CRUISING (1980) US 1 sheet poster
(1980, US)
3 and half stars  
Al Pacino is cruising for a killer.
directed by: William Friedkin
starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen , Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Jay Acovone, Randy Jurgensen, Barton Heyman, Gene Davis, Arnaldo Santana, James Remar

choice dialogue:

“Hips or lips?”

- getting into the swing of things!

slash with panache?

[review by JA Kerswell]

Arguably the most controversial movie of 1980 (with conservatives and liberals alike), but is CRUISING a slasher movie? It can certainly be argued that it is, at least, slasher adjacent. Director William Friedken would deny it, of course. Just in the same way he’d deny THE EXORCIST was - at its heart - a sideshow demon possession horror movie. But the fact remains, CRUISING - at least in its first half - certainly has subgenre trappings to spare. It was promoted during its 1980 release as something of a horror thriller - ‘Al Pacino is after a killer!’ Add to that Friedkin’s almost childlike glee in shocking his audience and you have a headier brew than a yellow hankie soaked in poppers.

   CRUISING (1980)
  CRUISING was released to North American theatres in February 1980 sold on the star power of Al Pacino.

Pacino plays Steve Burns, a new police recruit in New York City. He is offered the, er, plum role going undercover in the city’s gay leather and S&M bars to lure a killer. Body parts are washing up in the Hudson Bay and the commissioner (Paul Sorvino) is getting it in the neck from the top brass, who want an arrest ahead of an upcoming political conference. Although Burns has reservations, he also knows success in apprehending the killer will fast track his career. It doesn’t hurt that he is a dead ringer for the victims the killer has been targeting.

Despite his naivety, Burns quickly picks up on the nuances of the nightly rituals. Only when he talks to his non-scene gay neighbour (played by Don Scardino - who appeared in HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE the same year) does he have a break from the gimp masks and leather slings. Burns and the police follow some bum leads before landing on who they think might be the culprit. However, by the end, the suggestion is that Burns has not only been seduced by the leather scene, but also by violence that surrounds it in the movie.

Intriguingly, it could be argued that CRUISING takes place in a fantasy world. New York City is portrayed as a sex playground for the gay leather set. The fantastical elements don’t end there. Friedkin defending his film against accusations of exploitation and deliberate shock tactics said that the extreme depiction of the leather scene was just a backdrop to a regular murder mystery. The problem with this is two-fold. Yes, it is a murder mystery - but it is one without any real resolution. Audiences were sure to be confused by the fact that the killer who murders the first victim we see (in a hotel room), is subsequently killed by another man during a nighttime liaison Central Park. In a subsequent murder, the first victim plays the killer - along with at least one other person. Then there’s the fact that there is no more dismemberment and no more body parts found. Perhaps suggesting yet another killer. What is Friedkin getting at? Is this supposed to suggest a shattered personality or - as some suspected - that Friedkin was inadvertently suggesting that homosexuality and murderous desires are commonplace and go hand-in-hand? Or that gay men are interchangeable and ultimately disposable? The answer is literally there for the interpretation, but the reality might be more mundane. Set reports at the time told of a chaotic shoot and daily rewrites of the script. Tellingly, actor Richard Cox said he had signed on the play the killer (which he does), but then found out during shooting he was also to be a victim. In all likelihood, as the script fell apart, Friedkin decided to embrace the ambiguity and retrofit it as testament to his self-perceived genius.

It is also a little odd that Friedkin attempted to sidestep the controversy of depicting a gay subset that much of Middle America wouldn’t have known even existed, by saying it was merely a colourful back drop. Many of the extras in the bar locations were real leather bar patrons, but some walked off the set with concerns about how their scene - and gay life in general - was going to be perceived by audiences. Perhaps the most controversial, er, passage is one where a man is fisted in a sling as Pacino’s character watches from the bar. Despite some light nudity, the film does not show any full frontal and graphic sexual acts. The fisting is implied, but according to reports the sex act happened for real (and it was this that caused some extras to walk). A further 40 minutes of “graphic sexuality” was filmed - allegedly to fall at the altar of the MPAA and keep the film intact as Friedkin envisaged. Again, it is hard to understand how Friedkin can defend his depiction of the leather scene as merely a backdrop when he spent so much time filming it and included scenes that he he knew would shock and disgust many in a straight audience? The original book (by Gerald Walker) took place in regular gay bars and Friedkin chose a more extreme setting for the very purpose of shock value and taking inspiration from real-life events that were, as they say, ripped from the headlines.

