Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett

Produced by Jerry Weintraub; written and directed by William Friedkin; based on a novel by Gerald Walker; cinematography by James Contner; edited by Bud Smith and M. Scott Smith; music by Jack Nitzsche; art direction by Edward Pisoni; set decoration by Robert Drumheller; costume design by Robert de Mora; starring Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, and Sonny Grosso. DVD, color, 102 min., 1980. A Warner Archive release.

We should note first that William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) was one of the most controversial films of its era, a time when commercial cinema was still capable of generating intense public debate. The debate—and protest—that confronted Cruising before it went into production was a measure of the strength and self-confidence of the gay community post-Stonewall, which saw the film as outright homophobic defamation. This was before “queer” was taken over by the gay community, long before the LGBT coalition, and victories for gay marriage. Campish films with homophobic tones like Basic Instinct were finally accepted by the gay population (who could take such rubbish seriously in any case?), but Cruising had a stigma that only now might be slightly alleviated. To be sure, the film had supporters, including Robin Wood, Tony Rayns, and Adrian Martin. There is plenty of reason for the negative reception (I didn’t support the original protest at the time, seeing it as driven by impulses of censorship, although now the film’s reactionary aspects stand out more than its occasionally compelling critique of heteronormativity).

Based on a novel by Gerald Walker, Cruising concerns a serial killer preying on gay men in New York City’s Village in the Sixties. Friedkin makes the action more specific, located in Seventies gay clubs near the West Side Highway. This is a Seventies film in its depiction of downtown New York, filled with cruisers and sex workers of various orientations, the New York now belittled as a trash-and-crime-ridden hellhole before the “clean-up” on behalf of corporate America effectuated by Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg. Here is my first complaint: there are reasons to see New York of the Sixties and Seventies as in trouble (especially after the Ocean Hill–Brownsville case), but one can also argue the city of the time as a cultural cornucopia, with the cinemas, museums, and music spots chock-full of art that would shape the consciousness of at least one generation.

This is not a parenthetical remark, since Friedkin’s infernal vision is central to his portrayal of gay culture. A rookie cop, Steve Burns (Al Pacino, before he replaced his nasal enunciation with the growling, voluble persona of Scarface (1983) that became his trademark) is tasked by his severely forlorn, under-the-gun boss, Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino), to go undercover in the gay sadomasochistic downtown, since Burns is of the physical type that attracts the sex killer (but does the killer like onlydiminutive men?). This makes little sense, since Burns is so inexperienced, and because the MO of the killer isn’t even established, by Edelson’s admission—the villain stabs his victims, but the evidence of dismembered limbs floating in the Hudson points to a lunatic more on the order of Ed Gein. Burns’s assignment seems a device permitting the film’s major conceit: a straight cop joining the gay S&M crowd. He buys leathers and other regalia, and starts learning gay semiotics by visiting an accoutrements store. The owner, played by a young Powers Boothe, acts more or less as Burns’s Roland Barthes, educating the naïf in back-pocket hanky language.

Al Pacino plays Steve Burns, a rookie cop who goes undercover as a denizen of New York City's gay S&M scene

Al Pacino plays Steve Burns, a rookie cop who goes undercover as a denizen of New York City's gay S&M scene

The portrayal of S&M culture is at the troublesome heart of the film. Edelson introduces it to Burns with the remark that “this isn’t the mainstream of gay life,” as if to head off lawsuits and stop the already happening protests. The question is begged. Apparently mortgage-paying members of the gay middle class are fine (of course not so in 1980), but any other “perversion” is off the table, even though S&M (and that most terrible of gay practices, the sin of Sodom) is common—now mostly quaint and passé---in straight life. The film insists on some form of the Other, and offers many options. Friedkin compounds his problems by photographing the gay clubs as seething sewers shot with a blue filter (but with a voyeuristic predilection for bare asses). His camera is almost ethnographic as Burns hits the dark underworld, taking us on a Cook’s tour of all these sick degenerates. The sex acts in the clubs (never that explicit) evince no joy, and constantly suggest subjugation (a fist fucking scene glimpsed by a taken-aback, wary Burns is representative—a guy wearing a black leather mask looms large in the frame, Thanatos surveying all), with decay circumscribing the action (the film is pre-AIDS, but parts of it could be used to bolster the paranoia of the right). The Jack Nitzsche soundtrack, containing some of the most hard-charging New Wave acts of the day (Willy de Ville in the lead) were atypical of the rock-disco music popular in clubs at the time (by Friedkin’s admission), furthering the film’s sense of mania and self-destruction, especially as Burns starts “losing it,” as if the threat of coming out equals a lapse into total insanity.

On the plus side, the film is intelligent in its critique of straight culture, and the brutal world of straight males, embodied in the NYPD. In one of the early scenes, two cops in a patrol car pass by an endless group of West Side hustlers. One cop, the sadistic DiSimone (the great Joe Spinell, one of the most interesting character actors of the Seventies), talks about his nagging wife: “I’ll get that bitch!” His partner keeps saying, “They’re all scumbags,” to which DiSimone responds, “Who?” As we see strolling gay men from the police car’s point of view, the film makes its key if familiar point: misogyny and homophobia are closely related, and homophobia is based on the hatred of what the straight male senses in himself. The point is repeated—the cops rape two drag queens: sex in patriarchal culture is based on oppression and violence, and the degradation of the sexual Other (women and gays). The sexual ambiguity and sense of uncertainty that Freidkin allows to overwhelm the film continues, as DiSimone pops up as a cruiser, eyeing Burns in gay clubs and at the Ramble, the famous sex spot in Central Park. One of the S&M clubs hosts “cop night,” with all the guys clad in some form of police drag, a huge pair of handcuffs hanging as decoration—Burns is ejected for not having the proper regalia. The clubs become a parodical reflection of the macho straight world, with its insistence on endless rules and regulations derived from Judaism/Christianity. The idea of a world of costume and facade is repeated with inflections. A drag queen (the great Gene Davis) raped by DiSimone complains to Edelson, who barks that his rapist may have been a cop impersonator (even though the rapist’s name is mentioned), claiming that “there are more guys out there impersonating cops than there are actual cops,” a ludicrous defense, yet fascinating in its mendacity, and important as a picture of the norm.

