees. In 1980 it was unusual for any gay lifestyle to be seen in a mainstream movie so it’s not surprising that many gay viewers found it offensive that a Hollywood movie would choose to portray them so blatantly as ‘the other’.
It has been suggested that the film goes so far as to see homosexuality as an epidemic which can be caught if you spend too much time with it. I don’t know if that’s entirely fair – it’s certainly a very simplistic reading of what happens to Steve Burns – but I do think that the film invites simplistic analysis through being so heavy-handed. Given that the one ‘nice’ and ‘normal’ gay character is killed towards the end, despite going expressing disdain for the S/M leather lifestyle, one could easily interpret the film as saying that if you’re gay, you’re gonna die. A few years later, such a message could be seen as being a metaphor for AIDS but 1980 was a bit early for that.
Yet Cruising is more interesting than the above comments suggest because if one can look aside from the setting, there’s a lot going on under the surface. Friedkin claims to have made a murder-mystery with an unusual setting but what he’s actually produced is more akin to a European art house movie than a police procedural. Quite apart from anything else, the investigation into the killings is half-hearted and, towards the end, purely schematic. The film is far more interested in posing questions about identity than it is in providing any answers and the treatment of the murder-mystery is symptomatic of this. Different actors are used to play the killer in different scenes, suggesting that there is more than one culprit. The killer’s voice is overdubbed by the actor James Sutoris who plays the father of Stuart Richards (Cox), the man arrested for the killings. At the end, another killing takes place which Richards could not have done and we see a repeated shot from the beginning of the film of the killer – or a killer – striding into the club. The only possible response to this is a measure of confusion and this seems to be entirely deliberate. Perhaps the killer is simply meant to be the eternal ‘Bogey Man’ who stalks all those who stray from the path of reactionary ‘righteousness’. The image of the black-leather encased psychopath is certainly an iconic one.
Identity is what the film is primarily concerned with. Not merely the identity of the killer but the identity of the leading character, Stuart Burns. He starts the film seemingly unaffected by the outside world and involved in a committed, warm relationship with his fiancé Nancy (Allen). But there’s darkness there – his willingness to lose himself in pretending to be another person, his sudden start when Nancy mentions his father, his intimation that “there’s a lot about me you don’t know.” Like many heroes in film noir – a genre with which Cruising is tenuously connected – Burns has an inner darkness into which he falls. The most fascinating parts of the film are when he is drawn into the character as his surveillance of Stuart Richards becomes a kind of flirtation. In the end, it is suggested that Burns has come back to his old self only through a sacrifice of blood and the look he gives us in the mirror can be interpreted in myriad ways. Has he really returned? Was there anything to return to or was ‘John Forbes’ there all along?
Much of the credit for making Burns so fascinating must be given to that great actor Al Pacino. It’s not a performance for which the actor has received much praise but I think it’s interesting because it’s so held-in. There’s only one scene where Pacino gives into a violent outburst but it’s physical rather than verbal. This restraint was something that was part of several classic performances from the actor in the 1970s but in recent years he tends to have turned to grandstanding rather than making himself part of the overall scene. The looks he offers during the film are open – that is, they allow us to make our own judgements on the character’s emotions – and never more so than at the end. It’s a great moment – Pacino holds the camera for little more than a few seconds but the blankness is genuinely chilling, telling us all we need to know about what might happen in the future and what has just come to pass. His performance dominates the film but it’s complemented by an equally restrained turn from Paul Sorvino as his mentor. The supporting cast do all that is required of them within the confines of the film – it’s always good to see Joe Spinell, who looks like a sleazy scumbag even when playing one of New York’s finest - but it’s obvious that actors of the calibre of James Remar and Powers Boothe could do a good deal more. I’m not so sure about the casting of real cops in key roles – Randy Jurgensen, the real-life model for Steve Burns, does well enough but Sonny Grosso isn’t convincing as anything except a cop who can’t act.
The refusal to tie up loose ends makes this a more interesting film than most of Friedkin’s subsequently output and it shares the virtues of his earlier work. The filming on New York locations is admirable throughout thanks to exceptional lighting from debutante cinematographer James Contner – who did sterling work on another New York film, Times Square and is now a highly regarded TV director. The film editing by Bud Smith is equally impressive and the sound editing creates a wonderfully atmospheric, grimy soundscape. It’s a very tight, well organised piece of filmmaking. I just wish that the strident parts had been toned down and the elliptical aspects had been played up even more. As it is, it’s likely to offend and infuriate many viewers who see it, leaving only a small cult following to appreciate its undoubted virtues.
Cruising was produced for Lorimar Films, a now defunct production company, and the rights have now passed to Warner Brothers who have released it on DVD. Although there were rumours that this DVD release would contain an extended version of the movie, perhaps even the 140 minute cut which Friedkin delivered to the studio in 1980, what we have here is the R-rated theatrical version with some minor changes. A disclaimer has been removed from the opening and the title now scrolls across the screen. A blue tint has been added to some of the night scenes and club scenes. The dancing sequence with Steve Burns sniffing amyl-nitrate has had some blurring inserted to better represent his state of mind under the influence. There’s also a scene towards the end which has been re-inserted, the effect of which is to give a bit more insight into the killer’s mind. Finally, the soundtrack has been remixed into (rather subdued) Dolby Digital 5.1.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, supervised by the director, is a delight.. The level of detail is staggeringly good throughout and the colours are true to the intended appearance. I didn’t spot any artifacting or over-enhancement. There is a grainy and dark appearance which is entirely intentional. Compared to the muddy mess of the transfer on the Warner VHS, this is quite splendid. The 5.1 soundtrack – the original mono is not on the disc – is, as I said above, fairly passive but dialogue is always clear and ambient effects often fill the surround channels.
There are a few interesting extras on the DVD. William Friedkin’s commentary is the proverbial game of two halves. The first forty minutes or so is excellent but as the film goes on, Friedkin lapses into his old trick of describing what’s happening on the screen. When he delivers some background information or offers his insights into the production, the commentary hums but for too much of the time, it’s an irrelevance. The two-part documentary is rather better. Friedkin comes over well on camera and his contribution here is typically entertaining. He’s joined by some of the supporting cast but, interestingly, not Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino or Karen Allen. Indeed, Pacino has rarely commented on the film at all and seems to have distanced himself from it. This in itself would be an interesting topic for investigation but it’s not mentioned, perhaps understandably, on the DVD.
Finally, the original theatrical trailer is included. Subtitles are present for both the main feature but not for the commentary track or the documentaries.
Cruising is clearly one of the most controversial films ever made and one which more people have heard about than actually seen. If you haven’t seen the movie and want to see what all the fuss is about then this Warners DVD is a very good way to do so.