Take a Walk on the Wild Side: The Controversy of William Friedkin’s Cruising

Opening the cinematic underbelly for William Friedkin’s much maligned classic

“This 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.”

That’s the opening disclaimer of Cruising, a remarkable psychological thriller that was met with controversy, hatred, derision and confusion back in 1980. Director William Friedkin’s double-whammy of 1971‘s The French Connection and 1973‘s The Exorcist may have made him one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, but 1977‘s Sorcerer, despite now being rightfully recognised as a masterpiece, was a total failure critically and commercially (Star Wars pretty much destroyed it) and this once-untouchable filmmaker was needing a hit. Following the relatively obscure (and in the director’s own opinion, disappointing) The Brink’s Job in 1978, Friedkin was ready to take risks again, and despite being initially uninterested in Gerald Walker’s novel about a series of murders in New York’s gay bar community, feeling the scene to have already progressed far enough to have made the source material dated, he was soon tempted to adapt it with the idea of taking the story and bringing it up to date.

Thanks to the presence of major-star Al Pacino in the lead, Cruising was gaining serious publicity, and thanks to the film’s content, it was gaining even more, and not all of it positive. When word of filming spread around, it was instantly met with hostility from gay rights groups concerned that the film’s subject matter would stir hatred  there were demonstrations and protests, and attempts to disrupt filming, such as blasting sirens and music so as to screw up the sound recording. Upon release, Cruising was considered a failure. Rarely anyone had a good word to say about it (reviews were pretty savage), and while it made a financial profit, it wasn’t much of one. Yet its reputation in recent years has substantially grown, with many now considering it to be an unsung classic. Count me in with that crowd.

Body parts are showing up in New York’s Hudson River, and there has been a spate of stabbing murders amongst the city’s gay community. Steve Burns (Al Pacino), a rookie cop looking for promotion, is approached by major crimes head Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) to ‘disappear’; to go undercover in the West Village’s leather bar scene to try and solve the identity of the murderer. He will do so without anyone else’s knowledge. He will move into a new apartment, learn the moves (especially the dance moves — check out Pacino body-popping on amyl nitrate!), the social codes (what colour hankies to wear and what sexual kick they represent), visit the clubs and make new friends, including struggling writer Ted (Don Scardino), but he soon becomes inexorably drawn into this nocturnal world. ‘What I’m doing….is affecting me’, he confesses to his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen), with whom he has a polite but seemingly unexciting relationship with. Their sex together seems to leave Burns disinterested and emotionally removed. Is there a latent homosexual spark within Burns, now ready to be set off? Or does he have a dark, murderous side within him that will grow due to his exposure to such brutal murders? As he delves deep into the case, Burns’ former sense of identity begins to fall apart.

Great, I never made it with a Martian before.


Homosexuality was, and still is for many, an ‘other’ lifestyle, and maybe when domestic bliss and complacency settle in like it seems to have done for Burns, a walk on the wild side might prove to be a turn on. Of course, and this is where that opening disclaimer is important, the lifestyle depicted in Cruising is not the be-all and end-all of homosexuality. Edelson makes a point of these victims not being part of the gay mainstream. Indeed, you could have replaced ‘S&M gay culture’ with the drug scene or the violent crime scene and it probably still would have been applicable to the plot (indeed, Friedkin insists that the gay leather scene was merely meant to be a background to the action, not a comment), but those ideas had been done and would continue to be done, while this film was aiming for a new so-called taboo to explore. The gay lifestyle, even the mainstream variety, was probably an unknown to the everyday viewer, and as such was likely to have the most effective impact on curious audiences. Of course, there was always the risk that those same audiences might be turned off, that homosexuality as a subject matter wouldn’t appeal.

Was Cruising an irresponsible film to release in 1980? Friedkin admits that it was “not the best foot forward that you can put as an argument for the acceptance by heterosexual people of the gay lifestyle”. Representations of gay culture in mainstream Hollywood cinema up until then were few and far between, with many films opting for the cheap and easy approach of camp stereotypes or the occasional misogynist killer. Gay characters were who were, well…normal, were not getting a look in. Okay, ‘normal’ characters don’t exactly make for exciting cinema, but at the same time Hollywood wasn’t giving gay people a fair time. Then again, the real world wasn’t either. Homophobia was and still is a ongoing, major concern in society. So, for a film like Cruising, which may have been, for some, the first time they’d seen any kind of gay lifestyle up on the big screen, to show gay characters being explicitly murdered, as well as indulging in S&M and vice, probably wasn’t going to alter people’s opinions that they were people to be feared, pitied or freaked out by. I mean, heterosexual S&M is already a touchy subject for some. Throw homosexuality into the mix and you’re seriously risking alienating your straight-laced audience. You can see why Friedkin felt the need to put that disclaimer on at the start, to simultaneously appease both gay viewers who didn’t want to be reduced to a particular group, or to straight viewers who might misread the movie and end up more homophobic at the end of the film than they were at the start.

