Collider attends a special screening of William Friedkin’s CRUISING with the director in attendance

     September 3, 2007

Written by Harrison Pierce

William Friedkin’s Cruising is a hard film to watch. For one thing, its lack of availability on DVD has made it nearly impossible to find and view. Warner Home Video is set to amend this problem when they release the film in a Deluxe Edition DVD on September 18th.

In honor of this imminent street date, Warner Video and the AFI co-sponsored a screening of the film last night at the Mann’s Chinese, with director William Friedkin on hand to introduce the film and field questions from the audience. The famed director was in a spirited mood, perhaps emboldened by the fact that it was his birthday and his lovely wife, former Paramount chieftain Sherry Lansing, was in the audience. Friedkin announced, up front, that regardless of the film’s divisive quality, the new print, created for the DVD, was “magnificent.” He then provided a handful of amusing anecdotes about the film’s production, including a mention that Steven Spielberg was originally supposed to direct, which left the audience in titters (better Spielberg kept the whips to Indiana Jones). These anecdotes, and Friedkin’s humorous delivery of them, however, offered the evening’s only real moments of intended levity before the film, a violent, disturbing, and sometimes comically lascivious thriller, began.

Loosely based on the novel of the same name by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, Cruising stars Al Pacino as a New York City police officer assigned to go to undercover in the underground leather and S&M scene of Manhattan to investigate a serial killer targeting gay men. His undercover work ends up taking a toll on his relationship with his girlfriend and his tenuous sense of identity. Despite the film’s pedigreed star, director and mythic decade of production (it was shot in the late 70s), the negative controversy associated with it has always overwhelmed discussion of Cruising’s cinematic merit, something this new DVD release should ameliorate.

The controversy surrounding Cruising ignited before the film began production, when gay activists managed to get their hands on the script and expressed outrage at the film’s depiction of gay men as either degenerate victims-in-waiting or, worse, conflicted, homicidal killers. Friedkin told the audience last night that, during production, protestors “were yelling and screaming at Al while he’s walking down the street in a shot that’s supposed to be three in the morning on an empty street.” The time of shooting, however, was an important moment in post-Stonewall gay liberation, and Friedkin willingly ceded to the fact last night that the film “may not have been the best foot forward” for the movement. There’s a scene in the film in which Paul Sorvino’s police captain informs Pacino that the sleazy world he’ll be infiltrating is not the gay “mainstream,” but it’s a throwaway line at best, considering it’s the only gay world we see. In fact, the only really likeable and normal gay character featured here is Pacino’s aspiring playwright neighbor Ted, whose violent fate doesn’t do much to negate the early, and still valid protests about the film’s portrait of gay men.

Of course, today we’ve suffered through so many boringly safe and politically correct gay movies and tv shows, it’s almost weirdly refreshing to see a bunch of sweaty, leather-clad gay men having at each other with police batons and Crisco-d fists. Okay, maybe not to everyone, but the good news is that, due to the myriad positive depictions of gay men that are out there, gay reputation no longer seems endangered by one film’s focus on a sleazier subgroup of the population. If anything, gay viewers can now enjoy the film as an historical tour of actual New York City locations and revel in its depiction of an uninhibited, pre-AIDS era. For general audiences, however, the film’s unabashed sexuality and hard core violence may be as shocking as ever. “The film doesn’t turn away from the sexuality,” Friedkin has publicly stated “That means it will still disturb a lot of people on both sides of the issue.” But, following a successful screening of the film in San Francisco’s Castro district, Friedkin believes that gay audiences have made peace with his offering. “The reaction from the gay community has changed,” Friekin confidently stated.

This political rehabilitation frees one up to review the film on its own cinematic terms, and, as an urban noir thriller, the film mostly succeeds. It is certainly a far from routine cop thriller, mostly owing to its jarring milieu. While its ambiguous ending hints that the killer may still be at large, anyone who grew up in the post-AIDS era can easily swallow the metaphor of a shifting, faceless killer. And don’t we love 70’s cinema for its uneasy endings?

The movie should also be praised for featuring one of Pacino’s more brave and subtle performances. His immersion into the gay underground is vividly portrayed, even if we never quite get fully inside his head. In fact, one irreparable mistake Friedkin made was his decision not to film the scene in which the cop tricks with a murder suspect from Pacino’s point of view. He robs the film and the viewer of all the suspense and drama inherent to what would have been the protagonist’s peak moment of character immersion. Nevertheless, Pacino still bristles with intensity and fear throughout, an effect which Friedkin attributes to the negative mood surrounding the film’s production. It is worth noting here that the actor has distanced himself from the film since its heated release, but Friedkin informed the audience last night that Pacino fought hard to get the role; an effort which halted negotiations with original intended star Richard Gere.

The remainder of the cast includes Karen Allen in the thankless role of Pacino’s girlfriend. She’s basically there to assure us Pacino is, in fact, a red-blooded heterosexual male. Seeing Allen is always such a treat (I for one am psyched about her return to the Indiana Jones franchise), and she’s so luminous here one wishes she had one big dramatic scene to show off the talent revealed in subsequent roles. Paul Sorvino is effective in a low-key, naturalistic way as the police captain. A thinner Ed O’Neil, aka “Al Bundy”, pops up in a brief turn as an aggressive young cop, while Powers Boothe appears briefly on screen to extrapolate on the secret meaning of colored handkerchiefs. Oh, and there’s still that tall black man in the cowboy hat and jock strap in the police station to knock Pacino upside the head.

Friedkin explained the meaning of this scene, once and for all, at the screening. He explained that “in the new york police department, before the Miranda act, when they were interrogating a suspect, they would have this guy walk into the interrogation room and smack the suspect around.” The ultimate effect being that, when the criminal tried to convince the judge that the confession had been beaten out of him and by whom, the judge would naturally have a hard time believing him.

The jockstrap cowboy scene is just one of many unsettling, challenging scenes in an unsettling, challenging film. Fortunately, with the upcoming DVD release, viewers old and young will finally have the chance to discover or re-discover the film in a more progressive, less fearful historical context and debate its worth on artistic grounds. How refreshing in this tired age of sequels, prequels and remakes is the concept of a debate-able film? Friedkin knows that “the true cinematech is the DVD.” I suggest you cruise on over to the dvd retailers and check it out when it streets 9/18 so you can join in the dialogue.

Latest News