directed by William Friedkin
starring Al Pacino, Karen Allen, Paul Sorvino
Despite being one of the more notorious and reviled films of the 1980s, William Friedkin’s Cruising has in recent years begun to dig itself out of the abyss of forgotten movies and has undergone a serious critical and popular re-evaluation. At worst the film has a serious cult following and is in some circles is being hailed as a misunderstood masterpiece. It is a great example of the undercover cop film, a gritty crime movie, and a time capsule of pre-AIDS New York City gay sub-culture. Sadly the atmosphere of police harassment and brutality has not passed into distant memory. Director William Friedkin considers the leather bar setting of Cruising simply as a background for a mystery thriller without any particular axe to grind about the gay lifestyle, but that didn’t keep people on all sides from losing their minds. Friedkin’s film was simultaneously an attack on the sensibilities and morality of good upstanding people and an attack of gay culture. If your art is making everyone mad, then it probably has something to say.
A series of grisly murders seem to all generate from New York City’s meat packing district’s gay leather bars. The police need someone who fits the physical type of the victims to go undercover to try to attract the killer. Rookie cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) becomes John Forbes and attempts to infiltrate the gay S&M scene. Leaving the politics aside, Cruising is a great example of the undercover cop trope who works to assimilate into the world he is investigating and maybe getting in too deep. After a series of faux pas, including a near disastrous error of showing up not in a police uniform on “precinct night” at one of the clubs, Burns/Forbes become a recognized fixture in the scene. Burns knows he is looking for a killer or killers among a subculture that he doesn’t understand but after assimilating into their world he is able to see past the fetishes and sees them a real people. This connection to the people he is living with leads him to rash and reckless measures to try to protect them from the killer in their midst. Eventually Burns ensnares a suspect. Detectives police beat a confession out of the suspect before learning that they have the wrong man. Disillusioned and despondent, Burns tries to quit the case, but his captain (Paul Sorvino) convinces him to stay on the case and gives him the tools to pursue another angle on the case. Burns fixates on the student of a murdered Columbia University professor; Stuart Richards (Richard Cox), who Burns recognizes from the club scene. Burns stalks and ultimately entraps and arrests Richards. The police are satisfied the case is now solved and Burns makes detective but the ending is disturbingly ambiguous and unsettled. That ambiguity is ultimately the undoing of Cruising as the mystery is left ambiguous, the motivations and evolution’s of Burns are frustratingly vague and the whole thing sniffs of style over substance. In some ways Cruising and Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980) are simpatico as mysteries set in an alternate sexual reality that despite their plot shortcomings are massively entertaining and memorable films.
Arrow’s Blu-Ray boasts a striking 4K transfer made from the original negative under the supervision and approval of William Friedkin who has been quite vocal that this version of the movie is the only quality release of his film available. The disc is also jammed with great extras to help contextualize Friedkin’s controversial and challenging film. There are two older featurettes on the making of Cruising. The History of Cruising is a pretty standard look at how the film came about from the book to the screen. The more captivating of the two feature is Exorcising Cruising looks back at the controversy and the protests that erupted during the production of the film. Director William Friedkin, producer Jerry Weitraub, and other members of the cast and crew recall stories from the shoot and offer some analysis of the film as well.
William Friedkin is on hand for two commentaries, an archival solo director’s track and a new moderated track with Mark Kermode. On the solo Friedkin track from the 2007 Warner Brothers DVD he discusses the real life murder cases that inspired the story along with setting the context of the late 1970s gay leather scene in New York. He also delights in pointing out the actual cops who make cameos in the film including Sonny Grasso, the detective that inspired Roy Scheider’s Buddy “Cloudy” Russo in The French Connection and The Seven Ups, who also served s a technical adviser on the film. The moderated track with The Observer film critic Mark Kermode, draws even better stories out of Friedkin. Stories including how he got access to the actual S&M clubs and members in order to provide veracity to the film’s club scenes, the inclusion of pornographic footage (the infamous missing 40 minutes) and shockingly reveals that at one point Steven Spielberg was attached to a film adaptation of Gerald Walker’s book Cruising. He goes in depth on the battles with the MPAA. Friedkin seems to have gotten much saltier in the decade since his previous commentary track as he dishes dirt on Pacino, James Franco, and basically anyone else who comes up in conversation.
Cruising is a film with a turbulent history and this Arrow Video release is not only the best the film has ever looked, but the disc and all of the supplements put the film into context that just a bare bones disc would not provide and the film needs and deserves.