Long had this film escaped my viewing for no particular reason—all movie lovers should have the stones to admit there are a few titles like this in their catalog—but finally, at long last, I got around to watching William Friedkin’s Cruising for the first time. The 1980 thriller is often labeled as “notorious” in its time because just about everybody feared or hated it for one reason or another. It was largely derided by the critics, and performed weakly at the box office; in the years following, conversations about the careers of director Friedkin and star Al Pacino—who plays a rookie cop going undercover to catch a killer prowling New York’s gay leather bars—would typically be lacking any substantial discussion, if any mention at all, of Cruising.
The thing is: Cruising is what they call one hell of a good movie, and I’m eager to join the growing chorus of fans who want to see the greatness of this film brought out of the closet. This isn’t to say that the movie didn’t (and doesn’t) confound in exactly the way many of its detractors guessed it would; in interviews, and specifically during his audio commentary on the DVD release of the film, Friedkin points out that his intention was never to make any “larger” statement about the gay community, and that he simply found the leather bars an intriguing “backdrop” to a murder mystery.
I know exactly what he means when he says this, but I also believe he’s kind of wrong about it. Were the film to possess some standard-issue murder mystery plot where we meet a set of clearly delineated suspects with a set of clearly understandable motives, with a dense and event-heavy plot turning this way and that to direct our suspicion across this cast of characters until “whodunit” is explicitly revealed, with the exposed killer’s motives laid bare and having little if anything to do with homosexuality—and if this type of story were then to just happen to be set in and around the gay leather bars—well, then we might have a situation where we can rightly say that world is just serving as the background; that’s not what we have in Cruising.
Friedkin has said the film is purposefully ambiguous, and it is exactly that opaque quality that winds up making the film play so easily to what were then common, and destructive, attitudes about homosexuality. Even though Pacino’s boss in the film (a gloriously understated performance by Paul Sorvino in a movie full of gloriously understated performances) tries to spell it out for us at the very outset when he gives rookie cop Steve Burns the assignment—he will be “vanishing” into a world that is apart from the mainstream gay community—I have little doubt this line washed over 1980 audiences like water over a pebble.
This wasn’t William Friedkin’s first explosive foray into gay-themed cinema—he had directed The Boys in the Band a full decade earlier—but the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era in which Cruising first played (the first clinically observed case in the United States took place the year after the film’s release) was still an era in which gay characters in cinema were far from typical, so an audience exposed to this subject matter in such a central way was bound to think this is what the gay world looks like, because pop culture simply didn’t offer much in the way of anything else. Beyond that, it was a time in which a great number of people—including a great number of smart people—believed that being gay was something that happened to you (well: not to you, but to other people) as a result of daddy problems.
I was reminded of this shortly after I looked at Cruising because I had just picked up the third season of the great (and pretty egalitarian-minded) television series Barney Miller. In one episode, the men of the 12th are quarantined together in the station because of a potential smallpox outbreak—and among those trapped in the squad room with Barney, Wojo, Harris, and the others is Marty—the series’ most prominent recurring gay character—and the old-school, drawl-voiced Inspector Luger. More than a little wigged out by being confined in the same room as Marty where there’s already some fear of contagion, Luger pulls Barney aside and essentially asks, Whattaya think about this weirdo kind of relationship? The ever-patient Barney responds that there are many theories, and that many people think “it has something to do with having a weak father.”
That was a liberal point of view in those times—and what we find in the Friedkin film are plenty of suggestions that feed the nurture-more-than-nature philosophy of human sexuality. When we’re introduced to Steve Burns (Pacino’s character), he’s asked point blank about whether or not he’s had any history of having his “pole smoked” by men, and his reaction boils down to you gotta be kidding. The movie doesn’t play Burns as a prejudiced character, but it’s made clear that the notion of gay sex is particularly absurd to him.