Burns’s experience of gay life takes a toll. He makes fierce love to his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen), as if to prove to himself his heterosexuality, then becomes distracted, suggesting not merely the anxiety of possible sexual self-realization but the impossibility of remaining sane given the madness of Friedkin’s conception of the gay world. (By the way, Nancy is even more underdeveloped as a character than the gay men—Friedkin’s contempt for women in all of his films is a lesson unto itself). The biggest problem is the film’s notion that Burns might become gay due to “contagion,” with the accompanying notion that one’s self-concept becomes corrupted by the mysterious disease of gay life. In his crucial book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood (who defended the film as one of the key “incoherent texts” of the late Seventies–early Eighties) spoke of the “vampire theory” of homosexuality.

The film is deliberately ambiguous on the murderer’s identity, but the ambiguity seems forced, made up by Friedkin as he went along, since he also gives us evidence that the killer is in fact caught. The cops seem to have their man in Stuart Richards (Richard Cox), who wields a knife and is haunted by memories of a tyrannical father in love with the war in Vietnam (imperialism connected to heteronormativity), and disappointed by his weak-kneed son. Richards also flashes images of some of the victims, introduced early in the film. But after he is accosted and stabbed by Burns, Richards says Burns was the aggressor—very plausible with re-viewing the film’s conception of its tormented hero. Richards may be guilty of some of the crimes, but his guilt is shared, as the film has it, with the police, who brutally beat a gay man for no reason—it is difficult to watch this scene after Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and so many other acts of police savagery, for which cops received a rap on the knuckles at best during “Giuliani time.” A stickler for verisimilitude, Friedkin includes a scene from the annals of the NYPD for effect: a huge black cop clad only in a jock strap and cowboy hat smacks around suspects. The attempt to demonstrate the queerness of the cops by such catch-them-off-guard stunts is ham-handed; a better dramatist might have merely documented the cops in their natural habitat, or shown a few more police rapes (too bad the Louima case—a young man raped by a room full of cops using a mop handle—hadn’t happened yet, since it surpasses everything Cruising has to offer).

There is a regular hint that the hero is the villain, and that straight culture is the true pervert. The final indictment of the straight world is the film’s last murder, of Ted Bailey (Don Scardino), the only sympathetic and developed gay character in the film (we have to reflect on how many gay men are portrayed as ugly, greasy, threatening), who befriends Burns during his time undercover. Did Burns kill him? When Edelson discovers that Burns was Bailey’s friend, he mutters, “Jesus Christ!” But the brutal DiSimone is the “first officer on the scene”—he, too, is a candidate.

The film strains its constant ambiguity to the point of annoyance, since subtlety isn’t Friedkin’s long suit, but he refuses to provide just a bit of evidence that Burns is gayand the murderer (the conflation of gay sex and death is insistent). In the conclusion, Burns returns to straight life. As he shaves, Nancy puts on his leather jacket, aviator shades, and biker cap. Burns looks at her—and us—via a close shot in his shaving mirror. The image dissolves to a shot of a tug boat in the Hudson, where the film began, suggesting the cycle starts over. But what to make of Burns and Nancy? (In the theatrical film, we hear footsteps and a clinking sound, apparently as Nancy approaches Burns—but the footfalls are too hard, and the jacket isn’t that metal-bound.) Has Nancy also been “polluted”? Is Burns now permanently nuts?

Cruising is typical Friedkin in its profound nihilism. In The French Connection (1971) we have a world careening into chaos, patrolled by a racist, lunatic cop for whom we must nevertheless hope the best. The Exorcist (1973) is a jolting thrill show, one of the most deplorable horror films, its “evil” originating in the Middle East, its narrative focused on the shrieks and groans of an archetypal hysterical female who must be brought to heel by self-sacrificing Christian men in, as Pauline Kael said, one of the greatest ads for organized religion ever. To Live and Die in LA (1985) is a good document of the Reagan Era, with its pervasive sense of life being bogus, of amorality as the rule—and we have devolved here far beyond The French Connection, since the car chase of this film has the crazed cop actually driving against traffic—that is, the society they prey upon rather than protect.

There is a touch of morality to Cruising via its criticism of so-called straight life (one could argue a case for the film as an image of a repressed society about to explode), and should have been a coda for Friedkin’s career (so that we wouldn’t have to face the repugnant Killer Joe (2012). But the nihilism is persistent in Cruising’s “diagnosis” of human sexuality, its night world, and its constantly overcast skies. If you want to locate the origins of the “Armageddon look” in David Fincher, the Saw films, or Law and Order: SVU, look at Friedkin.

The Warner Archive DVD-R of Cruising transfers all of the extras—including Friedkin’s running commentary— from the Deluxe Edition issued a few years ago, making it one of the very few MOD releases with real supplements. The image quality is very crisp, and Friedkin decided, so it seems, to clean up a few troublesome areas. That the film was discontinued as a manufactured DVD is disappointing to me. I have no real issue with MOD discs but their impermanence is starting to alarm me. MODs purchased just five years ago tend to break up and “tile.” But such is the film culture in which we live, so let’s hope that Warner Archive and other MOD companies keep at it—it’s either that or we search for films in the ether.

Christopher Sharrett is professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University.

To purchase Cruising, click here.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4