William Friedkin seems to have always relished his role as the enfant terrible of '70s cinema. While his peers consisted mostly of geeky film nerds and soft-spoken hippies, Friedkin made a name for himself as a plain-talking, "shoot first, get permits later" kind of guy. He'd smack an actor in the face to get the desired reaction. He'd film a car chase through a city street without permission. And he'd proudly tell you these stories in interviews, commentary tracks and documentaries.
With three game-changers in a row - The Boys In The Band, The French Connection and The Exorcist - he'd earned the right to swagger a bit. But in 1980, Friedkin was a somewhat tarnished member of the elite "New Hollywood." After his impressive trifecta (and especially after the box office success of1973's The Exorcist), he used his clout to remake the critically revered French film The Wages Of Fear - and promptly threw a lot of his goodwill out the window. His mere decision to make the film seemed like a critical kiss of death (on top of the fantastical-sounding title hitting right when Star Wars had changed everything forever) and Sorcerer, a dour existential masterpiece, was rejected upon release in 1977. Friedkin followed it up in 1978 with The Brink's Job, a true story marketed as an innocuous caper comedy, and people began to wonder where the brash, edgy director of The French Connection had gone.
Set against that climate, Cruising often feels like the work of an artist trying to get his street cred back. Ostensibly about an undercover New York policeman named Steve Burns (Al Pacino) delving into the gay S&M scene to find a serial killer of men who look like him, one wonders if maybe the content of Cruising was simply a means to an end, and Friedkin's real goal was to rattle an audience in the way he used to. And rattle he does: the film isn't exactly sexually graphic (though, sure, there are flash frames of hardcore penetration during some murders), but it definitely confronts mainstream sensibilities. The ADR creak of leather clothing, the oily bodies of men on a dance floor, suggestions of Crisco-assisted fisting - it's all sort of rubbed in the face of its 1980 audience in lingering, Mean Streets-style slow-motion pans. It doesn't feel as if Friedkin is judging the scene so much as he's daring the viewer NOT to. Certainly from a marketing perspective, as is evidenced in the trailer, the very extreme subculture is more exploited than explored.
Gay rights activists protested the entire shoot, banging trash cans and sounding air horns during filming. As a result, every outdoor scene is dubbed, giving the film a dreamlike detachment that is furthered by some of Friedkin's creative decisions. I don't think this spoils anything, but the killer has a sing-song catchphrase, always in a very distinctive voice, yet he's very clearly played by at least three people. The actor portraying the killer in the first murder plays the victim in another scene, and the victim in the first scene is briefly shown as the killer later in the film! The film's loose dream logic begs questions, and this is where Cruising gets itself into some hot water. Was Friedkin using different actors to simply disorient the viewer in the way Pacino's Burns might be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar new world he's entered? Is there a deeper ugliness in suggesting the gay characters are interchangeable, even down to swapping the killers and the victims at random? The intent remains a mystery, and the result is as compelling as it is frustrating.
Is the film homophobic? It's got some very dated views on sexuality, but, coming as it does from the director of The Boys in the Band, "homophobic" feels like a reductive accusation. At times - often, really - it feels less like homophobia and a lot like a filmmaker second-guessing the road he's gone down. Is Steve Burns engaging in gay sex as part of his cover? We see him wander off with men in Central Park, but the film always looks away. Did Burns' supervisor (Paul Sorvino) send a closeted time bomb into the underground gay S&M scene? Burns' girlfriend (Karen Allen) asks him why he takes the assignment, the specifics of which he doesn't reveal to her. Burns squirms uncomfortably as he pays lip service to the benefits of the gig: "Skip patrol, gold badge right away...can we talk about something else?" Hints, suggestions, but we don't know. And we won't know. Why is such a point made about Burns looking like all the victims, yet after he's put on the case not a single victim looks at all like him? The film is full of mysteries that are never answered (I suspect David Fincher might have given Cruising a look when preparing for Zodiac). Friedkin (or the studio?) seems afraid to really get into any of it, perhaps hoping the ambiguity will let him off the hook. This results in a film which seems to - accidentally or otherwise - suggest one can be turned gay and/or turned into a killer, which is an uncomfortable parallel. I think this was very nearly a landmark movie, but somebody flinched and we got this 100 minute version where things are definitely missing, and the ambiguity is not always the good kind.
Nevertheless, the film still fascinates. Critically reviled and buried shortly after its release, Cruising resurfaced on DVD in 2007, leading to a deserved wave of critical and cultural reconsideration. It's sporadically available on streaming services, and it's certainly a dark side street of cinema worth exploring.