This becomes all the more meaningful when we see how the film chooses to define his life outside the job; the arc of his relationship with girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) is dramatized chiefly through their sexual interactions. Before he goes on assignment, the two are in bed discussing how the job he can’t tell her about might be dangerous. She makes a passing reference to his father having called, and we get a non-reaction-reaction from Burns indicating his relationship with his father is complicated in some unspecified way. Daddy issues: check. Despite any danger, and knowing an instant promotion to detective is in the cards for him, Burns tells Nancy he really wants to do the job—which leads her to observe how she didn’t know he “was that ambitious.”
“There’s a lot about me you don’t know,” Burns replies.
This line becomes more meaningful to us as the movie goes on, not just because we might interpret it as some kind of reference to the secret lives gay men used to lead as straight men outside the world of the movie, but also because we come to see it as ironic—since, deep into his assignment, Burns discovers there was a considerable amount he apparently didn’t know about himself.
Burns’ personal transformation starts soon after he makes contact with his neighbor in the apartment building he moves into in order to adopt his cover; Ted (Don Scardino) is a gay playwright with a relationship problem, and Burns finds himself drawn into long conversations with him about his feelings. There’s one diner scene between them where the dialogue wouldn’t be considered out of place in a “chick flick”; we’re about as far from the stereotypical cop persona, from the stereotypical Pacino persona, as we can get, when Burns gently tells Ted I wish I could do something to help you, I really do.
Of course, what Burns can really do to help all the Teds in his orbit now is to catch the killer stalking and stabbing them at seeming random, so he needs to get busy. The scene where Burns tries to get the lay of the leather bar land by asking a shop owner to explain in explicit detail the secret language of differently-colored handkerchiefs hanging out of pockets (“This one means you want to give…this one means you want to get…”) is a minor treat for featuring Powers Boothe in his first speaking role. But, still unsure of himself in this intimidating new world—the men who surround him are not the flaming queens of popular stereotype, a trait which also no doubt played to its unsettling qualities among those used to seeing homosexuality depicted in a certain manner—Burns flubs his first effort at “cruising” and realizes he has to get pumped up (literally, heaving a barbell) and more willing to be physically adventurous.
And then, things begin “happening” to him. His sexual relations with Nancy start to become dysfunctional; first, more aggressive than necessary (check: overcompensation), and then, nearly non-existent to the point she has to ask him if he still wants her. Burns is at sea with himself; the discovery of empathy for these men (Ted in particular), and what are clearly implied to be his actual homosexual encounters, are quickly dislodging his sense of personal identity. Sure, the movie leaves out any explicit images of Burns being in physical contact with other men (apart from the very first time he allows another man to grope his chest), and Friedkin may want to suggest the movie never actually “reveals” whether or not the character crosses that line, but I submit the movie clearly drives you to the conclusion that he does—that he must—in order to both advance his investigation, and to legitimize the profound emotional crisis he experiences.
It was still a big deal to see the male marquee stars of a gay-themed Hollywood movie kissing, and then some, when Brokeback Mountain came out in 2005. This was 1980—meaning, there’d be little chance of seeing Al Pacino entwined with another man in that way. We’ve gone a little further than his definitively gay character in Dog Day Afternoon…but not that much further.
By the end of the film, when Burns has finally uncovered the identity of the most prominent suspect in the killings—a disturbed young man whose “daddy issues” are far more clear and unusual than Burns’ are ever known to be—he has been utterly changed as a person. Exactly how, we are not told; we are not even sure if Burns himself understands, though we think he might, when, returning home after the case has been closed (to some degree), he says to Nancy, “I want to tell you everything.” What is this “everything” he wants to say? That he had to endure gay sex in order to trap a murderer? That he’s discovered the true nature of his own sexuality? That he “swings both ways”? That he’s in fact gay? Don’t ask; the movie doesn’t tell.
What Cruising does tell us—or, more accurately, what it might very well “tell” people with precious little cinema literacy or tolerance for ambiguity—is that being around gay people maybe might possibly ohmigod make you gay. It tells us that, just like in the Michael and Jason and Freddy movies, sex equals death; in this case, gay sex equals death. The murderer likes to say “You made me do this,” and crucially, this is said after the completion of the sex act. The murders always take place after sex, or with the promise that fornication of some variety is imminent. And yes, the movie directly conflates a knife in the back with a gay sex act—if only by way of your handy “subliminal” frame flashes.