   CRUISING (1980)
  William Fiedkin's film doesn't shy away from the slasher-style violence that was quickly coming into vogue. CRUISING - and other controversial films such as CALIGULA - soured critics against violent movies.

Friedkin, who had previously passed on the chance of directing the film (Steven Spielberg was once considered), said he changed his mind after a series of real-life murders surrounding gay leather bars in the early 1970s - and specifically a series of articles by Village Voice journalist Arthur Bell (who subsequently condemned Friedkin’s film). Friedkin also knew of a policeman who had gone deep undercover to attempt to find the killer - which, obviously, inspired the Steve Burns character. In a strange twist of fate, an extra who had appeared in THE EXORCIST was implicated in the real-life gay leather bar murders. Paul Bateson, who appears as a medical assistant during the scene where Raegan is in hospital, was convicted of one murder, but was a suspect in others.

Given its subject matter, it is hardly surprising that CRUISING was a tough sell for studios - even in the relatively anything goes mentality of the closing years of the 1970s and despite Friedkin’s helming of two of the biggest films of that decade. Reportedly three studios passed on it before it was picked up for production by Jerry Weintrab. Budgeted at a healthy $11 million, Friedkin originally wanted Richard Gere to play the undercover cop (because of his androgynous beauty). Gere was interested but ultimately passed, but financing was secured when heavyweight actor Al Pacino signed on for the part.

CRUISING was filmed during the summer of 1979 in New York City. The 40 day location shoot wrapped at the end of that August. However, it wasn’t a smooth shoot to say the least. Gay advocacy groups were deeply concerned about how their community was to be shown in the movie and especially worried that it might spark violent homophobia. A concern that was perhaps not unwarranted when, in November of 1980, a deranged religious nut machine-gunned patrons outside a New York leather bar that had featured in the film. Two died. During filming, groups attempted to disrupt the filming using chanting, shining lights onto the set and even throwing missiles. This resulted in much of the film being redubbed in post, which gives the film a curiously European feel. Al Pacino was especially spooked. It didn’t help that early reports were that his character went on a rampage killing gay men. He said that he didn’t believe the script he had signed on for was homophobic, but he reportedly hated the finished film and was unhappy with script changes. He attempted to make amends by donating much of his royalties later to AIDS charities. For his part, Friedkin adopted something of a siege mentality and refused to meet advocate groups insisting he was too busy. Ahead of filming, Pacino and Friedkin bonded by going to leather bars in incognito, but there was clearly no love lost between them by the end of the shoot - and they communicated only through their attorneys. Pacino refused to do any publicity for the film and clearly thought that his appearance was a big mistake.

   CRUISING (1980)
  It is still up for debate as to whether CRUISING's ambuguities (such as several different actors playing the killer) were intended by Friedkin - or were due to a much troubled production that was under siege from every direction.

Don Scardino - who is the film’s final victim and perhaps Al Pacino’s character’s first kill - also lambasted the finished movie: “I found the murder of my character more morally reprehensible than anything else … We’re not taught to handle growing up gay in this society, so we engender violence against it. Cruising had the opportunity to say that, and it didn’t.”

The feeling was that Friedkin had himself been seduced by the leather scene, but had failed to really understand how his depiction of it would be received - and how it could have real world consequences on the gay community. A hurried disclaimer opens the film saying that the scenes depicted were not meant to suggest that all gay men lived like this, but this was taken by many as a tacit admission that the project was misjudged at best - or worse - Friedkin just didn’t care. There is also the accusation that Friedkin is surprisingly flippant with the subject matter. The scene where a towering black cop, only bedecked in a stetson hat and a jock strap, beats up a suspect is great gonzo filmmaking, but its debatable whether the director would have featured such as scene in his own THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Another ludicrous moment comes when Pacino’s character allows himself to be stripped nude, hog-tied and completed incapacitated by someone he strongly suspects is the killer. It stretches credulity to the breaking point.

Curiously, the forced redubbing isn’t the only thing that brings to mind Eurocult movies. In one scene, the killer sings a nursery rhyme before a murder. Although, creepily, this detail was inspired by what witnesses heard at the scene of a real life murder, it also brings to mind the 70s gialli of Dario Argento, such as DEEP RED (1975). Interestingly, Dario Argento once expressed his desire to make a giallo with only gay characters, but could never secure funding.

