The recent (2014) release of James Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar. reminds us it’s time to revisit the still-notorious film that inspired it.
History shows us how easily yesterday’s cause celebre can become acceptable and even tame by present-day standards. Such is the case with William Friedkin’s underrated 1980 film Cruising.
Cruising has a special niche in gay history as the queer equivalent of Birth of a Nation — a film in which an artist outside a subculture creates what appears to be a disturbingly negative, ill-informed portrait of that subculture. Since D. W. Griffith has been dead for almost 50 years, we have no way of knowing how he might react to the controversy that still surrounds Birth of a Nation. Friedkin, on the other hand, was violently attacked (verbally) by the gay press for supposedly equating homosexuality with murder, to the extent that Cruising was re-edited into near-incomprehensibility and prefaced by a groveling statement that “The film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world which is not meant to be representative of the whole.”
Today, fifteen years later, looking at Cruising far from the reactions of the time, one wonders what all the fuss was about. For the handful of readers who don’t know this film, a quick synopsis.
Al Pacino is a naive policeman assigned to go undercover into New York’s s&m demi-monde to find a man who haunts the bars, peepshows, and cruising areas of Central Park, picks up unsuspecting gay men, and ritually kills them. Friedkin shows us the killings in graphic detail, always punctuated by the killer’s puzzling phrase, “You made me do that.” As Pacino moves deeper into this world, he becomes nervous and overwrought, his relationship with his girlfriend (Karen Allen) disintegrates, he learns the significance of colored hankies, and he becomes friendly with — and jealous over — a non-s&m gay man named Ted, an aspiring playwright. With the help of his cynical boss (Paul Sorvino), Pacino eventually lures the killer into a tryst and stabs him when the killer moves against him. Pacino returns — seemingly refreshed — from the “netherworld” to his girlfriend, but a disturbing event occurs: Pacino’s friend Ted is brutally murdered. The film leaves open the possibility that Pacino, tainted by his contact with the s&m world, is actually Ted’s killer.
Friedkin’s sweaty tableaux of leather-clad, popper-snorting, fist-fucking, sadomasochistic hedonists was bound to trigger a reaction from gays who feared society would assume all homosexuals were busily engaged in these activities. (This sounds dangerously similar to the middle-class queens who complain about the presence of leather, drag, or nudity in gay marches.) What they failed to note is how Cruising points the finger for a violent, decadent society far past the gyrating leather queens, who come off more as fun-loving party-boys than sinister sexual psychopaths. Before we meet Pacino, we see another pair of cops viciously harassing two gay street prostitutes to the point of orally raping them. The policemen’s dialogue shows a sweeping nihilism on the part of the police that the film continually reinforces. “They’re all scumbags,” one of them says. “Who?” “All of them.”
Pacino’s portrayal of an “innocent” heterosexual who becomes obsessed with an extreme corner of the gay world might have been welcomed by a more enlightened gay press, since it shows dramatically Friedkin’s view of how precarious and easily toppled heterosexuality really is. The director contrasts the bourgeois sterility of Pacino’s relationship with Karen Allen, with the excitement and pleasure not just of the leather world but also of the more mainstream world of homosexuality exemplified by Ted, whose creativity and sweetness Pacino finds attractive. The murders seem almost incidental to homosexuality, and the connection most gay reviewers saw between the killer and gayness is far from clear. The killer is shown more as a deranged psychopath than as a logical outgrowth of the s&m world (his victims are, after all, gays s&m’ers). He is an outsider to the s&m world he haunts, explicitly rejected by other gay characters including Ted.
If Cruising links anyone to the killer, it is Pacino. Besides sharing a physical resemblance and eventually a similar taste in clothes (leather gear), both have insular, troubled relationships with father-figures. Sorvino, as Pacino’s superior, subtly bullies him into remaining undercover even when Pacino is ready to crack up; in what could be a flashback or a mental invention, the killer’s father — a stern, remote figure — reminds him of what he “must do,” that is, the father forces him to kill.
Friedkin contrasts the police officers’ state-sanctioned sadism with the consensual, practically playful kind found in the bars. When a detail of cops breaks in on Pacino and a man they suspect is the killer, to find Pacino naked and hog-tied on his belly, they bring both men to the station. There, a tall, muscular black cop wearing only a jockstrap brutally assaults Pacino and his hysterical partner. If Friedkin — who has been called the “purest and most impersonal technician” of directors — shows any sympathy in Cruising, it is for this and other gay victims of state-sponsored brutality.
The most interesting aspect of the film is that Friedkin subtly implies that Pacino — the good cop and hope for a bright heterosexual future — has himself become a killer. His hysterical assault on Ted’s boyfriend implies his romantic interest in Ted. In a shot almost too brief to register (more of those pesky cuts, no doubt), Pacino is seen walking in full leather in long shot, after he supposedly has ended his undercover work. In the next scene, Ted is found stabbed to death.
Cruising is no masterpiece, but even in its butchered form it’s a striking record of the New York leather scene in the late ’70s, a powerful indictment of police brutality, and — typical of much of Friedkin’s work — a whodunit that calculatedly fails to tell us “who done it.”