By Drew Fitzpatrick

William Friedkin's Cruising opened in early February 1980 to resoundingly negative critical reaction, and vocal protests from gay-rights groups. The story centered on the very underground leather and S&M bars of NYC, a world of anonymous pick-ups and rough sex (a world that was foreign even to most gay people who actually lived in the city), and arrived at the end of a decade that saw tremendous strides made in the cause of homosexual rights, and the beginning of one that would become synonymous with the AIDS epidemic. The production and release of Cruising galvanized New York's gay community in a way that had not been seen since the Stonewall uprising 11 years earlier. An early draft of the screenplay had been leaked, and newspapers like The Advocate lead the charge to bury the film under a mountain of bad press. The eventual box office receipts of nearly $20 million can be credited mostly to the publicity department at MGM, who sold the film as a standard police thriller (Indeed, the notion of the director of The French Connection returning to the mean streets of New York with a gritty police thriller starring Al Pacino would have easily loosened the purse strings of most movie-goers back in 1980) but the film quickly disappeared from the public eye. 25 years after Cruising's initial release, its rediscovery is severely hindered by both its M.I.A. status on DVD, and the fact that the film's star still refuses to publicly discuss it. But when a 140min director's cut was mentioned in an interview with Friedkin during the re-release of The Exorcist a few years ago, many who had never even heard of the film began to seek it out, and like any reviled work of art, the ranks of its defenders began to grow. Is Cruising a homophobic lapse in judgment from an erratic filmmaker, or a misunderstood masterpiece that might have met a very different fate had it been a subtitled, European effort?

The novel Cruising, by Gerald Walker, is set in the NYC gay scene of the late 60s and early 70s, long before there was such a thing as a leather or S&M subculture, and won few friends among the homosexual community upon its publication. The novel viewed homosexuality as an alien culture; something dirty, something you might catch. Friedkin's adaptation would add elements of NYPD officer Randy Jurgensen's experiences working undercover to catch a murderer targeting gay men. In Friedkin's film, a serial killer prowls the leather/S&M scene of New York, looking for a specific physical type. Young NYPD officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) turns out to be a close physical match to the victims, and is assigned by Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) to go undercover in the West Village, cruise the bars, and make himself into an inviting target. As the killings continue and Steve gets drawn further into this dark underside of gay life, his relationship with girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) suffers. He doesn't tell her the nature of the undercover work—only that "it's affecting me." The killing of a wealthy boutique owner leading a secret life turns up the heat on Burns, who finds a few moments of peace with neighbor Ted (Don Sardino), a struggling playwright who, though gay, is not a part of the S&M scene. A break in the case brings Burns to a Columbia grad student with father issues and a very familiar leather outfit, leading to a showdown in Central Park that will officially close the case for the NYPD and earn Burns his gold shield—but a final murder creates a final, grim question mark.

Friedkin (right) got his start making documentaries, and his best films utilize an almost clinically detached style in order to tell stories that would otherwise be too melodramatic (or, in the case of The Exorcist, silly and exploitative). It's a style of filmmaking that has almost entirely fallen from favor in the last 10 years, with the notion of holding a shot for more than a few moments becoming anathema. And still, Steve Burns is an oddly vacant protagonist for a William Friedkin film; both The French Connection's Popeye Doyle and The Exorcist's Damien Karras were passionate, deeply conflicted men, and Friedkin seemed to delight in squeezing their emotions through his documentary technique. Steve Burns is very nearly a vacuum, and although this is necessary in order to make his character into a prism through which we can view ourselves, it also serves to distance an audience that wants to get close to him. Friedkin asks an audience to project, when they usually just want to identify. Many critics probably expected to have Burns positioned as a stand-in for Homer's Virgil, guiding us through the hell of the nocturnal gay underworld. But Burns is not our guide; we follow him and see the story unfold (mostly) through his eyes, but the character remains as emotionally distant as one of Jean-Pierre Melville's anti-heroes.

The word was out on Cruising long before it hit the streets—an ugly, violent, homophobic mess of movie, designed to appeal to only the most base, prurient interests. You can't help but wonder what they would have said if they had seen the film before it was re-cut to secure an 'R' rating. After an "off the record" screening of Friedkin's version, ratings board chairman Richard Heffner remarked that "there aren't enough X's in the English language for that movie!" So, for a $1,000 per day fee, psychologist Aaron Stern assisted Friedkin in editing down the film's more exotic content in order to qualify for the 'R'. Nearly 30 minutes of footage, according to various estimates, was dropped from the film. The insertion of subliminal shots (running just a few frames each) of actual hardcore penetration during two of the murder scenes speaks volumes about the director's post-production state of mind.

The film provided critics, who until then had never shown the slightest interest in how fairly the homosexual community was represented on film, with the opportunity to suddenly pick up the gauntlet on behalf of, and decry the mistreatment of, gays in the medium. After hitting the jackpot twice in succession with The French Connection and The Exorcist, Friedkin took a savage beating over his 1977 follow-up, Sorcerer. A remake of the art-house sacred cow The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer was a hugely difficult and expensive film to make and very much a labor of love for its director. The flaying that Friedkin received from the critics— angered it would seem, by the perceived temerity to remake (and hence "dumb-down") a classic film—almost assured its eventual box office failure. Friedkin's well-known hubris never served him well with his detractors, and after a "lightweight" project like The Brink's Job (1978) also failed to ignite at the box office, the un-humbled director was well within the critics' sights. The mounting negative publicity prior to Cruising's release forced Friedkin to add a text scroll to the beginning of the film, essentially informing the audience that not all gay men wear heavy leather and chains and have anonymous sex in Central Park. But it was too little too late for the gay rights groups that had been mobilized from the moment it was announced that Walker's book was about to go before the cameras, which went about making their case both in the press, and on the very streets where Cruising was filming. The decision to shoot the exteriors in all the real locations would severely hamper the film's production as articles in publications like The Advocate encouraged gays to descend upon the crew, chanting and blowing whistles and air-horns, making sound recording all but useless. In fact, if you look closely in the background of certain exterior scenes, you can plainly see the beams from flashlights wielded by protestors. It's also possible that these groups did the film an unintended service; the actors being forced to redo their lines during post-production further contributes to the disjointed reality of the movie—though I'm sure Friedkin could have done without this particular effect.

If there had been more gay-themed films released in the time leading up to Cruising, the reaction to it would most likely have been dulled considerably. Until the late 1960s, there was almost no mention of homosexuality in mainstream movies at all. It was a taboo subject, and out of bounds for most major films. But when things began to change, it wasn't necessarily for the better. Gay characters began to make more frequent appearances in films, but were presented at best as swishy comic relief, or at worst, predatory psychopaths whose abhorrent sexual behavior was an indicator of a deviant mind. Ironically, it was Friedkin himself who made one of the first films dealing exclusively with the modern gay lifestyle, The Boys in the Band. Based on Mart Crowley's hugely successful play about a straight man attending an all-gay party, Friedkin's film version was the first exposure that most Americans had to homosexuals in their own world, rather than a single gay character existing in a "straight" world, as had been the norm. Upon the film's initial release, it was perceived as a daringly sensitive portrayal of homosexual men, but as production began on Cruising, it was used by many gay rights groups as yet another example of how Friedkin didn't "get" homosexuals, and poor Boys, with its outdated 60s vibe and stage-bound theatrics was a ripe target for derision. Crowley's play dealt with issues of self-loathing and isolation, with many of the gay characters coming off as self-hating. "You show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse!" shouts one character—a line often used out of context to attack both the play and Friedkin's 1970 film (and which would return to haunt the director 10 years later).

