William Friedkin's 1980 film "Cruising" is a puzzling shocker whose controversial reputation is well-earned. The director of "The Exorcist" was no stranger to this kind of negative publicity, and while he agreed to place a disclaimer in front of his film testifying to the fact that it's not meant as a criticism of gays in general, this did approximately NOTHING to placate those who were already suspicious of Friedkin's motives. The film tracks police detective Steve Burns (played with a strange brand of naivete by Al Pacino) as he goes undercover in New York City's gay S&M scene in an attempt to learn the identity of a serial killer. He's set up in what would now be a $3,000-a-month-plus Greenwich Village apartment and has to learn the ways of the leather daddy scene in an iron-pumping, hanky-code-learning montage. Note: Don't wear the yellow hanky unless you MEAN it, boys. As Burns repeatedly visits these underground nightclubs (located in the now-posh Meatpacking District--I like to think that Burns attended Precinct Night at the RamRod in what is now the Alexander McQueen boutique space or a Tory Burch retailer), he finds himself increasingly fascinated by the raw sexuality on display, even as he begins to question the motives of his fellow policemen in tracking down the killer. At the time of its filming and initial release, the movie raised the ire of gay rights activists who objected to its perceived implication that violence is inherent to the homosexual lifestyle. The film's coda, which involves a murder committed after the incarceration of the Real Killer and the resurfacing of a sinister character from the beginning of the story, points to an uncomfortable ambiguity that could be perceived in this way, but the story is, at its heart, something far more straight-forward than all that.
With its emphasis on kinky sex, striking visuals, and eroticized murder, "Cruising" is a gay giallo.
All of the elements are present, but in place of fashionably made-up young women being dispatched by a black-gloved killer, the victims are well-toned men involved in sexual activity and the leather is positively everywhere. Why stop at gloves when chaps, jackets, hats and even jock-straps can be crafted from the tanned hides of cattle past? There's an obsessive attention to detail in the depictions of leathersex that would make "Cruising" a certain type of fetishist's delight. Creaking leather and heavy boot-falls punctuate the murder scenes, and the interiors of the nightclubs are positively Boschian--filled to the brim with sweaty, writhing bodies engaged in all manner of homosexual couplings. There is no space in this film that isn't sexually charged. New York City's parks were teeming with randy men seeking anonymous rough trade, if this film is to be believed. Even the police precinct is infused with BDSM activity, when--apparently for no reason at all--a be-jock-strapped muscle-man is brought in to slap a suspect during an interrogation. It's small wonder that this landscape of lust draws Detective Burns ever deeper into its clutches, causing him to doubt his own sexual orientation.
So where do the women go in a giallo when they're not needed as victims? Well, they don't have a hell of a lot to do other than to play Burns' preternaturally patient and oddly unquestioning girlfriend or a waitress who accidentally spills coffee. Seriously--I love Karen Allen in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and all, but here she's not given any drinking contests or loud shouting or Nazi-fighting to do, and she's pretty much a tight-lipped, semi-confused non-entity. Her character functions as a plot point and not as a source of tension, merely underscoring the fantasy of a "heterosexual" man lured over to the "Dark Side" of gay sex.
If that feels like a lot of air quotes in one sentence, that's because it is. And if you think I was smirking during the unraveling of this movie, I was. "Cruising" didn't feel as much the scathing indictment gay life produced by heterosexual filmmakers that protesters had feared so much as it played like a piece of very dark erotica intended for an audience of leathersex enthusiasts. That's not sinister--that's merely weird and campy to viewers who *aren't* a part of that community.
As a gritty thriller in the American mold, the film falls a bit short, leaving enough plot holes (some of which are deliberate--it appears that Friedkin played with substituting different actors in the role of the killer throughout the film, and certain ominous figures pop up repeatedly with no explanation) to bring the story some yards short of a satisfying conclusion. Taken as a giallo, a form whose feet are planted in the fantastique, the story holds together well enough to provide a reasonable skeleton on which to hang a bunch of lurid setpiece scenes.
Oh, and in case you were wondering--no, Al Pacino is not a very convincing leather daddy. And his dancing leaves much to be desired (although that could just be the poppers at work):
I know. You still have a lot of questions. Let me provide you with an answer. THIS is what it would look like if someone re-made "Cruising" with an all-doll cast: