William Friedkin, 1980
Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox
I'm going to throw caution to the wind and immediately admit that I think Cruising is William Friedkin's best film, hands down. Sure, The Exorcist is iconic. Both films sort of ride on a gimmick -- satanic possession in The Exorcist and the gay S&M scene in Cruising -- but I still think Cruising is a more evolved, complex film. Also, where The Exorcist has become a household name, Cruising is still generally ignored and reviled.
Al Pacino, in a bold, if confusing move, plays Steve Burns, a lower-level police officer who goes undercover in the underground gay S&M scene to help catch a serial killer who is preying upon men of his physical type. The killer takes men home, ties them up, stabs them to death, and leaves their body parts in the Hudson. There are few clues and the police department is reluctant to get too involved.
Steve begins to immerse himself in the S&M world, first exploring clubs in the meatpacking district and soon making friends with a gay neighbor who is having boyfriend troubles. Steve himself begins having troubles with his girlfriend and looses interest in their sex life. He brings a suspect to the police for questioning and is repulsed when they beat up and humiliate the man, who is actually innocent. Soon he is alerted to another possible suspect, a music student Steve has been tailing.
Based on the novel, Cruising, by New York Times writer Gerald Walker, Friedkin's film was hated by critics, misunderstood by audiences, and equally loathed by anti-gay protesters and gay rights supporters alike. Critical support has increased over the years, but the film still remains controversial. There seem to be three main issues: the constant, in-your-face gay sexuality, the portrayal of gay sexuality as inherently violent, and the ambiguous ending/plot holes.
This film is unapologetically full of sex. It is about sex, sex, and more sex and, in particular, leathersex. The title, Cruising, could imply a police officer on the beat or a person strolling the streets looking for illicit sex. There is a lot of crossover between police uniforms and S&M costumes, as well as between the physical actions of police interrogation and Steve negotiating sex encounters with strangers. I think every scene, in some way, oozes with a sort of filthy sexuality that is indicative of late '70s/early '80s New York cinema. Let's face it, this is a sleazy serial killer film riding right on the coattails of Maniac, which was released the same year. Speaking of, Manaic's star Joe Spinell has a cameo in Cruising as an abusive patrolmen who forces gay club patrons to give he and his partner blow jobs in their patrol car.
Having grown up reading about the gay leather scene of the '70s (don't ask my why), I was excited to finally see this film film. There are plenty of explicit scenes and it was originally given an X-rating. Friedkin reportedly had to trim about 40 minutes of footage off of the original print before its theatrical release. As for whether or not the film is homophobic, I cannot fairly say. I think it is surprisingly non-judgmental on the surface level, but is obviously problematic at addressing Pacino's latent homosexuality in connection with violence and a possible mental breakdown that occurs toward the end of the film. I saw this less as a comment on his homosexual desire and more as an exploration of an obviously naive character suddenly immersed in a world full of sexuality and violence, where the line between the two is permanently blurred. With that said, it is also a product of its time and should be seen as such.
While it is not really a realistic portrayal of the leather scene, Cruising is a wet dream for anyone who loves giallo films and is interested in underground sex culture. If you're used to watching giallo films or even some slasher flicks, the ambiguities and plot holes are going to be a lot less distracting. One of the things I like so much about this film is the lack of easy answers or solid conclusion. The final scene is also genuinely creepy.
The acting is mostly solid, particularly from the supporting cast. Paul Sorvino is great, as always, and there is a nice cameo from James Remar. The obnoxious Karen Allen barely has a line of dialogue -- Cruising is unmistakably a man's film -- and I think the only two female roles are Allen as Pacino's suffering girlfriend and a waitress who has a bit scene spilling coffee. As for Pacino's performance, I know it is highly criticized, but I like him as an actor and think he chose an interesting angle for the performance, regardless of whether it was intentional. Steve is innocent, confused, simply going with the flow. He flounders about (literally, his dancing is painful to watch), which made sense to me, but will likely be irritating for some viewers. Originally Friedkin considered giving the part to Richard Gere. Shudder.
On a side note, The Germs wrote and recorded a handful of songs for the film, though only "Lion's Share" was included. The rest of the soundtrack, which I recommend, was written by Jack Nitzsche, who also composed Nicholas Roeg's Performance, Friedkin's The Exorcist, and Adrian Lyne's 9 1/2 Weeks, among many others.
I highly recommend Cruising, though it will only appeal to a certain type of viewer. That is to say, perverts with good taste in movies. Warner, in a surprising move, released a deluxe edition DVD that includes commentary from Friedkin and two documentaries, one about the making of the film and the other about its controversial reception. As far as I know, no director's cut exists and the studio reputedly lost the cut 40 minutes. But that's what Ken Russell thought about The Devils and look how that turned out? Here's hoping.