Since the majority of the American public had no idea that a gay leather/S&M scene even existed in the late 70s, it's difficult to accuse the film of perpetuating a stereotype that, for most people, had always gone unnoticed. Ironically, Friedkin toned down much of the potentially homophobic content in Walker's book, where it was made clear that the Burns character's latent homosexuality triggers a self-loathing that sees him assuming the place of the killer at the story's end. Not surprisingly, the softened tone was rarely discussed among the film's loudest critics. In all fairness, this probably has more to do with the fact that very few of the social critics had ever read Walker's book than with an unfair attitude towards the director. In addition to making both the identity of the killer and the ultimate fate of Burns ambiguous, Friedkin infused Walkers story with the experiences of NYPD Detective Randy Jurgensen. When a real-life series of grisly murders occurred in the gay community of Greenwich Village, Jurgensen, who was a patrolman at the time, was sent in undercover to investigate. Indeed, Jurgensen's early experiences mesh closely with the fictional Burns, right down to renting a separate apartment and only having contact with one superior officer. Jurgensen (cast as "Detective Lefranshy" in the film), who ultimately caught the killer and earned his detective's shield, was an irreplaceable asset to many films that shot in NYC in the 70s and 80s. Jurgensen's gold shield and tall reputation allowed more than a few film crews access to places that they would otherwise never have even seen without a permit (the location shooting for low-budget fare like 1980's Maniac, would have been prohibitively expensive without him) and Randy can be seen as a supporting player in numerous films set in the city's "gritty Gotham" era. Jurgensen's best on-screen moment came courtesy of Friedkin in The French Connection as the implacable motor pool officer who tells the increasingly jittery, drug-smuggling French man to "please extinguish your cigarette."

One critique leveled by gay groups that seems to ring true on an initial viewing is that the wild shift in tone between the quiet scenes with Nancy in their beautiful apartment and the unbearable ugliness of the scenes in the S&M clubs seems to function as an aside to "middle America" about how right they were to regard homosexuals with hatred and fear. But Nancy and Steve's relationship is depicted as being strained and awkward in nearly all their scenes together; the only person we see Steve truly connect with is his gay neighbor Ted, so the notion that Friedkin attempted to demonize Steve's "gay" lifestyle by juxtaposing it with the "normal" life he shares with Nancy falls flat. Meanwhile, the denizens of Cruising's leather scene (with the notable exception of Ted) resemble nothing less than leather-clad urban vampires; creatures of the night that have no existence or purpose beyond the S&M scene in the meatpacking district and in an area of Central Park that seems reserved exclusively for their use. This is a potentially valid criticism, but one that loses sight of the fact that the film is supposed to be seen through the eyes of "average Joe" Steve Burns; it's a shock for him, and needs to be a shock for us.

There is a viciousness to the murder scenes that—outside of horror films—was rarely seen in American films of the time. Once again, it is the almost clinical coldness that Friedkin adapted as a shooting style in nearly all his 70s work that makes the sudden outbursts of violence all the more shocking. The first stabbing at the St. James hotel comes at the climax of one of the most unnaturally filmed scenes of human intimacy ever presented to American audiences, and probably confirmed the fears of everyone who had been expecting to find a homophobic treatise. The sound design immediately puts the audience on edge (leather rubbing against leather, lonely, foreboding footsteps, and creaking mattress springs) and, when combined with the static shooting style, the entire scene plays out like an alien ritual. When the proceedings take a deadly turn, the victim seems to have half-expected it to happen, acknowledging his soon-to-be-fulfilled role as "prey." If one is unaware of the director's intent, this could easily be misread as 'I knew this was coming because I live an abhorrent lifestyle,' which would be compounded by the killers uttering of "You made me do that" as he plunges his knife (the function of a knife as an obvious phallic symbol) into the hog-tied man's back.

With much of Friedkin's explicit content falling victim to MPAA-imposed cuts, we're left to imagine the lengths to which the Burns character has immersed himself in the S&M world. It's clear from the emptiness that stares back at Burns when he glances into a mirror at the film's close that he's been through the wringer. If he were merely ashamed of a newly exposed homosexual side, Friedkin would be guilty of nearly all the derision that he suffered at the hands of the gay rights groups. But virtually no one in Friedkin's world is who he appears to be; in the late 70s, many homosexuals were still "closeted," and in spite of a more tolerant society than the one in which they were probably raised, guarded their secret life closely. It might not be the most politically correct choice, but in this context, the gay community is the perfect setting for a film that deals with duality and loss of identity.

