Judge Brett Cullum wants everyone to know up front that this movie has nothing to do with cars.
Patrolman DiSimone: C'mere. I wanna show you my night stick.
Purposefully profane and accidentally prophetic, Cruising was set to shock America in 1980. Its very existence amazes. A major studio funded a film dealing with gay fetish night clubs, and it attracted the talents of a screen icon and heavy hitting director. The film came with a lot of hype thanks to the idea this was the first Hollywood production to deal with the sexuality of gay hyper masculine men who inhabited leather scenes across the country. It used this opportunity to dive into the macho world of the leather bar as a setting for a brutal murder mystery, and many accused the film of saying same sex experiences turned people psychotic. The gay community was up in arms, the censors enraged, and the studio was wringing its hands in nervous fits. For all the hype Cruising only made nineteen million dollars domestically at the box office, while that same year 9 to 5 made over one hundred million. The R-rated thriller wasn't a sensation, and it seemed the film was destined to recede into obscurity. Yet when Warner Brothers took a poll of visitors to their web site as to which picture they wanted released on DVD Cruising was close to the top of the list. Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) helped supervise a new transfer which even debuted theatrically at the Cannes Film Festival, and held subsequent well attended screenings in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Throngs of leather men in posterior revealing chaps flocked to a theatre in the Castro to watch the newly restored film with their exposed ass cheeks landing in cinema seats rather than a bar stool. Seemed Cruising had been finally forgiven by the very people who protested it decades earlier.
Facts of the Case
Someone is killing "fags" in New York City, and nobody would care except a Democratic convention is scheduled to help the economy very soon. The random body parts dumped in the Hudson river are embarrassing, and you can't have someone chopping up potential voters no matter what they do to each other in sweaty caverns under the city. Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas) sends a naive cop out into the leather bars undercover to be "gay for pay" to catch someone they can pin the deaths on. Steve Burns (Al Pacino, The Godfather) has no idea what his new duty is about to do to his personal life and psyche. What seems like simple observation to catch a killer turns out to be a journey into a dark world of role playing, machismo, and sexual abandon. The experience begins to dissolve both his relationship with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and his identity.
Cruising faced a lot of obstacles when it went into production during 1979, and when it was officially released a year later. The narrative was loosely based on a novel by New York Times crime reporter Gerald Walker which dealt with killings in the gay community. That novel wasn't set in the leather community exclusively, and it was Friedkin's discussions with a real cop who went undercover in the leather scene that made him set the film in notorious underground S&M bars of the Village. During location filming gay activists coordinated demonstrations to disrupt the production which they saw as insulting to their cause and community. They would show up and make lots of noise and try to use mirrors and reflectors to wreck the lighting. Over three hundred police men had to be put on guard detail to protect Cruising's cast and crew. Once the film was screened for the ratings board the head of the MPAA told the director and producer there were not enough Xs to give it the proper rating it deserved. Forty minutes of the film had to be excised even to get Cruising released. The studio in a move to appease the gay protesters slapped the film with an apology over the credits stating the film was not representative of the gay community. The film flopped despite all the controversy, and lead actor Al Pacino quickly distanced himself from the project. The closest thing I can find to an explanation of why the actor avoids discussing the film even today is the protests really got to him. He slipped into depression, because he thought the gay community would be more supportive. Also he felt his character development was hindered by the theatrical cut.
Cruising is a dark and intensely disturbing film, purposefully ambiguous and unsettling. It has a strong visual style, and remains a chronicle of an infamous time before AIDS was identified when the gay scene was uninhibited and unapologetically sexual. Visually the film is quite accomplished often slipping into what looks like a black and white production during its most effective stretches in the clandestine clubs. The first half works much better than the second, mainly because of the stunning use of leather bars as the setting for the investigation. The glimpses of the leather life are authentic, and can even be found in similar clubs today. These scenes are erotically disturbing as we see forbidden acts such as fisting played out right next to a pool table. Friedkin changed the sounds of the scene quite a bit by using punk rock bands such as The Germs to provide the soundtrack to the clubs when in reality disco would have been blaring out over the orgy. It's doubtful Donna Summer wailing about her "Last Dance" would inspire much dread, so the choice seems a logical switch for the sake of the desired tone. The bar sequences stand out as the most interesting, but they seem to disappear as a main suspect is identified and the film transitions to a more standard cat and mouse game. The final half of Cruising shifts to a quiet pastoral park which makes for an anticlimactic setting for the finale.
