William Friedkin’s 1980 gay-underworld-serial-killer-undercover-identity-freakout Cruising has been rechristened for its revival as a “landmark film.” The blustery veteran filmmaker is enjoying his longest spotlight in a while, between the latest (welcome) run of his Oscar-winning The French Connection at Film Forum and the measured praise for his paranoia chamber piece Bug this past spring. But it’s hard to know just how to take Cruising, a vexing, trashy curiosity perched on the cusp of the Reagan era, and today being advertised with a slot in the gay history timeline.
While The French Connection fortuitously preceded the darkest 70s apocalypse-now New York movies, Cruising rather more awkwardly bowed late in the game. It’s an in-too-deep undercover-investigation thriller in which a branch of gay nightlife functions as the “sinister milieu” usually filled by the inner city or a criminal demimonde. As dutiful cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) crosses over to this secret world of desire to track a twisted murderer, he treads the decade’s Taxi Driver path into our sinful city’s seamy underbelly, so often flaunted to gawking audiences nationwide seeking to confirm their fears (and hopes) about urban sex and violence.
Pinning his hopes on a promotion, Steve embarks on a tour of spookily lit Central Park pick-up spots and subterranean Meatpacking District bars like the Ramrod and the Hellfire Club, the camera panning leeringly across leather-clad revelers (often at crotch level). Steve reports to his superior (Paul Sorvino), voices portentous-sounding anxieties to his clueless girlfriend (Karen Allen), and is generally sympathetic. But where Friedkin invested French Connection with pavement-pounding case-building, the main evidence Steve accumulates is that his work is “affecting” him (which tends to manifest in sharp edits to him having sex with his girlfriend).
Which brings up a funny thing about the suspense of this purported thriller. One of the not-so-hard truths about Cruising is that it’s a boring muddle, a quality that some have sought to redeem as subversive ambiguity along with Friedkin’s sleight-of-hand about the serial killer’s identity and voice. But in draining the cop’s trajectory of narrative interest, the film simply pegs its thrills to what Steve will encounter next in a bar and just how much he will experiment in the course of his duties. The twists in the film’s last leg come off as silly, and revelations about the killer have you expecting the police shrink from Psycho to show up to diagnose the situation.
Not that some sparks couldn’t fly off the tried-and-true common strands of role-playing and danger in courtship and murder, but the director of The Exorcist isn’t really your go-to guy for teasing out complications. But as a high-profile dip in studio-uncharted waters with good ’n’ grainy locations, there’s not much out there quite like Cruising, which peaks with scenes of fuzzy-headed Pacino bopping out on nitrate and a fellow cop’s highly unconventional, half-nude interrogation technique. Intriguingly, Friedkin made a prior mark on gay film culture ten years earlier, again on the brink of a decade: his faithfully filmed 1970 version of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band.
Opens September 7 at Regal E-Walk