Midway through the film, we meet an obviously wealthy boutique owner, who leads a secret life among the leather bars of the meatpacking district. Here, we have a gay character that keeps his cruising life secret from his "normal" gay life. Many of the characters that we meet during the course of the story (including the Viceroy of 70s NY sleaze, Joe Spinell, as a patrol cop with a disturbing penchant for nightstick play) appear again amidst the leather scene, again suggesting that identity is nothing more than clothing; a uniform that we wear when we want to show a specific side to the world around us. We're even denied the satisfaction of closure when the killer is revealed; Stewart Richards was a player on the S&M scene, fit the profile, and has a father fixation—all of which can also be said for Officer Burns. This brings up the question of the portrayal of the killer; Friedkin presents him as an avatar, dubbing over his dialogue in post-production with a voice that suggests a whisper coming straight from hell. We're also given confusing visual signals; some scenes clearly show the killer played by Richard Cox (who played Stuart Richards), but still others use what appears to be a completely different actor, including some who portray previous, and future, victims. This is done in such a subtle manner, however, that most people watching for the first time never even notice the inconsistencies in the killer's appearance.

The reversal of predator and prey roles is a central theme of Cruising, and the real key to understanding it. Even Ted, one of the film's few unequivocally decent characters, shows the propensity for violence during a beautifully played scene in a diner with Burns, admitting during a despondent moment that "I'm not mad enough to kill, but I am mad enough for something." Indeed, one of the film's final moments has Nancy regarding herself in a mirror while trying on Burns' leathers and sunglasses while Steve stares blankly at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror. (Audiences frustrated by perceived plot holes were probably too agitated to wonder why Steve would have kept his leathers.) The last image returns us to the East River, drawing the film's killings into a larger circle of violence in which we find ourselves either victim or killer—sometimes both. In his biography of Edgar Allen Poe, Kenneth Silverman wrote "Although such doubling is common in romantic literature and essential to Gothic fiction, where criminals resemble victims, it has a special gravity in Poe's tales. To have twins, doubles, and twos means that…one can be here and not here, can die and still survive."

Cruising remained largely forgotten for many years after its original release, with only a curious few tracking down the Warner Bros VHS tape released several years ago. Like Heaven's Gate, which also came out in 1980, Cruising became a film than was often reviled, yet seldom seen. It was a film that you shouldn't like. Things began to change during the press tour for the re-cut version of The Exorcist in 2000, when Friedkin was asked repeatedly about Cruising, and the status of the rumored director's cut. Friedkin surprised many interviewers by being very talkative on the subject, and stating that he was indeed quite keen on restoring the film to its pre-release length. It is likely that many people reading those interviews had never even heard of Cruising before, and many were suddenly excited about the prospect of seeing this hard-to-find film that engendered so much controversy.

The notion of losing one's identity during a battle with evil plays heavily throughout Friedkin's career, from Popeye Doyle firing away at the darkness in The French Connection, to Father Karras taking the demon into himself in The Exorcist, to the Secret Service agents in To Live and Die in L.A. committing robbery to secure "buy money" for a case. This struggle paints both hero and villain as shades of gray, rather than black or white, and is the central theme in the director's best work. 1988's Rampage, a harrowing look at the crimes, arrest, and trial of a brutal serial killer, may well be the last truly personal statement from the director. Rampage's release was held up for years while the bankruptcy of its studio was worked out in the courts, only to receive a limited release years after its completion and disappear almost instantly. Here Friedkin wrestles with the issue of the death penalty through the main character, D.A. Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn), who must prosecute the case. Interestingly, while the film sat on a shelf at the studio, Friedkin's own views on the death penalty changed, and the film was re-edited for American release to accommodate a more "pro" stance on the issue. Since then, unfortunately, Friedkin has not been able to find subject matter to suit his strength as a filmmaker. Though there has yet to be an announcement of a DVD release for Cruising, it is unlikely that the studio would let a film that could be so easily marketed ("Al Pacino stars in a police thriller from the director who brought you The French Connection!") sit idle and generate no income. Perhaps now, with gay-themed movies and television shows permeating pop culture with a more or less even balance of characterizations, the time might finally be right for Cruising to wipe away 25 years of bad cultural karma and take its proper place in the oeuvre of one of America's most consistently challenging filmmakers.