Color, 1980, 101 mins. 54 secs.
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Jay Acovone, Randy Jurgensen, Gene Davis
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Warner Bros. (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)
Though known as the decade of the blockbuster, the 1980s started on an incredibly disturbing note with two thrillers that had the gay and lesbian community up in arms: the comparatively obscure Windows and one of the most controversial films of the decade, William Friedkin's Cruising. Beset by protests during its on-location production in New York City and legendary for its wrangling with the MPAA (including 40 minutes of graphic sex footage Friedkin added simply to give himself room to negotiate and get what he needed), the film was largely reviled upon its release but has since seen its reputation escalate considerably. Now a bona fide cult film, a compelling example of giallo-inspired American cinema, and a powerful showcase for star Al Pacino, this ambiguous and wildly rewatchable film has aged remarkably well and stands proudly in the pantheon of its creator.
When dismembered body parts start turning up in the water around Manhattan, it becomes clear that the nocturnal leather scene is harboring at least one knife-wielding serial killer who seems to be moving around the bar and public cruising areas. Captain Edelson (Sorvino) decides to present an offer to rookie cop Steve Burns (Pacino), who bears a resemblance to the victims, to get a shot at becoming a full-fledged detective if he goes undercover to try to smoke out the killer. Though he enjoys a quiet home life with his girlfriend, Nancy (Allen), Burns agrees and rents an apartment under a false name. At night he goes out and learns the very specific customs of the culture, but tracking down the killer will come at a much higher cost than he could have anticipated.
Much of the furor over Cruising centered around perceptions that it was a negative portrayal of the gay community and perpetuated the Hollywood tradition of presenting anyone outside the straight mainstream as villains, an escalating issue since the introduction of the modern MPAA system in the late '60s. Those claims are hard to pin down on the actual film though; even with a disclaimer added at the beginning of theatrical prints, the film operates in an unsettling gray area where the identity of the killer (or killers) is hardly settled for good, particularly in the haunting epilogue that creates the impression of a murderous cycle that shows no signs of stopping and a metaphor for the devastating plague of AIDS that was about to hit. Stylistically the film has had a surprisingly extensive influence as well, ranging from Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper to more recent productions like Knife + Heart.
However, the real reason to keep coming back to the film is the little things: Joe Spinell (the same year as Maniac, a perfect co-feature) as a bigoted cop; Don Scardino (now a big TV director and also seen in the 1980 slasher He Knows You're Alone) as the representative of mainstream gay life; a young Powers Boothe giving a vivid tutorial in hankie etiquette; an even younger James Remar with a ridiculous haircut; Gene Davis (the nudist slasher in 10 to Midnight) as a sassy cross-dressing hustler; and a killer proto-punk soundtrack engineered by Jack Nitzsche including The Germs and Mutiny. The film's back story is just as fascinating, from its origins as a pulp mystery novel (not involving the leather scene) by Gerald Walker, with other directors attached to direct it including Brian De Palma. Friedkin came aboard thanks to real-life NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen, who had gone undercover to investigate a similar string of slayings and had worked with Friedkin on The French Connection. Jurgensen himself plays a major role in the film, which draws all of its details from real-life crimes including Paul Bateson, the radiologist from Friedkin's The Exorcist who himself was convicted of murder in the gay kink scene and may have been a serial killer as well. The film did no favors for Friedkin's career at the time, coming off of the financial disappointments of Sorcerer and The Brink's Job; of course, all three films have since been reappraised to varying degrees and now hold up extremely well. Adding to this film's mystique is the wide variety of versions over the years, with Friedkin tweaking the MPAA by inserting fleeting, subliminal shots of hardcore-ish penetration into two of the murder scenes. At least one eagle-eyed video technician noticed and fogged the shots on the film's VHS release from CBS/Fox, though it did appear full strength on the first Magnetic Video VHS edition as well as a Hong Kong laserdisc. One of the stronger club sequences around the 38-minute mark was also cut in many prints and video editions (including the laserdisc and most tapes), though it was restored to its original length when the film was given a theatrical and DVD release by Warner Bros. in 2007. Unfortunately that version was essentially ruined by some baffling alterations including a hideous strong blue tint applied over the entire film and ridiculous digital filters applied over Pacino's frenetic, drug-induced dancing scene. The opening disclaimer was also removed and replaced with a looooong crawl of the film's title across the screen that awkwardly bled over into the opening shot. At least this marked the first correctly framed version of the film, which was shot hard matted at 1.85:1. An HD version later popped up on Cinemax and various digital platforms, again with the irritating 2007 alterations.
In 2019, Arrow Video announced a Blu-ray release of Friedkin's film in the U.S. and U.K. touting a "brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, supervised and approved by writer-director William Friedkin." Of course that raised the question of what condition the film would be in given Friedkin's penchant for revising his films, most notoriously The Exorcist and the last scene of Sorcerer. Thankfully this is most definitely not the 2007 reworking of the film; the colors are back exactly as they should be with a chilly but natural look that replicates the original theatrical appearance. Pacino's dance scene is now back as it was originally filmed, and the film is completely uncut including the subliminal shots and the other odds and ends of footage that have drifted in and out over the years back in place. The opening disclaimer is gone again (as Friedkin prefers), this time replaced with a more organic pair of stylized title cards for Pacino and the film's title that thankfully don't intrude on the opening scene. The DTS-HD MA audio options include the theatrical 2.0 stereo mix and a 5.1 mix supervised by Friedkin; the latter is subdued but effective with some of Nitzsche's score and the city sound effects nicely spread out discreetly to the front and rear channels. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. Ported over from the prior DVD are an audio commentary by Friedkin (mostly production-oriented and one of his stronger tracks compared to the infamously absurd one he provided for The Exorcist), the trailer (now in HD and much better condition), and two Laurent Bouzereau featurettes, "The History of Cruising" (21m5) and "Exorcising Cruising" (22m31s) with Friedkin, producer Jerry Weintraub, Jurgensen, Scardino, Davis, Remar, actors Richard Cox and Jay Acovone, Sonny Grosso, James Contner, Bud Smith, Mark Johnson, and casting director Lou DiGiaimo. New to this release is an audio commentary by Friedkin and always welcome Mark Kermode, who provide a very engaging conversation about the film without overlapping very much with the prior track. They chat about everything from the original casting of Richard Gere to the ongoing protests, the censorship issues, and the amusing circumstances of James Franco and Travis Matthews' Interior. Leather Bar, an odd attempt to make a film about (but not recreating) the much-discussed missing 40 minutes from the film. It's also interesting to hear Friedkin's opinion of Pacino shift around over the course of these extras given the 12-year time gap, with the director either chiding his lack of preparation or praising the quality of innocence and discomfort he brought to the role. Either way, it's an important and endlessly absorbing film finally given its due and still one of the most transgressive films in mainstream American history.
ARROW FILMS (BLU-RAY)
WARNER BROS. (DVD)
Reviewed on August 10, 2019.