Don Scardino wasn’t the only slasher alumni in CRUISING. Joe Spinell appears as a sleazy cop (the same year MANIAC was released; he went on to make THE LAST HORROR FILM (1982)). Gene Davis was in THE FAN (also 1980) and played the killer in 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983). Kirsten Baker, from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981), has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncredited role as a jogger.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave CRUISING an X-rating (usually reserved for hard core pornography and a commercial suicide as many theatre chains wouldn’t show X-rated movies). Rather than release the film unrated, Friedkin claims he showed the MPAA board the film "50 times" at a cost of $50,000. 40 minutes of extreme footage from the original cut was deleted before he secured an R rating. These 40 minutes have reportedly been lost and were presumably destroyed.

   CRUISING (1980)
  CRUISING was so controversial that several theatre chains cancelled contracts to show it - and one chain in Florida told patrons that they thought the film should have recieved an X-rating.

Somewhat ironically, despite getting an R rating, some theatre chains pulled out of showing the film entirely. Whilst others in Florida took the unusual step of putting up signs outside cinema and in press adverts saying that they believed that CRUISING should have been rated X - and discouraging, or even forbidding, children from being brought along by adults. Whether these cancellations or unusual steps would have been taken had the film been set in the straight sex club world is up for debate. The MPAA was criticised for passing it with an R rating. “No picture has given us so much anguish as Cruising”, said chairman Richard Heffner. “People are angry. They want to be saved from the film. But it’s not the job of the ratings system to punish movies for moral or aesthetic reasons.” 1980 saw a groundswell of opposition to perceived extreme movies - from mainstream critics, the media and certain sections of society. Tinto Brass’ CALIGULA - which was released around the same time - attracted much hand wringing and condemnation. It was into this maelstrom that FRIDAY THE 13TH was released that summer to great box office and a critical shit show from the likes of Siskel and Ebert.

Joseph Gelmis in Newsday condemned the film: “Cruising is sensationalised slumming in New York’s most debauched homosexual flesh pots, combined with a manhunt for a mad slasher who preys on gay victims.” He wasn’t alone. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it: “Graphic disgust and nothing else. … Sex and violence, the twin mother lodes of current commercial cinema, are present in quantity in William Friedkin’s “Cruising”. The sex, much of which plays like a training film for proctologists, is enough to turn the strongest heterosexual stomach, and the violence has provoked cries of outrage amongst homosexuals.” The New Yorker said: “If you hang around with gays and the leather set (the film implies) you will end up dead or killing someone. … A slovenly, bruising movie whose persistent uncertainties of tone and meaning only confirm the fears that it was made mostly to shock and sell.” The Observer in UK reported on the controversy in the US ahead of the film’s overseas release: “The central message of the film, the protesters claim, is that gay sexuality is intimately connected with violence; that gay men solicit and enjoy brutality; and ultimately, that homosexuals deserve to be killed.” The Daily News was even more damning: “A depraved and mindless piece of garbage that should never have been made. There must be film makers with responsibility and ethics and a moral conscience out there somewhere, but William Friedkin is not one of them.” Rex Reed quipped that Al Pacino looked like a “hairy avocado”.

Unsurprisingly, the film showings also attracted protests. Its release was picketed on Broadway with protestors holding signs saying things such as “Hey-hey ho-ho, the movie Crusin’ gotta go!”, “Pacino Sucks” and “Gay USA Let Hollywood Hear you Tonight.” United Artists even told theatre owners they could deduct the cost of security from box office receipts - and purposefully didn’t announce which cinemas would be showing it. However, the old adage that no publicity is bad publicity rang true. At least initially. CRUISING opened strong, but takings soon tapered off with a final count of - far short of Jerry Weintrab’s hopelessly optimistic predictions of $100 million+.

In recent years, CRUISING has come in for something of a critical reappraisal. However, the jury is still out on whether the ambiguity in Friedkin’s film was intentional or was the director trying to rescue a project that was slipping out of his hands faster than a greased up dildo. Intentional or not, the ambiguity adds a dreamlike - and at times - nightmarish atmosphere that ultimately seduces.

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BODYCOUNT 5   bodycount!   female: 0 / male: 5

           1) Male body part found
         2) Male stabbed repeatedly in the back
         3) Male stabbed to death
         4) Male stabbed to death
         5) Male found stabbed to death