William Friedkin’s “Cruising” Revisited

Posted: February 4, 2012 by Dion in Film, Film Review
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On the eve of interviewing retired NYPD and film legend Randy Jurgensen (PLUG for an upcoming Podwits EXCLUSIVE), my fiancée and I sat down and revisited a cult classic, William Friedkin’s Cruising.

I have to say, the film gets better with every viewing.

Loosely based off a novel of the same name by Gerald Walker, and more heavily sourced to the notorious “Bag Murders” case Det. Jurgensen broke, Cruising is an unapologetic look into the seedy sub-subculture of the New York City gay S&M leather-bar scene,  as a serial killer targets gay men who frequent such establishments.

Al Pacino is drafted to go undercover into this world, to try and track down who is committing these series of grisly murders. The film also stars Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, a very young Ed O’Neill, Mike Starr, Joe Spinell, Powers Boothe in his first role, and Mr. Jurgensen himself.

The film was panned by critics because of its subject matter and content, ultimately getting an “X” rating from the MPAA. Gay rights groups were up in arms as well, heavily protesting the film’s production and its opening in theaters, fearing it would paint homosexuals in a negative light in what turned out to be the first mainstream feature film to deal with gay life in NYC in the late ’70s.

If this immediately makes you think of cult filmmaker Ken Anger’s fetishy forays into this world and his Scorpio Rising short, Cruising is that on steriods, meth, speed, and anything else you wanna add into the mix.

Much like Pacino’s character in the film, the audience (as a whole) is completely taken aback by what the camera photographs, and what it does not turn away from. Filmed in such legendary west side gay S&M leather bars as Ramrod, Eagle’s Nest, and Cockpit, the film is basically the gay equivalent of Caligula, leaving very little to the imagination. One can argue it is also very much a time capsule—it is truly the last look at the “free-love” movement that started in the late ’60s and boiled over into every culture and sexual preference, and a look at group that was only years, if not months away from a terrible epidemic known as AIDS.

What is amazing about the film is how it is constructed and plays out. Our serial killer is purposely left ambigious, to the point where the first actor to play the murderer in the opening scene, becomes the victim in the next, and the victim in the first becomes the killer in another scene and so on, so that the rotation in the role really leaves you wondering who is really who. Because the killer goes after victims who look very much like himself, it may not be noticed on the first viewing that the serial killer’s image is actually changing. What is truly brilliant though, is that Friedkin actually keeps the voice of the killer constant throughout, which at the end also becomes the voice of the supposedly suspect’s father as well.

Moreover, Pacino’s portrayal of the undercover detective in the film is also brilliant. He plays it so you really don’t know what he is thinking, and you don’t really garner how much the lifestyle he is forced into is having an effect on him. It could be read in many different ways, but (this humble Podwit feels) as the film progresses Pacino almost seems to start enjoying not only what he is seeing and fantasizing about it, but also, in fact, may even be the killer—that is implied in the ending shot that almost bookends the film: a man dressed in leather and jean paraphernalia trots across the street and into a gay bar in the meatpacking district, and through subtext, the killer continues on his journey. (It is extremely noteworthy that with all the panning from critics and gay groups alike, what role does Mr. Pacino decide to play right after this? None other than the über-macho man’s man himself, Tony Montana.)

Paul Sorvino is also incredible in his role as Pacino’s boss with whom he checks in once a month to be briefed and debriefed. I cannot recall another performance done as well, but Sorvino physically comes off as the cop who has seen it all, and he carries such sadness and “death” in his eyes, one can only compare it to the stories of the “shell-shocked” G.I. one would see on the battlefield after being at war for too long. Our forthcoming interviewee Randy Jurgensen plays Pacino’s partner who, along with Ed O’Neill, stays behind the scenes, watching from afar and trying (when needed) to come to Pacino’s aid if necessary. Boothe cameos in an hilarious but interesting scene, where Pacino walks into a shop and asks what the different colored handkerchiefs in different back pockets seems to mean in the gay S&M world.

Detective Randy Jurgensen with moustache, standing over suspect

The film is also haunting for the grittiness with which it is shot. It completely belongs in the world of New York City in the ’70s, paired along side The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Taxi Driver, The Seven-Ups, Maniac, Nighthawks, and Midnight Cowboy. Friedkin does an expert job portraying the character of New York City, and the sad state of affairs the city fell into in that decade.

What is also interesting are the different police tactics used while interrogating suspects at the time. What is the floating balls test might you ask? Who is the 6’7″  muscle-bound black man, dressed only in a cowboy hat and jock-strap, who walks in during the interrogation, seemingly oblivious to the various police officers in the room, and slaps the suspect in the mouth or pounds on the table?

Well you’re going to have to go watch Cruising and find out. Definitely a movie not for the novice, it certainly is a prime example of cinema at its best. You may be uncomfortable with the content, but it’s a movie that showcases a world that has never been shown, and for all we know, may never be shown on the big screen again.

While researching the film’s impact, I came across a hilarious quote. On August 28, 2007, when Cruising was finally seeing a DVD release, Nathan Lee wrote the following in the ultra-left-leaning Village Voice, and I think it says it all:

“…Cruising is a lurid fever dream of popper fumes, color-coded pocket hankies, hardcore disco frottage, and Crisco-coated forearms. Nowadays, when the naughtiest thing you can do in a New York gay club is light a cigarette, it’s bracing—and, let’s admit, pretty fucking hot— to travel back to a moment when getting your ass plowed in public was as blasé as ordering a Red Bull.”

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