Cruisin’ for abusin’ – Al Pacino’s sleaziest movie

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By Ashley Clark

At London’s ICA on Sunday 15 December, film critics Anton Bitel, Katherine McLaughlin and Martyn Conterio host a rare screening of William Friedkin’s Cruising, in double-bill with Interior. Leather Bar., a new film by James Franco and Travis Matthews which ‘re-imagines’ the 40 minutes of explicit material cut from Friedkin’s original film. If you thought Friedkin’s Killer Joe was a nasty piece of work, wait ’til you cop a load of his 1980 film maudit…

[Editor’s note: This article discusses the plot in full, and thus assumes that the reader has either seen the film, or doesn’t mind knowing what happens beforehand.]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, William Friedkin’s S&M serial killer thriller caused a storm of controversy upon release in 1980. If Friedkin had tested the mettle of the general public – and the MPAA – with the crucifix-as-preteen-sex-toy shenanigans of The Exorcist in 1973, he pushed his luck too far with Cruising. In this case, it was a combination of the film’s content – Friedkin reportedly had to make 50 cuts to get an R rating – and the widespread belief that he’d crafted a distasteful work virulent with homophobia, both explicit and implicit, that doomed the film.

In Cruising, Al Pacino plays cop Steve Burns, assigned by his grizzled captain (Paul Sorvino aiming for ‘world weary’, instead achieving ‘quite tired’) to go undercover in New York’s leather bars to hunt down a killer targeting the community. Without further ado, he kisses his girlfriend (Karen Allen) goodbye, dons a pair of chaps and enthusiastically sets on his way. Before long, Burns, simultaneously fascinated and repelled by what he sees (including a hellish fisting session), is in turmoil over his own sexuality and finds himself unable to make much headway on the case. Following a fevered sojourn through an unremittingly seedy landscape, the killer – or at least one killer – is found, before an ambiguous coda suggests that Burns may have murderous tendencies.

A significant proportion of the New York gay community, outraged in their perception of the film’s attitude toward homosexuality, pilloried the shoot to such an extent that much of the sound was destroyed by vocal protest, resulting in the need for dialogue to be overdubbed. In addition to such public opprobrium, Cruising was widely panned by critics unimpressed by its grim hodgepodge of sex, violence and confusing narrative. To add the proverbial icing to the cake, the film secured a Golden Raspberry nomination for worst film of the year – amusingly, it was pipped by Can’t Stop the Music, a bizarre mock-doc about the formation of gay scene legends The Village People, starring Steve Guttenberg!

Is Cruising homophobic? Well, Friedkin argued that in focusing on an absolute extreme of a particular subculture, what he portrayed was not representative of the wider gay experience; moreover, he simply wanted to use the ‘scene’ as a backdrop to a murder mystery. This suggestion carries some dubious merit, but is undercut by the film’s cynical ambiguity, and its propagation of some horribly simplistic psychology which intimates that gay = problem.

The lanky, be-mulleted, leather-clad killer (Richard Cox) is revealed to have had a troubled relationship with his father, and his mantra, presumably directed at Daddy, is a robotically whispered “You made me do this”. In addition to such weak pop psychology, a further misstep is the presence of Burns’ chipper gay roommate Ted (Don Scardino) who exhibits, as suggested by the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, “a sitcom perkiness [which] clashes with the brooding intensity of the rest of the film”. The innocent Ted meets the most horrific death of all – a veritable bloodbath. He is punished, presumably for being gay rather than just perky, but we’re never really sure by whom – the nature and circumstance of his death is completely at odds with the others that occur. If it is Burns, who at one point darkly intones to his girlfriend “There’s a lot you don’t know about me”, then Burns is really no more than the archaic stereotype of a gay man so consumed by self-loathing that he is driven to acts of destruction. If it isn’t, then it might have been Ted’s petulant, possessive boyfriend (a nicely piquant turn from The Warriors’ James Remar) or indeed anyone, suggesting an irresistible, widespread malaise within the community – gay murderers everywhere! There is no redemption here, just prurience and misery. Accordingly, Friedkin cannot honestly have been surprised at the negative reaction to his film.

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Yet Cruising, despite its myriad flaws, does have certain elements to recommend it. Cinematographer James Contner, who originally wanted to shoot in black and white, does a fantastic job of rendering an oppressive, dread-fuelled atmosphere through a near-monochrome palette of steely blues, greys and blacks. Contributing to the nightmarish vibe is a genuinely odd score from Phil Spector’s ex-right hand man Jack Nitschze, which runs the gamut from dirty proto-house, to twangy, skittering flamenco-jazz that sounds like the duelling banjos kid from Deliverance channelling the spirit of ’70s Miles Davis. Production designer Bruce Weintraub has a field day in populating the landscape with phallic symbols; there are dicks, real and signified, everywhere.

Credit must also go to Pacino for his frazzled, twitchy performance. Permanently covered in a thin film of sweat, with eyes darting askance, he fully convinces as a man increasingly out of his depth and troubled by rumblings of sexual confusion, or at the very least a man terrified his acting career is about to disappear down the toilet. It is truly startling to see a mainstream actor turn up in such an unceasingly sleazy film, and debatable whether a leading man of today would take on such a role (Ryan Gosling was arguably similarly game in Nicolas Winding Refn’s torrid – and comparably horrible – Only God Forgives). Pacino brought some ‘method’ to the party, too. Hilariously, production was delayed because he turned up to the first day’s shoot with, in the words of Friedkin, a “gay” haircut that “didn’t work out”.

In any discussion of Cruising, it would be a crime not to mention the cornucopia of unintentional hilarity on display, which frequently undermines the intense tone the production team carefully assemble. Some of the dialogue – much of it delivered by Sorvino – simply must be heard to be believed: “He intends to flop on the beach and turn nut brown”, “Ever been porked? Ever had a man smoke your pole?”, and the deathlessly serious “You’re my partner… we’re up to our ass in this!” are particular highlights. Then there’s the moment for which Cruising should, above all else, be immortalised: a mountain-sized black cop, dressed in nothing but a jockstrap, cowboy hat and boots, strides unannounced into an interrogation room to send Burns flying with the mother of all dry slaps. It is utterly inexplicable, and yet somehow perfect for a film which constantly treads the thin line between unpleasantness and ridiculousness.

Cruising, with its rum subject matter, dangerously ambiguous messaging and snapshot of a lost (pre-AIDS epidemic) subculture, is a rare example of post-New Hollywood risk-taking at its most discomfiting, and Friedkin at his most anti-social. Ultimately, we’ll never see the likes of it again, which is a shame, because there isn’t a single Al Pacino film released in the last 15 years that couldn’t have been improved by a spot of light fisting.

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