William Friedkin claims he didn't intend to vilify or editorialize gay culture, but consider some of the decisions he made during the production. He equates anal penetration with stabbing time and again by using pornographic images inter cut with the violence. The viewer is always off kilter as to the identity of the serial slasher, because a different actor plays the murderer at several points. The killer in the first sequence becomes the victim in the second, and the victim from the first becomes the murderer in the third. The only thing Friedkin keeps in common is a dubbed voice all the knife wielders share despite who is playing him physically. The director claims he wants to show "the darkness in us all," but odd how this darkness is only in and around the gay world. Face it, he does not portray any of the gay characters as sympathetic or whole. Every one of them is either a pervert, a criminal, or alone, if not all three. There are no healthy or well adjusted people to be found in the gay world. Pacino's descent into the leather bar causes him to fracture, and there is an insinuation he ultimately takes up the killer's spree when another victim shows up after the case is solved. Ironically it is a man who would have been the only guy the cop could have fallen for romantically. There is indeed almost a homophobic idea that what Pacino's character is subjected to turns him from a closeted homo to a psychopathic one. A chilling parting shot in a mirror seems to have his character saying to the audience "I'm here, I'm queer, and I'm coming for your son who you disowned because he likes musicals and disco."
None of the forty minutes cut from the film are reinserted into this edition, and the studio and Friedkin claim the legendary footage was irrevocably lost after it was removed. The director states none of it would clear up any questions posed by the ambiguous plot, but certainly Pacino asserts it hindered his performance by not allowing for character development. The film never allows us to see the source of the identity crisis that changes the innocent cop into possibly a jaded killer. We never view how far Steve Burns is willing to go, because the erotic encounters are only hinted at. In one crucial scene in the movie where he permits himself to be tied up we only get to see the aftermath and not how he got there. Part of the police investigation is picking up men who he suspects is the killer to find out vital information, and we see nothing of what happens in these episodes. The film feels incomplete and disjointed, and you feel the cuts as you watch it. It unfolds unevenly with the omissions glaring and obvious.
The police procedure aspect of the film never works, and it is the weakest aspect to the project. Pacino's detective is placed into the scene with no clues or leads, and it seems he is supposed to solve a serial killer case merely by going to leather bars and fitting in. It's a ridiculous idea, and he does little actual sleuthing to lead him to the right guy. He basically guesses who is responsible, and then goes about trying to provoke the assumed killer into attacking him. There is the theme that the police would be happy to entrap someone just to garner good press, but it's silly a killer could be caught by merely dropping trousers and asking him "hips or lips" to get him to pull out a knife. Very little of the motivation for the murders is supplied, and there is only a weak assertion a distant disapproving relationship with a father figure leads to all this mayhem. There is no tension or thrills to be had from the limp murder plot which is surrounded by a more interesting setting than anything that happens to catch the killer. The film really slows down and never recovers its energy in the final reels, and when Cruising is not in the gay bars it simply becomes a boring mishandled murder mystery.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite all the shortcomings of the ambiguous narrative and homophobic angles, Cruising remains a fascinating film with credible performances. Pacino looks completely uncomfortable, a bit overweight, and he never fits in to the gay lifestyle seamlessly. It's hard to tell what is acting nervous and what is the actor's own baggage, but that's a mark of a well thought out performance. We can safely assume Pacino mixed the character's misgivings with his own, and he turns in a subtle naive performance that contrasts nicely with his over the top corrupted Scarface three years later. Paul Sorvino and Karen Allen both turn in fine supporting work even if their characters are not fleshed out very well. Richard Cox (Zombie High), Don Scardino (He Knows You're Alone), Gene Davis (The Hitcher), and James Remar (The Warriors) all have brief but notable roles rounding out the capable ensemble. Many of the leather men were real patrons of clubs like the Ramrod solicited by Friedkin to just come in and ignore the cameras and the stars. They were encouraged to do what they would normally do, and that helps give the film a documentary feel no actors could have ever duplicated.
