Cruising is perhaps William Friedkin’s most divisive film, gaining criticism from both sides of the political spectrum when it was released in 1980, on the cusp of the AIDS crisis. It’s not hard to see why, since this was easily the most explicit mainstream film made about the gay community at this point in time, at least in American cinema, meaning that it really pushes the envelope in terms of some its content, but also inevitably falls into some homophobic tropes in the process, even if some of these seem fairly forgivable in retrospect. In essence, it’s a serial killer narrative, with the difference that this killer is operating within New York’s gay leather community, targeting hustlers in particular. It’s a bit laughable that the NYPD would have cared too much about the fate of a gay hustler at time, so we have to suspend disbelief when Captain Edelson, played by Paul Sorvino, instructs Officer Steve Burns, to go undercover in order to figure out who is targeting the leather community, and arrest them.
So (supposedly) sequestered is this leather community that it’s not enough for Burns to conduct a normal investigation – he has to totally immerse himself in the community, and pass for gay as he rents an apartment near Christopher Street and quickly falls in with his next door neighbour, who also happens to be gay. Edelson chooses Burns because he has the “look” of the gay community and, while it’s never directly stated, implies that he needs to sleep with men to really understand the crime. Certainly he has to plunge into the headt world of gay nightlife, resulting in a frank approach to sexuality across the film, which brims from corporeal configurations and fetishistic flourishes that feel drawn from adult cinema as much as classical Hollywood. Of course, there’s a homophobic elements to all this, even or especially as the characters nobly insist that leather community “doesn’t represent all gays,” which there are a few obligatory moments of moral panic at the depravity of casual gay sex.
To Friedkin’s credit, this moral outrage is pretty peremptory, and tends to revolve around the spectacle of human flesh, and the metaphor of gay nightlife as a flesh trade. Since the leather community was centred in the Meat Packing District, butchering motifs aren’t hard to come by – the first major lead involves checking a knife from a steak restaurant against bodies, and is followed by a tracking shot that follows the killer and his next victim as they walk along a series of meat hooks. While this metaphor is a bit cheesy, Friedkin also brokers it to introduce a horror element to some of the more procedural elements, starting with the first autopsy sequence, set against a series of abrasive sound effects and the ominous whir of Stryker Saws.
Above and beyond these homophobic overtones, however, Friedkin brilliantly fuses police cruising and gay cruising, shooting most of his outdoor scenes with a cool blue filter that fades all outfits to a police palette, and evokes a city entirely surveilled by the gaze of the NYPD. In the opening scene, the police are introduced as overtly misogynistic, homophobic and antisocial – these cops make Popeye Doyle look like a study in human rights – and as the motor engine of the closet as it operates across the city. Conversely, the leather scene neutralizes the police uniform by reappropriating it into a fetish – or exposing it as a fetish – as leather gays start to blend with the police, and the film proliferates with Pacino lookalikes.
Within that diffuse space between police and gay subcultures, the serial killer operates like an extreme police officer, exposing the police uniform as the ultimate kink in American culture. Like the classic slasher, the killer in Cruising is not exactly inside or outside the law, but instead embodies the peverse jouissance of the law, fusing the pleasures of gay sex with the pleasures of policing gay sex. The only difference between leather queens and police officers, Friedkin provocatively gestures, is that the leather scene openly acknowledges that the uniform they wear is a fetish, forcing Burns to enjoy his uniform in a whole new way to properly assimilate. It’s telling that he almost betrays himself as a police officer by not being dressed up in police gear on “precinct night” – a monthly event that eventually estranges him from the uniform for good, albeit by allowing him to embrace it as sado-masochistic fetish.
While this might all sound pretty sensational, it’s offset by the moody, introspective tone of Pacino’s performance, which is easily one of the most understated in his career. To some extent, this reflects the undercover mission, and the life of a subculture lived in the shadows, but it also strikes to the heart of every man’s inner questioning of whether he could be gay, since there’s no man alive who hasn’t asked himself that question in some form or another, at least in the wake of gay liberation. Pacino’s brilliance is particularly evident in the way he settles into his own skin when he goes undercover, since for all intents and purposes he’s playing a young gay ingenue here, still uncertain about his role and meaning in the broader gay scene. From his vantage point (or at least his initial vantage point), the leather scene seems quite idyllic and relaxed – and during these early sequences Cruising genuinely feels shot for a gay audience, especially when it ventures into iconic bars for its location shooting.
These scenes also reminded me of The Boys in the Band, Friedkin’s early film, in the way they present sociability and momentum as the two cornerstones of the gay community. As soon as he goes undercover, Burns is in constant motion, always wandering, drifting and cruising. We only see him return to a stationary pose with his girlfriend and with the police, the two regulators of normal heterosexual life, and even then he’s always keen to get back to the street as soon as possible. No surprise that he only experience sexual pleasure with his girlfriend by staring off into distance, as if willing himself to be back on the street, which Friedkin typically brings to him by fading in the soundscape of the gay bars he visits. As time goes by, this inevitably fuses Burns “real” and “undercover” selves, his gay and straight lives, culminating with a muscle queen appearing, like a mirage, as part of the police investigation, with so little context or explanation that he seems to be a figment of Burns’ heated desires.
In other words, Pacino’s performance taps into the dreamlike feeling of both knowing and not knowing you’re gay – the feeling of the closet, which here operates through the paradoxical way in which Burns becomes more himself by going undercover. As the film proceeds, you gradually suspect that Edelson chose Burns because he knew – but also didn’t know – he was gay. Similarly, Burns’ first recognition of his homosexuality is his alienation from the police force, which he starts to reject after seeing how they treat his gay peers. Torn between his homoerotic allegiance to his police buddies, and his own burgeoning homosexuality, he sinks into a suspended space between police and gay cruising, where his sexual orientation is never quite affirmed or denied, but instead left to drift, wander, cruise.
It’s at this point that Cruising starts to feel like a spiritual sequel to The French Connection, which ultimately found police cruising inadequate to the ceaseless, restless, mobile, surveillance, peripatetic, insatiable gaze of Friedkin’s camera. Here, police cruising is deflected into gay cruising as a new kind of cinematic perception, as Friedkin tries to turn his camera into a gay cruiser in turn. While the killer strikes in a specific subculture – the leather scene – his crimes also give way to a more dispersed and diffuse spatiality, starting with the body parts found in the Hudson River in the opening scene, and our return to the river at the end.
This hushed space between police cruising and gay cruising – a space on the very cusp of gay ideation – crystallises into an incredible tracking sequence in the third act, which remains my favourite part of Friedkin’s filmography to date. For about half an hour, there’s no real dialogue, as Burns follows his main suspect but also sinks deeper into his own queer identity. Wherever he is in the city – on a bus, on the street, in a park – the suspect glances up to see Burns looking at him, as the two men develop a preternatural prescience of each other that warps and hushes the city in their wake. Finally, they lock eyes across the best sightline of Friedkin’s career – between the suspect’s apartment, and the park across the road, which is at roughly the same level, since this appears to be the rockier part of Upper Manhattan, and where Burns sets up day and night, waiting for the flickering meeting of eyes that he craves.
The entire third act of the film seems to dissolve into this gorgeous sightline, which presents cruising as a new form of perception, and allows Friedkin to briefly imagine a city where every man is gay, or where every man is potentially gay. It makes sense, then, that the killer seems to speak in a mechanically modulated voice, like the killer in Scream, initially introducing himself to his first victim as a missive from Mars. From there, Friedkin tends to shift to a different, digitsed form of perception when the killer strikes – or at least suggests that the killer, and the gay cruising he both polices and celebrates, has exhausted cinema as we know it. In one scene, his perception gradually fuses with the grainy footage of an adult movie house, while most of his other favourite haunts feel like end-points of cinematic perception – most dramatically an extravagantly backlit oak tree in the heart of the Central Park Ramble.
Eventually, we discover the killer is schizophrenic, and is committing the crimes at the behest of his dead father. This can easily be read as homophobic, but I tend to see this more as a critique of the voice of the father itself – an indictment on the police state that promulgates the very homoerotic lexicon that it takes such pleasure in policing and repressing. In the eerie final scene, Burns’ girlfriend finds his leather gear, and curiously tries it on before Burns looks at camera and Friedkin cuts abruptly to a ship making its way across the harbor. In this final moment, Friedkin suspends us even more delicately between police and gay subcultures – and suspends us in Burns’ mind as he cloaks his girlfriend in fetishistic attire before drifting back to the cruisey expanse of the city. In the end, and for all the sensationalism, this is one of the most anonymous killers of the golden era of slashers. Devoid of any real intrinsic identity, he operates as an extreme manifestation of both the leather subculture and the police force – the point where they converge – presenting the police as part of the same leather continuum that, in its own unique way, Cruising so evocatively explores and elegises.