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Category:    Home > Reviews > Thriller > Psychological > Murder > Mystery > Crime > Identity > Serial Killer > Horror > Homosexuality > S& > Cruising (1980/Lorimar/MVD/Arrow Blu-ray)

Cruising (1980/Lorimar/MVD/Arrow Blu-ray)

Picture: B Sound: B- Extras: B Film: B-

The power of the a motion picture to shock is either cheap, or most B-movies that have nothing to offer, or one that takes risks and tries to be about something. Some films fall between both and that is where controversy comes from and one of the most unique examples of this is William Friedkin's serial killer murder thriller Cruising (1980) with Al Pacino as a police officer asked to go undercover in the world not just of a newly-liberated gay community, but its darker S&M leather scene to find a serial killer.

To some, this might not sound shocking now, but back in 1980, any film that dealt with that particular sphere of gay life or any film that dealt with serial killers was considered rare, shocking and even taboo. Then this film has both, but considering you have the director of The French Connection (honest about police brutality) The Exorcist (with its feminist dynamic), Boys In The Band (a solid film based on the stage play that would soon be criticized by gay groups for being to cliched and even stereotypical) and one of the greatest actors of all time who had played a targeted, honest cop in Serpico, a bi-sexual robber in Dog Day Afternoon and could still be a convincing, eventually cold gangster in the Godfather films should signal to us that the film would do its best to be a groundbreaking, smart thriller that would challenge the audience, be creepy, suspenseful, realistic and further proof of their stunning talents.

Instead, they did not get along as well as fans hoped for (Friedkin not used to his method acting?), the already controversial book had gay rights groups shocked it was being made into a film so they decided to protest and sabotage the production as much as possible (rightly concerned and somewhat accurately so that the film (pre-Internet) said if you are gay and you come out, you will be brutally murdered, killed and punished for your sexuality and should just live in fear and hide yourself) and that it was not a gay filmmaker or producers, so it was bound to have problems.

Well, that turned out to be partly correct. Friedkin himself said only a man a faith (like himself) could have directed The Exorcist and maybe he should have taken his advice on this film (which both Brian De Palma and even Steven Spielberg (!) were once set to direct) and it is not like there were not openly gay or known to be gay filmmakers available (John Schlesinger comes to mind), so the result is a very interesting, mixed film that has some good moments, chilling moments, graphic moments, then collapses for reason you'll have to see for yourself so I do not spoil what works in the film.

After being persuaded to take the job, Pacino moves into the gay neighborhood and quickly starts chatting up gay men and tries to get the basic idea of what is going on. Still seeing his girlfriend (the underrated Karen Allen) when he can get away (they are sexually involved), he soon finds himself in the dark recesses of leather bars and through sheer inexperience, almost gives away he is more of a novice than he should be, but he starts to slowly get clues as to what is going on. Between gay men brutally murdered and body parts (possibly related) showing up in the nearby river, it is urgent he discovers the killer (or possibly two of them, though the clues keep speaking to one killer in most cases here) and make sure he is not killed. What if the killer realizes he is an undercover cop?

Though they did not know this at the time as AIDS had not arrived yet (as we post this, a report HIV turned up in DNA from 1965 is intriguing, but the full-blown appearance was just starti9ng to slowly show up as the film was being released, unknown to all) and things were about to take a hard Right shift with the Reagan White House (we're still dealing with the effects of both today), the film has early sequences of the open pleasantries we had never seen of this kind of living from day to day that hardly any cinema ever showed. If this had been a drama with even some comedy and no murder mystery, it might have been some kind of time capsule classic.

As Pacino's police officer continues his work, the killer strikes again and it makes it tough on Pacino to feign being gay for a lifetime, yet as the murders increase, the pressure starts to affect his personality (as it does later for William Petersen going after the Tooth Fairy serial killer in Michael Mann's Manhunter a few years later) and the clues keep on coming. Unfortunately, Friedkin's reworking of the mystery fails and becomes a prophecy fulfilled for all the gay protesters, but I will not spoil anything because you have to see and hear this one to believe it, trying to follow the mystery as best you can.

More evident than ever is the anger and hate all over most of the film from bitter cops, to homophobic cops, to oddly homophobic scenes that should never been in the film (a black man in a cowboy hat and jock strap at the police station is one of the goofiest) and the film becomes a mess, not helping Friedkin's career either as he had just had his Wages Of Fear remake Sorcerer become a big bomb a few years prior. This was not comeback project for him, but it was not for lack of trying or getting some of the best possible talent to fit the film, as I'll now keep pointing out.

In all that hatefulness, anger, bitterness and darkness, it does live up to being a modern (and rare, as the term is one of the most abused around) Film Noir and the late, great writer Robin Wood (Hitchcock's Films) addresses the film in a great section of his classic book Hollywood From Vietnam To Reagan... and Beyond (reviewed elsewhere on this site) that the club scenes are not dark and the real life patrons are actually having fun, explicit sex and all. Instead, he talks in detail about how patriarchal rule and patriarchal Hollywood narrative collapse here as much as any of the great 1970s classics, save having to deal more (and most) explicitly with toxic masculinity and male dominance mentality.