What makes Cruising fascinating today is an accident of history which provides it a mournful note not there in 1979. When the film was made little was known about AIDS, and the work now resonates as a powerful allegory and insight into the conditions that allowed the crisis to happen that affected many gay males. Despite making it all too ominous, the leather scene is shown as it was and in many cases still is. What's missing is any sense of humor or celebration, but the bar scenes are indeed accurate thanks to a lot of research by the production team as well as the participation of actual leather men as extras. Gay activists at the time thought the film unfairly portrayed them as psychotic, out to kill each other as often as they penetrated men sexually. They never intended violence on each other, but the virus unfortunately set up a situation where casual bare back sex could indeed kill. AIDS made Cruising more deep and far more relevant than it ever could be considered. It captures a fascinating time before anyone knew some of the mysterious deaths on the scene were from a far more mysterious killer than Friedkin had concocted.
The value priced Warner Bros. DVD for Cruising contains a great transfer and solid extras. Director William Friedkin supervised the translation of the work to DVD, and his care and input are apparent. The film is presented in a dark and gritty widescreen that makes the film look like it was shot yesterday. Colors are often on the bluish side of the spectrum, and yet they are handled beautifully for a hue that often raises challenges for the DVD format. There are no digital artifacts or edge enhancement, and the entire presentation is near reference quality. The audio track is expanded to five channels which allows for some of the sonic puzzles Friedkin designed to really pop. Extras include making of featurettes divided into two twenty minute segments dealing with the production history and reaction to the film. It includes cast and crew, but there is no participation from Al Pacino, Karen Allen, or Paul Sorvino. Over the feature is a well paced informative commentary from the director who answers any questions raised by the film, and details the choices he made and the reasoning behind them.
Those hoping to see some of the more lurid sequences which were never used are out of luck. This is basically the theatrical print from 1980 with only a couple of cosmetic changes. The apology by the studio that was on the film before the opening credits has been removed, and now the title is in large white block letters that scroll by the screen. Visual effects have been added to a dancing scene where Pacino takes a hit of nitrous oxide and the colors pop and he begins to blur as he moves. Another scene close to the end featuring police going through the assumed killer's apartment is included when it has been missing from some VHS prints for several years. It feels like some of the sex is added, but in truth it's just the fact Cruising is now in digital widescreen and we can see more of the bare back bar action and subliminal inserts of insertion inter cut with the stabbings.
Cruising is a controversial film that never quite lives up to the energy of the protests that surrounded it, but it does remain a fascinating glimpse into a seedy world Hollywood would never have visited had it not been for producer Jerry Weintraub and director William Friedkin. It's a visually stunning movie that gets bogged down in not enough character development coupled with purposefully ambiguous open ended questions with no resolve. It feels like a movie that was hacked up to get released, and the DVD does not supply any additional material to rectify any of these issues. What the release does offer is a great crisp transfer, a booming five channel mix, and extras that allow Friedkin and his company to explain what they set out to do making Cruising (for more insight check out the Accomplices sidebar for links to our interview and panel discussion with Friedkin). It's certainly a far cry from the positive pro-gay Hallmark sentiments of the more politically correct Brokeback Mountain, but the film provides some nasty thrills that can be considered authentic. You'll be disturbed, confused, and unsettled, but somehow you won't be able to stop watching.
Guilty of being a film that you'll want to shower after, Cruising is a gritty tough murder mystery with more atmosphere than thrills. Even though it only succeeds in raising questions it remains interesting, and Warner Brothers is to be commended for supplying a great disc for viewers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by William Friedkin
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