The thing is, Cruising is remarkably sympathetic to its gay characters, and free of judgement. Watching it, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at the way homosexuality was depicted or treated, but then again, I didn’t see it in 1980 and I’m straight. The gay characters are not a punchline or a funny gimmick. Yeah, there’s a funny bit where a guy berates Burns for wearing the wrong hanky in the wrong place, but these feel like real people. Admittedly, in the case of some characters, notably prime suspect Stuart (Richard Cox), we’re talking real people with serious psychological issues, but this is the thriller genre we’re working with, and damaged people are part of the deal. If he was the only gay character in the film then it could be problematic, but there are more gay characters in this film than there probably were in any other major Hollywood film at the time, and for some time after too. Speaking of real characters; take the first victim. He’s probably the most charming, self-effacing and funny person in the whole film. He’s definitely the most sympathetic, and his fate is the focus point of one of the most horrific and disturbing murder scenes in any thriller or horror ever. By the time of Cruising, the slasher film was in full flow, but unlike the scores of bimbos and lunkheads falling prey to sharp implement-wielding silent monsters, the opening murder scene of Cruising stills sends shudders and genuine, real fear down the spine.

As with many of Friedkin films, there’s a focus on raw, gritty realism. Even The Exorcist, for all its supernatural content, was filled with scenes of raw, almost documentary-like reality and, before her character becomes possessed, one of the most natural, unaffected performances from a child actor ever in Linda Blair. The French Connection too had a hand-held, real feel. In both cases Friedkin researched his material, and was consulted by experts in their relevant fields. Cruising would develop this approach, with real police officers offering crucial influence and in some cases appearing as police officers in the film. The autopsy scenes (filmed, despite official resistance, in real morgues) are ugly and a far cry from the likes of Quincy. Amazingly, as ludicrous as the scene in which Burns and wrongly suspected club patron Skip are brutalised by a huge detective wearing nothing but a cowboy hat and a jock strap, this was apparently something that happened during interrogations. By throwing a seemingly preposterous element to proceedings, it meant that later complaints of police brutality could be dismissed as having never happened. Also, like in The Exorcist, Friedkin deploys the use of subliminal imagery. In the opening murder, the shot of the first victim being stabbed in the back is spliced with rapid shots of hardcore anal sex. Now the whole sex=death, knife penetration = penile penetration is well known to anyone remotely familiar with the genre, but never had the metaphor become….well, so blatantly hardcore. It’s a shocking moment, probably the most shocking moment in the whole picture, and it still stuns.

Plotwise, Cruising is highly unconventional, despite the initial classic set-up of an undercover agent losing himself in his second lifestyle. As a whodunit, it is one hell of a confusing and disorienting experience. Friedkin said that the film was “more about raising questions than giving answers”, and it was this element that really annoyed a lot of critics, with Siskel and Ebert frustrated at the lack of a resolution and Time Out baffled by how ‘arbitrary’ the ending was. It’s easy to dismiss these original criticisms as the opinions of short-sighted writers, but I think Cruising was a little ahead of its time, and certainly not a one-watch film. Nowadays, cryptic endings are seemingly everywhere, but the sheer inscrutability of Cruising must have been exceptionally frustrating back in 1980. What doesn’t help (or does, depending on how mysterious you like your movies) is how increasingly surreal the mechanics of the plot become.

For example, and this might not have been so obvious on first viewing because of how similar-looking so many of the characters are, but the killer of the first victim, and who you might assume is the one and only killer, is actually the second victim of the movie, the one to be knifed in Central Park. This second killer is Stuart, who becomes the focus of Burns’ stakeout in the film’s final act. Yet the third victim, killed in the peepshow booth, is murdered by someone who seems to be played (serious blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stuff, this) by the guy who played the first victim! So what is this? Is Friedkin playing games? Is he having us on? Is there more than one killer, and if so, why cast the guy you hired to be the first victim to be one of them? Unless we’re being hurtled back and forth through time — Friedkin has been on record as saying that he jiggled a few scenes around in the edit suite, so maybe that sweet, seemingly innocent man at the start of the film really was a psycho killer too and the peepshow scene took place before the opening murder.

But then how do you explain the fact that all the killers have that same voice, say the same things and sing the same creepy ‘who’s here, I’m here, you’re here’ song? There’s no suggestion of the supernatural, that some malevolent, Bob-from-Twin Peaks spectre is randomly possessing these guys, but it’s one possible reading. But then we get Stuart, whose disapproving father (and we realise later that he’s been dead for over a decade, so it’s most likely a psychotic delusion when they ‘meet’ in the park) has that same voice. In Stuart’s case, his reason for killing may very well be to do with intense guilt over his homosexuality, intensified by his father’s rejection of him. By killing other homosexuals, Stuart hopes to appease his father. But Stuart insists he never killed anyone, and besides, who’s that guy in the killer’s get-up walking into the bar at the end? Then there’s the possibility that Burns himself is now a killer — he keeps his nightclub leather attire after finishing his assignment (which Nancy finds in their apartment) and there’s the death of Ted, which although it may very well have been the work of his jealous boyfriend Gregory (James Remar), may very well have been the work of Burns, who might have seen his personal relationship with him as a loose-end that he had to do away with before returning to his regular, heterosexual life. These are all guesses. There are no answers. It’s been accepted by fans and stars of the movie that the killer is ‘whoever you want it to be’. Unlike in the movies, simply killing the killer doesn’t take away evil. It’s still out there, and it could be in anyone. This is why Cruising is so damned unsettling.

