Ten years after adapting "The Boys In The Band" (1970), Mart Crowley's play portraying the complexities of life for those who happen to be gay as seen from within the culture and from the outside, William Friedkin returned to that territory with a genre-defying slant. "Cruising" (1980) is, on the surface, a police procedural murder-mystery of the serial killer variety, but it is much more than just a conventional genre picture. Much more than a whodunnit, "Cruising" is a study of the parallels between violence and sexuality and an examination of masculinity as a man begins to lose himself in, what is essentially, a role.
Beginning with part of a body being found in the Hudson River, "Cruising" expresses a dark reality where decaying bodies get found, examined, and there are no suspects. As the opening sequences begin, we're introduced to police officers in the 6th precinct who rattle off remarks about the women in their lives and the gay club world around them that sound as though they could have been lifted from one of Travis Bickle's voice-overs in "Taxi Driver" (1976). "One day, this whole city is gonna explode," says Officer DiSimone right before they stop two men in drag and force them to perform sexual favors. While they two men in drag are in the squad car at the mercy of the corrupt lawmen, a killer is on the prowl. Leather and chains squeak and jingle as a mysterious man enters a shady S&M club where he picks up an Al Pacino doppelgänger. The mysterious leather-clad man proceeds to take the Pacino lookalike to a hotel where they have sex, and the mysterious man then stabs his boy-toy to death.
In Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1967), a complex variation of the Kuleshov Effect is used to express an inner thought that a character has. In "The Dawn Of Man" sequence at the beginning of "2001", one of the apes picks up a bone and uses it to smash the skull of a dead animal. During this scene, Kubrick intercuts footage of a live animal falling to the ground as though it is being hit and places it after the image of the skull being hit. The result of seeing the ape, seeing what he is actually hitting, and then seeing a live animal reacting as though it is being hit allows for the audience to infer that the ape is imagining using the bone to kill a live animal. This similar visual idea is used to graphic effect in "Cruising" during the first on-screen murder in the hotel room. As the knife enters the back of the Pacino lookalike, footage of unsimulated anal sex in extreme-closeup is intercut to express the idea that the violent act of killing the man is sexually stimulating to the perpetrator.
Enter - more than fifteen minutes into the film - Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) who is hoping to go up in the ranks as fast as possible. Edelson offers Burns the task of going undercover in the West Village gay S&M scene to attract the murderer who seems to have a taste for men "[in their] late twenties; hundred-forty, hundred-fifty pounds; dark hair; dark eyes." With some reluctance, Burns takes Edelson's offer - Edelson's offer and the way he presented it to Burns seems to be the first test of Burns' sexuality and masculinity. From the moment that he accepts Edelson's offer, Burns begins living a double-life that even his girlfriend (Karen Allen) isn't privy to.
To defy genre is to consciously act against audience expectations. As the film progresses, "Cruising" does just that. It's a film uniquely sure of itself, in that it never falters or disrupts the tone that the first fifteen minutes of the film effectively establish - even though the audience doesn't have a protagonist to follow. The first fifteen minutes make the threat of a serial killer seem authentic, and even though we've seen the killer's face, somehow Friedkin manages to trick the audience repeatedly with doppelgängers of heroes (if they can really be described as heroic) and villains. Were "Cruising" in the hands of a different filmmaker, after Burns is given his assignment, he might have gone through a humorous S&M 101 class where he learns a thing or two about pretending to be gay and participating within the niche culture he is about to infiltrate. Instead, we learn about Burns cover identity and the extent of his knowledge as he is given the opportunity to use it. It is not to say that "Cruising" is a humorless film, as it has some incredibly well-done comical moments, it's that the humor is reflective of the tone of the film and consistent to its message. That cohesiveness is reflected in an interrogation scene that briefly transforms into a torture sequence both comical (and morally disturbing) when a gigantic black man wearing only a cowboy hat and a jock strap walks into the room and slaps Burns so hard that he falls out of his chair and has a bruise on his face in the shape of the man's palm for the remainder of the film. Within the context of the film, that particular moment of absurdist humor not only works on a comedic level, but as the scene continues it reveals the level of corruption within the police department - particularly when the gigantic black man enters the room a second time and hits the suspect, suddenly what was once funny (only a few minutes ago) is frightening (as it should be).
