By John H. Foote
It was a tough, sometimes brutal film, making headlines before anyone had seen a single frame of the film.
Directed by an Oscar-winning director, William Friedkin, and featuring a major actor in Al Pacino, it had the ingredients to be a great, but yes, controversial film. Friedkin talked often about being out of his element, something I understand.
In 1994 I directed a production of Torch Song Trilogy, a superb play set in the gay world, New York City. Never have I felt so out of my element. I always did a ton of research for whatever I was directing, and this was no exception. My decision to cast mostly gay actors saved me because they helped me understand what I did not. Of the 44 plays I have directed, it is the only one where if felt utterly helpless and out of my element. My actors, Larry Westlake, and Ron Skeffington were brilliant both as actors and advisors, which I welcomed.
Friedkin was the type of director who took advice from no one, in fact, he was known to fire anyone who so much as offered him artistic advice. His Oscar win for The French Connection (1971) cemented his reputation as a gifted realist, and the stunning box office success and critical raves for The Exorcist (1973) made him at scorching hot commodity. But with success came a growing ego, and Friedkin was already arrogant. His decision to remake the French classic The Wages of Fear (1953) did not endear him to the studios, nor did the twenty plus million-dollar budget. But fail it did, released in the summer to middling reviews, Sorcerer (1977) was always much better than the critics of the day had stated. By the time he was signed to direct Cruising (1980) he was no longer among the elite directors working, but he was an artist, and there was genuine excitement about the film.
Cruising (1980) deals with a young cop, Steven (Pacino) who is sent deep undercover into the S and M sub-culture of gay world to try and find a killer who is preying on young men who resemble Steve. If he is successful in solving the murders he will be fast tracked to his detective shield, but he knows the assignment is unique and dangerous.
Steve moves into a predominantly gay neighbourhood and begins roaming the streets at night, frequently hardcore S and M bars where we the audience are introduced to a whole new sub-culture of sex and sexuality. Leather is worn by most, or in some of the bars, jockstraps. Handkerchiefs all mean something as Steve learns, and he is soon accepted into the nightlife, hit on frequently by men. He finds himself recognizing faces, some the same from other nights, some cops who do not know him.
The killings continue. We see one of them first hand as a young man takes the killer back to his sad, lonely apartment for sex. Everything comes off but the boots, as they tumble into bed together. Waking up the young victim finds himself terrified, because his sex partner has drawn a knife, tied him up like a trussed Turkey, and begins running the tip of the knife over the petrified mans’ back reciting a child’s nursery rhyme. Suddenly without warning, he plunges the blade, over and over into the young man’s back, the blood bubbling up from the wounds covering the sheets in crimson. It truly is horrifying and done without mercy.
As Steve closes in on the killer, stalking him, he finds himself changing, but more so does his girlfriend, portrayed by a pre-Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Karen Allen. Has Steve gone so far undercover he has embraced the gay world and altered his sexuality?
He begins following a college student studying music on a hunch and sure enough, this is his killer. But what will Steve do? Has he gone so far, he cannot get back to who he is?
When the killer lies in a hospital healing, the young playwright who had befriended Steve is found dead. All fingers Point to Steve, but the killing is hushed.
The ambiguous ending of the film bothered many, myself included because there was no need for it to be so. Stuart was in the hospital, Steve clearly was struggling with his sexuality and might have been very angry about that. Angry enough to kill a gay young man? I think so, Steve had demonstrated a ferocious temper, and was handy with a knife! The weapon used on the young man. Did Steve take out his rage at questioning his sexuality on the first friend he had made? It seemed so if you were paying attention.
William Friedkin, in capturing the New York nightlife of this particular world made one of the ugliest films ever made, ugly in terms of cinematography, and production design. There is a great lack of colour in the film, even in the garish night clubs Steve visits. In fairness, this was not post-Giuliani New York City, the city at this time was ugly, crime filled, a dangerous place. His honesty in capturing the gritty realism of the clubs was jolting. Beyond the images of men dancing with men in various stages of undress, he did not shy away from more intimate moments, such as kissing, fondling, oral and anal sex and fisting. It was a startling realistic look at a sub-culture only those in that world were familiar with. Cruising (1980) was among the first films to portray homosexuality honestly, though it presented an aspect of being gay that was controversial, that straight people had not ever seen. The gay community was up in arms at how they were portrayed in the film, and the New York Police Department raged at how corrupt they appeared in the film.
The great strength in the film was the performance of Pacino, who by this point in his career was among the finest actors working in movies. I found his performance to be bold, daring, and by the end, somewhat haunting as it appears Steve has killed for no reason, he has murdered a young man who had befriended him. Why the director and writers were not clearer on this I will never understand because it would have offered Pacino some terrific performance moments.
The film was greeted with hostility from critics, thus never really stood a chance at the box office. It failed rather miserably. In some states, and provinces it received an X rating or was banned altogether. Years later, you could not get a copy of the film on VHS in Canada, though now a DVD exists, a Directors cut of a controversial film.
I admire the courage that went into the making of the film, I certainly was impressed with Pacino, and though I struggle with some of Friedkins’ choices, his bravery in making the film cannot be denied.
Friedkin never recovered from the reaction to the film. He did direct the outstanding crime thriller To Live and Die in LA (1985) but beyond that, he was finished.
The film has not held up well through the years, and no one, myself included will ever call it a masterpiece, but it was gutsy.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.