And for some, this lack of answers just isn’t good enough. But for me, it’s the reason I keep returning to Cruising. It’s one of the boldest, weirdest and most unique Hollywood movies ever. It’s also one of the most shocking. The bar scenes are still very striking — few mainstream movies would linger on homosexuality in such a way. Friedkin has insisted that he wanted to make the film without comment, to shoot it almost like a documentary. Indeed, this isn’t a glamourised depiction — most of the extras were real patrons in all their every day sweaty, average appearance, and as such, it’s a very raw look. And it still amazes. There’s a carefully framed and edited but astonishing bit where one guy lubes up his hand and proceeds to fist a willing participant, right there in front of everybody. We don’t see any penetration, but still, this is remarkably daring stuff, and still taboo in regards to what’s normally seen in cinema, especially Hollywood cinema.

C’mere. I wanna show you my night stick.

Patrolman DiSimone

Then there’s also the matter of the ‘missing 45 minutes’ — footage supposedly so hardcore that there was no chance it was ever going to make it into the released film. Problems with the ratings board led to much footage being cut. Apparently made up of extended footage of the club scenes, these scenes, had they been included, would have most likely turned Cruising into the American Caligula, at least in terms of casual explicitness. The thing is, as bold and extreme as these scenes might have been, would all that sex have dragged the film’s pacing? I mean 45 minutes? Saying that, it would have been effective to have some of that footage in, especially if we were to experience Burns’ reaction to it all. If there’s a criticism of Cruising to be had, it’s that there’s maybe not quite enough of the underworld to justify Burns’ subsequent psychological alteration. It does indeed seem a bit rushed. With no signs of this full version ever being released, it’s left to our imaginations to, er…fill in the gaps.

Adding to the atmosphere of the club scenes is the amazing soundtrack which, by Friedkin’s own admission, is not an accurate depiction of the kind of music that was being played in the clubs at the time. In reality, you were far more likely to hear Donna Summer’s disco music rather than the stripped-down, amphetamine-fuelled punk and dirty funk (Mutiny’s ‘Lump’ is just about the greatest unsung funk monster I’ve heard in years) we hear in Cruising. Admittedly, the latter makes for a more urgent, intense and frightening atmosphere than say, ‘I Feel Love’, but it does betray Friedkin’s reluctance to simply point-and-shoot, allowing for cinematic atmosphere to win the day. Additional music was provided by Jack Nitzsche, whose unconventional use of non-musical instruments to provide discordant and eerie tones and effects recall the work he did for Friedkin on The Exorcist. 

Al Pacino gives a performance that, in comparison to his later, shoutier and ore extravagant turns, is pretty subdued, outside of a couple of moments where he’s either panicked or angry. It’s a very subtle, internal performance — we’re never quite sure of what’s happening in his mind, right up until the penultimate shot, where Burns is shaving in front of the mirror and then turns to face us, daring us to work out what’s going on inside his head. We then fade to a shot of the river, just like at the very start of the film, where another boat is cruising, and most likely about to encounter more body parts. The murders will continue. Nothing has been resolved.

As Edelson, Paul Sorvino has the sad eyes of someone who’s seen way too much, who’s been made weary by the endless violence and bureaucratic pressure (later on he’s told he’s got to solve this case one way or the other, even if it means pinning the murders on a single suspect even when that’s unlikely to be the case). Karen Allen apparently had her role significantly reduced in the cutting room. I guess this makes sense — this isn’t her story, and the fact that we see so little of her adds to Burns’ increasing separation from her. Still she, as ever, is a warm, natural presence — a year later she’d break through with her terrific, gutsy performance in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The rest of the cast are made up of familiar faces, most notably Joe Spinell, who that year would deliver an extraordinary turn in Maniac but here creeps in the background as a corrupt cop who, when not hassling and abusing trans hustlers on the street, is visiting the same clubs Burns is attending.

I still think Cruising would push a hell of a lot of buttons if it had come out this year. It shows a director who, despite having won an Oscar, broken box-office records and had little else to prove, was more then prepared to take chances, live on the edge and take the risks. He may have been burned by its reception at the time, but the still-potent impact of Cruising proves Friedkin to have won in the end.

Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: William Friedkin
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Cinematography: James A. Contner
Editing: Bud S. Smith

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