The Final Cut

'Cruising' for Another Bruising

More than a quarter century after its controversial release, William Friedkin's dark tour of New York's gay S&M scene arrives on DVD in a special collector's edition. Does the film deserve a reputation rehab?

Al Pacino in CRUISING
Image credit: Everett Collection
Al Pacino in CRUISING

Reconsidering Friedkin's ''Cruising''

Movies get lost, overlooked, and forgotten all the time, but how many actually go into exile? William Friedkin's 1980 murder mystery Cruising is one of those rarities. A VHS version appeared with no fanfare in 1996, but the film's Sept. 18th arrival on DVD, 27 years after its opening sparked the wrath of the gay community (and the scorn of just about every working critic) marks the first real attempt to escort it through Reputation Rehab.

On this ''collector's edition,'' producer Jerry Weintraub and writer-director Friedkin try to reposition Cruising, their horrorstruck heterosexual gawkers' tour through the dank grottos of New York's gay S&M scene, as both a victim of its era and a work of art ahead of its time, a movie born too soon to be fully understood. Not so fast, fellas. While this landmark-for-all-the-wrong-reasons deserves to be available for reexamination, the true history of Cruising isn't quite the version that its makers are selling on this disc.

First, some background. In 1979, when Cruising was shot in the streets and clubs and SROs of the Big Apple in all its seedy garbage-strike, recession-era splendor, Friedkin and star Al Pacino were both heavyweight players coming off of major disasters (Friedkin's 1977 movie Sorcerer had bombed, as had Pacino's racecar melodrama Bobby Deerfield). Friedkin wasn't a homophobe — ten years earlier, he had directed the film version of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band — but when he began Cruising, he remained a somewhat agog tourist in gay culture, staring in fascination at its otherness and then reporting the creepy news from the front.

Working from a 1970 novel by journalist Gerald Walker that the director says was badly dated, Friedkin decided to add leather and lube, concocting a nihilistic thriller in which Pacino would play Steve Burns, a cop assigned to go undercover as a homosexual to catch a killer preying on the gay men who frequent the roughest underground sex clubs in New York's permanently rainsoaked meat district. The film literally darkens as Steve abandons the sunsplashed, airy apartment of his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) to descend into a nightcrawler's realm of facemasks and jockstraps, color-coded hankies and poppers, handcuffs and ominously greased-up fists and forearms, all displayed amid an angry, scratchy-industrial musical thrum. (There's no sissyboy disco for the badass, stone-faced thrillseekers in these gay armies of the night.)

In no time flat, Steve has become one of the undead, drained of color, life and expression. ''Why don't you want me anymore?'' asks Nancy. ''Nance, what I'm doing is affecting me,'' replies the newly bitten zombie. ''I don't understand what's happening to you!'' she cries. ''Neither do I,'' he murmurs before returning to the land of the lost.

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