“I have no idea what the reaction to Cruising would be today… but it will at least be more understood.” Even before its release in February 1980, the reception to William Friedkin’s adaptation of Gerald Walker’s novel Cruising was hostile, the writer/director who had received acclaim, awards and box office success for The French Connection instead facing a press conference which he recalls as “a screaming match.”
No stranger to controversial material, having braved the wrath of the Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Association of America with accusations of obscenity over The Exorcist, or dismissive critics, as with the response to his followup Sorcerer, it was not even the first time Friedkin had filmed a gay text, having directed Mart Crowley’s own adaptation of his play The Boys in the Band in 1970.
Cruising, however, was something different, a murder mystery about an undercover cop looking for a serial killer in New York’s leather scene and losing himself in the process, presented frankly, without shame and certainly without condemnation, though equally without any hint of exploitation despite which some sections of the audience would still find the club sequences as explicit as the murders.
“I had always felt that Cruising should be an unsettling experience,” Friedkin states in the archive supporting material on Arrow’s new Blu-ray edition of the film, restored from a 4K scan of the original camera negative as supervised and approved by the director, and while it is possibly less shocking now than forty years ago it remains a powerful document of its time.
A hidden subculture unaware their enclave has been breached, clad in biker jackets, denim and shades, in their habitat the men are uninhibited, primal, oblivious to the killer in their midst; in reality, the HIV virus was probably already in circulation, undetected, undiagnosed and as-yet unclassified, and the film is possibly equally dated by how easily Officer Steve Burns’ alter-ego “John Forbes” is able to secure an apartment in the city.
A generation before Hollywood moved gay cinema to the mainstream with Brokeback Mountain, Friedkin never treats the leather scene as a petting zoo for straight people to gawp at the antics of the animals, simply as the background to his story, and Cruising is certainly less forward than, for example, the more recent Stranger By The Lake.
“I didn’t want to be any more graphic or violent than what you see in Psycho“, Friedkin explains, preferring “an illusion of graphic murder,” the killer’s favoured knife representing “ultimate penetration,” but despite his statement that the film “was never meant to be emblematic of anybody’s lifestyle” there were loud and sustained protests during filming resulting in much of the footage having to be looped in post-production.
Already an established star from The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino is Steve Burns, throwing himself into his deep cover and presenting himself as bait, initially timid but later embracing the vibe, removed from his established life with his girlfriend (Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Karen Allen, the sole significant woman in the film) and operating without supervision in his manhunt.
Friedkin’s first film set in New York since The French Connection, he retains that hard-edged ethic, the pacing, editing and performances about presenting information without bias, judgement or sympathy, but often with ambiguity, the conflicts and motivations of the characters unspoken, men accustomed to sharing their bodies but not their minds.
The two archive features, History of Cruising and Exorcising Cruising have contributions from a number of the production personnel and supporting cast, recollections and insights, but perhaps most revealing is Friedkin, always an interesting speaker, as he specifically addresses the identity of the killer and how it is explored and concealed within a film which fully deserves its cult status.