One act of particular genius in Cruising is how Friedkin, so subtly as to escape your conscious notice, recasts the role of the killer as the movie goes on. One actor plays the killer in his first appearance; in a later scene, that actor plays the killer’s next victim, and some other actor is now the knife-wielding maniac, and so on—except these “different” men all speak with the same voice, which is also the voice of the eventual main suspect’s…wait for it…father. Friedkin also toys with the notion of identity in other ways—by having an actor portray a police officer who shakes down gay men in drag for sex, and in a later scene, he passes by us in street clothes as one of the regular leather bar patrons without further comment or elaboration. These switch-ups and misdirections are all the more potent because they are not underlined by the script or direction in any way; they just occur, we observe them (or maybe we don’t, at first) and the movie just moves on.
Is there one killer? More? Is Burns really gay? Does he become a killer? Who’s who in this story?
The murderer—if we accept a traditional reading of the film and assume there is only one—is caught in part because of a nursery rhyme trademark singsong: Who’s here, I’m here, you’re here…; that song is directed at us, too. We’re here, too: in a world that lacks definition, a world that can’t separate the victims from their killers, that won’t comfort with tidy portraits of heroism and villainy…a world that invites us to imagine how easy it might be to find the truth about yourself if only for the courage to seek it out, or to contemplate how dangerous it might be to have that truth swallow you whole.
So absolutely, Cruising is “about” so much more than its blowjob hankies, the leather bars, and even homosexuality as an “issue” or a theme. From the opening title crawl that may or may not be intentionally needling the heterosexual worship of Sylvester Stallone (because it looks exactly like the main title crawl of Rocky) to its final, enigmatic close-up of Pacino, it’s a bold and brilliant thriller featuring gorgeously severe cinematography, razor-sharp editing, a richly layered soundtrack of atmosphere and music (particularly the airy but insistent theme by Jack Nitzsche), and deeply authentic performances—including a revelatory turn by Pacino that should be talked about in the same breath as the great work he did in his far more visible classics. Though unleashed at the start of the 1980s, Cruising feels like it has a lot more in common with the explosive and innovative work of the 1970s than the boisterous, more empty-calorie fare we’ve come to associate with the films of the Reagan decade.
I have always thought Friedkin to be a fantastic movie director. I still find it hard to believe that people today, even agnostics or atheists—as I happen to be some ever-vacillating hybrid of—wouldn’t find the experience of watching The Exorcist grueling and terrifying, but indeed, many apparently do not; decades after its release, The French Connection still occupies a barely-challenged place at the pinnacle of hard-boiled police films; and Friedkin, who will turn 80 this year, has continued to do work that blazes with intensity—with his double-barrel adaptations of playwright Tracy Letts’ Bug and Killer Joe proving the filmmaker still has relevance, not to mention the juice to earn a spot on the Top 10 lists of movie lovers who were only children when his earlier masterpieces were searing the eyeballs of movie audiences around the world.
William Friedkin’s Cruising should take a place right alongside his other great movies, and in a hopeful future, will be regarded as one of the key films of its time; at least, it should be. And, in the event you might hesitate to check it out because of what your friends might think, what your family might think, or what you think you might think—because those are just plain bogus reasons to deny yourself the pleasures of a potent work of art—I’m here to reassure you: It’s OK to see it now, it’s OK to love it now. After all, we’re long past the time of gay panic and paranoia…
*Just a final note. William Friedkin’s Cruising is based on Gerald Walker’s book, an account of a real-life series of murders that targeted the gay community. The film was shot in real locations, and featured a lot of everyday people rather than professional actors in the bar scenes and in supporting roles. The film has a feeling of authenticity rare in “fictional” movies, and I have deliberately left out some of the incredible anecdotes linking this movie to other works in the Friedkin filmography. Now go get the movie, watch it, and then re-watch it while listening to the audio commentary so he can give you the rewarding details himself.