Friedkin, as a filmmaker, is at the top of his form in this film that combines the moral decay and suspense of "The French Connection" (1971) with the haunting visual precision of "The Exorcist" (1973). His approach to depicting the seedy culture of the S&M clubs is gung-ho in that nearly every sexual act imaginable is depicted in some way (albeit, often obstructed by a column or the shoulder of voyeuristic onlookers). Regardless, it's a bold move for the year 1980 and is still thoroughly shocking today. One of the elements that has maintained the provocative nature of these club scenes over the past thirty years is Friedkin's attraction to implicative imagery that sits on the borderline of erotic exploitation. Where contemporary filmmakers like Gaspar Noe graphically depict S&M club activity with headache inducing camera movement and loud rumbling bass with a disregard for the MPAA in "Irreversible" (2002), it's Friedkin's traditional Hollywood approach to filming a scene that makes the imagery in "Cruising" shocking in a different way. The filmmaking is honest as a camera seated on a tripod observes from Burns' point of view a man standing over another man who is reclining in a sex hammock. Friedkin then cuts back to Burns in closeup (Pacino is staring with a cold expression), and then Friedkin cuts back to the man at the sex hammock - but instead of showing the events from a realistic vantage, Friedkin shows the reverse shot in an extreme closeup of the man's hand as he lathers it up with a lubricant. Friedkin's static compositions express a different kind of reality compared to Gaspar Noe's handheld presentation of the S&M club called "The Rectum" in "Irreversible", even though the same behaviors are being exhibited in both films.
Less explicit, is the depiction of masculinity that reflects not only the homosexual club culture, but the workout culture spawned by the first two "Rocky" films (1976 & 1979). Sure, there are bulges in pants and everything else that comes with leather bars, but there are several scenes that involve the curly-haired Pacino lifting weights (a very Stallone-like image) - this particular kind of scene begins after his first exposure to the S&M culture. The importance and role of image in the kind of clubs that Friedkin portrays makes stereotypically masculine builds essential to Burns' success undercover - it's much more than just a change of wardrobe, it's a dedication to a culture that bares all.
Though "Cruising" is a film set within the gay S&M culture, it is first and foremost a thriller about a man who loses his identity and not as much a thriller about the actual pursuit of the perpetrator. The shocking presentation of the culture is constantly borderline exploitation (as opposed to being truly exploitive), as the graphic content is intended to also have an effect upon Officer Burns in addition to the audience. As Burns begins to get more sexually frustrated with his girlfriend, it's understandable that he is effected by what he has seen with his exposure and proximity to such explicit degrees of debauchery that are foreign to his own lifestyle. Specifically after the interrogation sequence, Burns begins to question why he should continue his undercover operation. From that point forward, Burns begins to truly get lost in his role as a homosexual S&M club frequenter. By the time that Burns successfully lures the murderer, the event of actually stopping him is so quick that it may be disappointing for most audiences. However, as the perpetrator heals from the knife wound that Burns inflicted upon him, corruption continues to permeate through the law as the murderer is given the opportunity to shorten his sentence if he claims to have committed similar crimes so that the police department can close a few extraneous cases. Murders continue to happen, and Burns is back with his girlfriend - but he's a changed man, even though the landscape of the film appears unchanged. The opening shot of a tugboat in the Hudson River is recreated, and the film cuts to black. How Burns is changed is a bit ambiguous, but that's what the film is about. It's not a film concerned with specifics (as the first fifteen minutes might want the audience to believe), "Cruising" is more concerned with the captivating atmosphere that creates double standards, double images, and double lives.