In theory, Cruising probably sounded like a great idea 40 years ago. An exciting thriller directed by Academy Award winner William Friedkin and starring celebrated actor Al Pacino. It should have been a winner, but instead it became one of the most panned films of 1980. Where did it all go wrong?
Th film is set in New York’s gay S&M and leather scene in the late 70s. A serial killer is picking up men, having sex with them, and killing them. Police Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) assigns officer Steve Burns (Pacino) to go undercover in the gay community to catch the murderer. As Steve delves further into the case, he begins to lose himself in the world he’s inhabiting and grows distant from his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen).
Friedkin wrote the screenplay by drawing from a few different sources. There was the novel of the same name written by Gerald Walker in 1970. I’ve read it and it’s horrible. Zero redeeming qualities. Much of it is told from the POV of the killer who is extremely racist, homophobic, and sexist. So, it’s not fun to be in his head page after page. Luckily, Friedkin only used the outline of the novel and threw out the rest. There were also the real-life murders in the 70s in NYC. Several gay men were brutally killed, dismembered, and placed in trash bags that were tossed into the Hudson River. Friedkin studied Arthur Bell’s articles in the Village Voice newspaper chronicling the case. At one point a suspect, Paul Bateson, was arrested, but it was never concretely proven that he was the killer. In a crazy coincidence, Bateson appeared in a small role in Friedkin’s film The Exorcist a few years before Cruising came out.
Friedkin took all of these elements and blended them together. Unfortunately, the concoction is messy. First, the script is uneven. It starts off with a great premise for a murder mystery, but quickly gets lost. There are a lot of scenes that go nowhere with Steve wandering through the bars or other cruising grounds. We see his wide-eyed reactions to the supposedly crazy things he’s seeing, which comes off as comical rather than suspenseful. As the film progresses, he becomes more uncomfortable with his assignment, but we don’t know why it’s messing with his head. Is he actually gay? Does he like this new scene he finds himself in, which scares him and causes him to retreat from his girlfriend?
In the third act Steve zeroes in on a suspect, Stuart (Richard Cox), a college student in the city. We’ve seen glimpses of him in earlier scenes, but now the audience learns that he’s a closet case with father issues. Not very original. He could be killing these men because he hates himself. Or he’s doing it to appease his disapproving father. His motivations aren’t revealed. It’s also confusing because in earlier scenes featuring the killer he appears to be played by a different actor. Were there multiple murderers? This leads to an open ending where Friedkin makes us suspect the Steve could possibly be the killer. I’m not asking for everything to be spelled out, but it can be dissatisfying when a film gives you more questions than answers. It has been reported that Friedkin had to remove a lot of footage from the final cut in order to avoid an X-rating. Maybe the answers were lost with those edits.
Even though Pacino was a great actor doesn’t mean he was the right guy for this film. For one, he was too old. Not that 40 is ancient, but it’s a leap from the 30-year-old that he was supposed to be playing. Plus, he was looking particularly rough at this point. Maybe from working so much over the past decade. Then there’s the fact that his character is supposed to hide behind the persona he’s taking on while undercover. But when you have a well know actor with very identifiable characteristics, you can’t see anything but him. As a result, there’s no real transformation. Pacino also has a tendency to overact. He’s dialing it up to a 10 when a 5 or lower would have sufficed, like the scene where Steve does poppers and dances. Wow. Richard Gere was actually interested in the role and was in negotiations with Friedkin, but Pacino came along and inadvertently pushed him out. Gere would have been a much better choice. Physically he fit the character more. Plus, he wasn’t very well known at this point in his career and could have easily disappeared into the role. On the other hand, if Gere had been cast, he might have missed out on the opportunity to star in his breakthrough film, American Gigolo, that came out the same year.
If gay activists had their way, Cruising would have never been released. From the moment the film was announced, they condemned it. The thinking was that it would portray the gay community in a negative light: depraved, immoral, and psychotic. There was also the fear that the movie would inspire copycat killers who would target gay men. When production started the protesters arrived on set as well. Crowds of people yelled, banged on pans, or blasted air horns. As a result, the actors’ dialogue for scenes shot on location had to be dubbed in post-production because they couldn’t use the sound. Some gay bars refused to let Friedkin shoot on the premises, wanting to avoid any ties to the backlash. I understand where the protesters were coming from, but I think they should have waited to see the film before trying to take it down. Instead, after Cruising was released, they urged theaters not to show it and a handful complied. Reviews from critics were also extremely negative. The movie made 19.8 million at the box office. Not a total bomb, but far from a hit.
Not everything about Cruising is wrong, though. For one, it captures a time in New York that can never be replicated: the gritty 70s era. It’s one of the best periods. The city was dark and dirty, but it had great character. I like seeing the neighborhoods, parks, or old businesses that have since changed. A few of the leather bars allowed Friedkin to film inside and their patrons were featured in the background. It’s interesting look in on this moment in gay history, post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS.
The movie also has an incredible soundtrack. In the 70s, gay bars, even the leather ones, were playing disco. Friedkin decided that music didn’t fit the film he was making and replaced it with hard rock and punk. The soundtrack features bands like the Germs, Rough Trade, and the Cripples. It really works. For a story about a serial killer you need sinister music blaring at you. I bought the deluxe vinyl re-release last year. Mutiny’s “Lump” and Willy DeVille’s “Heat of the Moment” are two of my favorites.
In the end, Cruising isn’t terrible. There are worse things out there. Did I mention the book? In addition to the locations and the music, the film is shot very well. There’s a charismatic group of supporting players, like Don Scardino (Ted) and Gene Davis (DaVinci). And, it’s a memorable film. It stays with you. Probably because you’re still seeking answers to all those unanswered questions. Yes, it definitely could have been executed better, but I actually like it for what it is, including the flaws.