By John H. Foote
One of the most intensely controversial and criminally under appreciated films of the eighties finally makes its way to Blu Ray. Cruising, perhaps the last great film from Academy Award winning director William Friedkin, has been released leaving a handful of seventies films including the searing Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) still to come, but giving hope that it will, soon.
Though reviled in some critical communities upon release, the target of protests from homosexuals and groups within the gay community, Cruising was always better then it was said to be. Today, nearly 40 years later, it holds up remarkably well, in particular the brave, detailed performance of Al Pacino. Made at a time when Pacino was among the most electrifying and finest actors emerging from the seventies, he was just a short five years from leaving movies in disgust, stunned at the critical pasting of this, and Scarface (1983), the horrific experience of, ugh, comedy in Author, Author (1982) and the one that gutted him, Revolution (1985) he fled for the comforts of the New York stage. Ironically, both Cruising and Scarface have strong reputations today and, while I concede neither is a masterpiece, Pacino does some of his finest work in both pictures, yet oddly neither was welcomed by audiences or critics.
Today Cruising still has a stigma attached to it largely for its portrayal of gays in the sado-masochistic world, but essays have championed the film’s view saying it was very accurate.
Friedkin was a realistic filmmaker, he wanted his work to be absolutely honest, and he worked hard to give his Oscar winning crime thriller The French Connection (1971) a documentary feel. With hidden cameras and shooting often without permits he captured that same sense of brutal realism in Cruising, bringing to the screen an underworld not previously seen. Audiences were alarmed by what they saw, especially within the bars and sex clubs; conservative audiences and critics were simply not prepared to see half naked men gyrating to angry music, having sex in open view, aggressive almost violent behaviour in the bars, it was shocking. But it was real, and realism had been what fueled seventies cinema!
Pacino portrayed Steve Burns, a young cop who wants to be a detective and accepts a unique undercover assignment to expedite that career move. His assignment involves going incredibly deep under cover into the gay world in New York City, specifically the sad-masochistic sex world, where there have been several vicious killings of gay young men. Burns bears a resemblance to the murdered men and is anxious for detective gold. He must leave his girlfriend (Karen Allen) without telling her anything and immerse himself completely in this world.
He moves into a small apartment, begins his research and makes a friend of his playwright next door neighbour. At night, he cruises the bars, sometimes thinking he sees familiar faces, most of the time watching, learning, absorbing it all. Eventually he targets a mysterious young man the audience knows is the killer, Stuart (Richard Cox) a music student at NYU. Tracking him towards a confrontation in Central Park the question is raised about Steve, has he gone too far undercover? When his friend the playwright turns up massacred in his apartment, there is a strong feeling Steve might have killed him in anger over the feelings being stirred within.
The ambiguity of the end of the film angered a lot of viewers, including Pacino who did not expect the editing to suggest he might be a killer! He felt betrayed by Friedkin, not a first for an actor, but remained proud of the film.
Friedkin gave the picture a dark edge, capturing the grimy, ugliness of New York City during this period. The city looks filthy, and the nightlife is intense, scary, not far removed from Taxi Driver (1976). At the centre of this storm is Pacino, slipping under the skin of Burns easily, growing into the role, enjoying his work, perhaps too much. He tells his girlfriend this job is changing him, and his lovemaking becomes more violent, rougher than before. He begins to feel at home in the rough black leather world, slowly learning the lingo that will lead him to the killer.
Richard Cox as Stewart had a lean, lone wolfish look to him, predatory-esque, a hunter, a very dangerous man. Roaming the streets at night, dressed in black and leather, chains on his hip, he finds a suitable partner, has rough sex, then brutally murders him after singing a child’s rhyme, “I’m her, you’re here, we’re here” before the horrific stabbing begins. It is a profoundly powerful performance because of the obvious sadness in his eyes, but he seems more alive when hunting, when killing.
The cat and mouse game played out between he and Pacino is thrilling, leaving us wondering who will get who? Finally, we are left wondering what will become of Stewart? Sadly, despite a frightening performance, Cox never rose to fame.
Cruising opened and closed very quickly but found a cult audience that has grown through the years. Though still attacked in some quarters, the film is regarded with greater regard today.
Friedkin, after The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), made Sorcerer (1977), a major flop, before tackling Cruising. His gift for realism brought something very clear and honest to the film, I never felt it was exploitative. He tapped into the sub-culture of a world few truly new in the days just before the AIDS epidemic, creating a vital, powerful, often searing film.
Cruising is a welcome addition to Blu Ray.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”