Reviewed by: David Graham

Hugely controversial upon release due to its perceived attitude towards homosexuality, William Friedkin's 1980 thriller is actually quite perceptive, its home truths about gay men's potentially dangerous proclivity now seeming painfully prescient in a post-AIDS world. While Friedkin ramps up the unsettling sleaze to a point that will turn off many viewers - gay or straight - he also remembers to include engaging characters and at least his club-going deviants are defiantly manly rather than the camp caricatures that had inhabited previous Hollywood productions. Aided by a bug-eyed, intensely committed turn from Al Pacino, Cruising is a startling and haunting film that succeeds in depicting a seedy underworld where danger and temptation lurk behind every corner.

In the early Eighties, a wave of fear is sweeping through New York's bustling but still underground S&M nightclubs. Lured by the promise of promotion, young detective Steve Burns immerses himself in the alien subculture in order to catch a serial killer preying on one-night stands. Despite sparking a healthy friendship with a gay neighbor, Burns struggles to ingratiate himself with the aggressively sexual cruising clubbers. However, he soon finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the hardcore scene, risking his own life as bait for the killer while beginning to doubt the motives of his colleagues and even his own sexuality.

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Basing it on an early Seventies book that was itself inspired by a real gay serial killer of the late Sixties, Friedkin felt compelled to make Cruising after he discovered that a seemingly affable crew member on The Exorcist was in fact a killer himself. With New York still reeling from the Son Of Sam, Friedkin cleverly exploits a sense of mistrust in everyone by having his killer played by several different actors, with some of the victims later doubling for him and bit-part actors reappearing in the background throughout. This conveys how faceless and impersonal the gay scene could be as well as how anyone could be the - or even a - killer, the first thread in a carefully woven web of ambiguity.

Burns' relationship with Karen Allen's concerned and pining girlfriend also proves more intriguing than it initially seems; we never see her outwith his apartment and no-one else alludes to her, positing her as a possible figment of his imagination. With Pacino unable to share the details of his assignment with her, they grow distant and cold while he becomes empowered by his new-found desirability with the same sex. Their final scene together - where she nonchalantly finds and dons his clubbing regalia - is easy to read as him embracing his feminine side while the frequent shots of him staring at himself in the mirror show him coming to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality in a possibly schizophrenic manner.

The closing scene of a boat on the river also cleverly mirrors the opening shot, leaving the audience with the disturbing notion that either the killer or other killers will remain at large and more bodies will no doubt turn up. Some viewers may be frustrated by Friedkin's willfully obtuse approach to the villain's identity, but it definitely gives Cruising a depth and darkness lacking in more conventional murder mysteries. The murders themselves are shockingly graphic and often involve kinky foreplay that makes the viciousness of the attacks all the more perturbing. Meanwhile, the murderer maintains a soft-spoken but unhinged vocal persona that flips chillingly between seductiveness and childish nursery rhymes.

While Friedkin lays it on a bit thick in highlighting them, a key character's daddy issues could be seen to be related to gay men's flightiness when it comes to relationships. There is a real sense of the frustration, insecurity and loneliness these men felt having to conduct their courtships under cover of darkness, knowing that their prospective partners would likely move on to the next immediately after. Indeed, Burns' friendly neighbor Ted is part of the only real homosexual relationship alluded to and we never see him and his partner together, while his fate points to domestic violence as being a problem that isn't exclusive to heterosexual partnerships.

Making intimidating use of the meatpacking districts' rain-streaked streets and depicting a debauched underbelly of dirty clubs heaving with hairy, half-naked men, permanently high and horny, Friedkin claims to have frequented such places himself for research and authenticity. The director uses various film stocks and jumpy editing, inserting subliminal frames of porn and a grinding punk-rock soundtrack to craft an edgy, unpredictable atmosphere. While today's gay scene may be cleaner and more over-ground, its continued emphasis on raw sex and hedonism makes the protests that met Cruising seem naive and overly pious. The film as such becomes a fascinating time capsule, remarkably close in spirit to more well-regarded queer classics like Nighthawks but much more brutally honest in the intensity of its social (and often sexual) scenes.

Friedkin sprinkles his narrative with other interesting elements, such as the drag queen streetwalkers who're both victimised by beat cops with repressed homosexual tendencies and relied upon by loftier detectives for information. Towards the end, these two factions of the force are shown together at the same crime scene, highlighting how in the dark the police were even to the sexuality of their own members. Elsewhere a hilariously surreal interrogation - inspired by reports of real cops using coercion tactics that would be deemed unbelievable should the victim try to complain - soon descends into upsetting brutality, with Pacino's character finally seeing the real hypocrisy of his colleagues as they try to beat an admission out of the first man with whom he seems to have actually wanted to consummate his desires.

While he'd received unanimous acclaim for similarly feverish performances in such classics as Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon (where his character was also struggling to deal with his sexuality), Pacino has perhaps never got his due for his work here, in a role originally designed for the more effeminate Richard Gere. Both wide-eyed and instinctively on-edge, his growing paranoia and internal struggle are etched on his face throughout, while there's a tragic undertow to his inability to fully commit to his new lifestyle despite Friedkin leaving us hanging as to how far he's actually gone sexually. Paul Sorvino and Allen provide excellent support as sympathetic bystanders who unwittingly turn the screws further on Burns, while Don Scardino strikes just the right note of bohemian bonhomie as the pal next door.

It's not quite up there with The Exorcist or The French Connection, but Cruising is definitely one of Friedkin's most intriguing films, and has become even more so with age and repeat viewings. Both frightening and thrilling, its many scenes of gay dance-floor action may give it a certain inadvertent kitsch charm today but it remains a hard-edged experience that's not a million miles away from Argento's most bloodthirsty and sexualised giallo flicks. Anyone who has (re)discovered Friedkin through recent work like Bug and Killer Joe would do well to look a little further back to this, while queer cinema enthusiasts will find much to appreciate in Cruising's surprising and sometimes insightful layers.

Reviewed on: 13 Dec 2012
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A detective goes undercover in New York's gay S&M scene to try and catch a serial killer.
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Director: William Friedkin

Writer: William Friedkin, Gerald Walker

Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell

Year: 1980

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Germany


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