This might not have happened with a gay director (Wood never considers that), but adds that the Paul Schrader hit American Gigolo issued the same year (including Blondie's classic hit ''Call Me'') is the far more homophobic film and that protesters let it get by, with considering possible reasons (like gay men might more likely want to be with Richard Gere than Pacino, or the music and hip clothes made it more acceptable?) as Wood goes on to point to Schrader's homophobic and racist tendencies throughout his career. With Friedkin's record and giving him the benefit of the doubt, that would leave the late producer Jerry Weintraub (who co-produced Robert Altman's brilliant Nashville (1975) as his first film project) as the only one with any power left to be responsible for the homophobia in this film. That has some validity, but we'll need to examine that in a separate essay which would include a long list of awful, badly made feature films.

Despite the plotting and ideological issues that eventually ruin it, the film is actually very effective and creepy in the way it should be for a genre film featuring such talent, which is all the more reason its failures continue to haunt it. However, there is the simple reactionary part to the film since its announcement that S&M participants would automatically be killers, which no one wants to deal wit, dispute or even talk about. Though an overgeneralization, that will always haunt it to, no matter the big name power, since that lifestyle will always be underground by its nature and keep Cruising in cinematic infamy forever.

Cheers to the actors bravely playing positive or semi-positive gay roles at a time when most such characters were shallow stereotypes, Paul Sorvino is good here as Pacino's boss and Joe Spinell, who also played a brutal killer around this time, also shows up to good effects. One time real life cop Sonny Grosso plays a detective, future comedy star Ed O'Neill plays a fellow detective, plus we have Don Scardino, Powers Boothe, Richard Cox, Randy Jurgensen, Allan Miller and James Remar, this was not any kind of anti-gay propaganda film, but a serious, ambitious attempt to do a dark thriller. It shows you can have all this talent and ambition and a film not work out. We don't see this kind of risk-taking today.

One last thing I can say about the film is that Lorimar (know as the TV production company behind The Waltons and Dallas, lightyears away from the situations in this film) was not only shot on location in New York City, but is part of a cycle of films shot there when the city was still in its gritty, crime-ridden decline and rightly belongs (though it is the last thing that tends to get said about the film) in the cycle of gritty, realistic crime thrillers that showed the dark side of that city you could not even see on gritty TV shows of the time of the same or similar cities, so it has that credibility 100%.

That brings us the the new transfer, featured here in 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition that is approved by Friedkin and shows off full color versus the interesting DVD that also looks good, but tends to have many scenes that are in blue light, whether that is what the film once looked like or not. Director of Photography (and now director) James A. Contner did some great work before moving into directing with films like Nighthawks (the Stallone film, not the gay sex drama), visually amusing work on the so-so Jaws 3-D, goofy ripped jeans comedy So Fine with Ryan O'Neal, Eddie Macon's Run, The Flamingo Kid, Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, Michael Mann's Heat, George Romero's underrated Monkey Shines and cult TV fave Crime Story. Yet again, another great talent, a serious heavyweight who happened to debut with this film. The look works, the composition adds suspense and this new transfer is fine, though a debate on its accuracy (as it did on Friedkin's The French Connection in an early Blu-ray release I actually liked before it got pulled) is upon us again.

If anything, we cannot debate and ask enough questions about the transfers we are getting, now more than ever. I though the anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image DVD from Warner Archive also looked good and the blue-look made the film as creepy as the full color we get here. They are both worth checking out.

The theatrical monophonic sound has been nicely upgraded to a DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix and before this release, the Jack Nitzsche music score had been issued in a limited edition on vinyl and the underrated Super Audio CD format by the great Audio Fidelity record label just before they folded, so it is now a collector's item. That likely helped this upgrade and the music is a plus, with Nitzsche having worked with Schrader in the past, plus on films like One Flew Over The Cookoo's Nest, Roeg's Performance, the Richard Gere Breathless remake, Carpenter's Starman, Lyne's 9 1/2 Weeks and Reiner's Stand By Me, so his talents (going back to hit records like ''Needles and Pins'' speak for themselves. Again, another talent that shows with was not some exploitive B-movie.

Extras include an illustrated booklet on the film including informative text and an essay by F.X. Sweeney, while the disc adds two feature length audio commentary tracks by Friedkin, one solo he did years ago from the DVD and a new one where he is joined by Mark Keemode, The History of Cruising (as the press release explains) - archival featurette looking at the film's origins and production, Exorcising Cruising - archival featurette looking at the controversy surrounding the film and its enduring legacy and an Original Theatrical Trailer.

Now you can see the film and try to figure it out for yourself, if you can handle the suspense, sexuality and graphic violence.

- Nicholas Sheffo


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