Hell Bent for Leather
Twenty-seven years after its notorious release, Cruising is to appear again on the big screen to herald a deluxe DVD edition, remastered and including featurettes and director commentary said to clarify 1980 uncertainties.
There is no particular reason for the current re-emergence. It is asserted that the times have changed, but that is only superficially so, from the short halcyon window of gay posture between Stonewall and the fall of the Production Code in favor of MPAA ratings until awareness of HIV, for today’s touted television and movie openness mostly comes down to gay-themed sitcom fluff. Protests along Christopher Street and in the now trendy Meat Packing District greeted the film back then and were more noteworthy than the product itself, trashed by critics and ignored by ticket-buyers.
The movie views better today than then, but that is relative. There remain bothersome errors in consistency, judgment, and in otherwise effective big city cinematography. Most serious failure of all is a refusal to resolve its own emphasis on the protagonist’s increasingly questioned sexuality -- and, indeed, to face the plot-core series of grisly homosexual murders, perhaps committed by a soft-voiced “you made me do that” psychopath; but also, or in addition, perhaps by the student with dead-father issues, perhaps a waiter or jealous roommate-lover; maybe by another entirely who dismembers the victims, or possibly by a copycat or, in the end, a cop; or a gratuitous, physically impossible symbolic woman.
William Friedkin had already dealt with homosexuality at the birthday party adaptation of The Boys in the Band and had enjoyed enormous commercial and critical success with The French Connection and The Exorcist. It is curious that the latter opts for a manipulative visual conclusion that destroys the fine ambiguity of unseen priestly sacrifice and redemption of Blatty´s novel (in fairness, that author did the screenplay as well), while in Cruising, scripted by the director himself from a Gerald Walker novel, ambiguity is everywhere, with hardly anything definitively pinpointed.
In its effect, still shocking after the years and not for the faint of heart, the film succeeds, though it did usher in the end of the Chicago director’s glory days. A decomposed arm bobs up in the Hudson against skyscrapers, a gay hustler is slain, the wounds considered matter-of-factly by a forensic expert, and both may be related to at least one other unsolved homosexual killing, that of a Columbia University professor. Pressured by rumors, the media, politicians and Chief of Detectives M. Berman (Allan Miller), veteran Homicide Division Captain Dave Edelson (Paul Sorvino) summons beat cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino). With a vague resemblance to the victims, the naïve patrolman is asked to go underground, deep undercover as in Serpico but this time as John Forbes, a Bronx boy moving into the West Village Leather-S&M-B&D scene.
Alone and theoretically known solely to Edelson -- though unmarked squad cars and cops later bug and bust him with “bad dude“ score Skip Lee (Jay Acovone) -- Burns makes love to girlfriend Nance (Karen Allen) for the first of three times, each with less enthusiasm and more angst, makes friends with gay aspiring playwright neighbor Ted Bailey (Don Scardino), and merges himself into the world of sometimes motorcycle-policemen-themed bars Ramrod, Cockpit, Iron Horse, Wolf´s Den (despite picketing during filming, supposedly peopled by actual habitués), and in gathering places in nighttime park tunnels and thickets.
Picking up the lingo along with would-be scores and enough newfound freedom to dance with abandon, Burns cannot prevent two more knife murders, one in the park and one in a gay video booth, as his surveillance and harassment narrow on Stuart Richards (Richard Cox), former student of slain professor Paul Vincent, but the long episode ends in viewer confusion -- more ambiguity -- and a scurrilous offer of eight years imprisonment in exchange for a multiple-murder confession to quiet public, press and Democrats.
Another slasher murder is discovered, new suspicions arise, and Burns returns to Nance’s place -- another inappropriately fine cinematic apartment in Gotham -- and while he ponders his pink-mouthed mirrored face and she dons his motorcycle duds, one wonders yet again. Will it never end?
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “R” by MPAA.)