Cruising (1980)

Despite being appraoced with New York Times reporter Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel Cruising several times, William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Sorcerer and perhaps not as successfully, Jade) wasn’t interested. He changed his mind after an unsolved series of murders in New York’s leather bars.

Articles by Village Voice journalist Arthur Bell helped inform this film, as well as NYPD officer Randy Jurgensen, who went into the same deep cover as this film’s protagonist Steve Burns. Then, Friedkin learned that Paul Bateson, a doctor’s assistant who appeared in The Exorcist, had been implicated in the crimes while serving a sentence for another murder.

Friedkin did some of his research for the film by attending gay bars dressed in only a jockstrap, but by the time the movie began filming, he had been barred from two of the biggest bars, the Mine Shaft and Eagle’s Nest, due to the controversy surrounding the movie.

Much like The New York Ripper and God Told Me To, this movie feels like one set at the end of the world — New York City near the close of the 20th century. Someone is picking up gay men, murdering them and leaving their body parts in the Hudson.

Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) — who is exactly the type of man who the killer has been after — is on the case, assigned by Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) to infiltrate the foreign world of S&M and leather bars. But as the case goes on, he begins to lose himself and his relationsip with Nancy (Karen Allen).

Soon, he learns of just how brutal the NYPD is to gay men — even if they’re just suspects. And he finds himself growing closer to his neighbor Ted (Don Scardino, Squirm).

By the end, nothing is truly clear. While the killer may be Stuart Richards, a schizophrenic who attacks Burns with a knife in Morningside Park, it could also be Ted’s angry boyfriend Gregory (James Remar). After all, Ted’s mutilated body is discovered while Stuart is in custody. Or the real killer is still out there — perhaps he’s even a patrol cop (Joe Spinell). The truth is never told.

Spinell is incredible in this. That’s no surprise. He used his real life for inspiration, as there’s a line that talks about his wife leaving him and moving to Florida with his daughter. His wife Jean Jennings had just done exactly that before this movie was shot.

The real vesion of this movie may never be released. Friedkin claims it took fifty rounds to get the MPAA to award the film with an R rating. Over 40 minutes of footage was cut, which consisted of time spent in the gay bars. The director claims that these scenes showed “the most graphic homosexuality with Pacino watching, and with the intimation that he may have been participating.”

This footage also creates another suspect — Burns himself may have become a killer.

When Friedkin sought to restore the missing footage for the film’s DVD release, he discovered that United Artists no longer had it and may have even destroyed all of the cut footage.

In 2013, James Franco and Travis Mathews released Interior. Leather Bar., a metafictionalized account of the two filmmakers trying to recreate the lost 40 minutes of Cruising.

There’s a disclaimer at the start that says, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.” Years later, Friedkin would claim that MPAA and United Artists required this, hoping that it would absolve them of the controversy that had been all over this production. 

That’s because protests had started at the urging of gay journalist Arthur Bell, the aforementioned Village Voice writer whose series of articles on the Doodler’s killing of gay men inspired this movie. There were numerous disruptions to the filming, as protesters blasted music and loud noises at all filming locations, leading to hours of ADR to fix the ruined dialogue.

Arrow Video has released a new blu ray of this film that is spectacular. No surprise — Arrow always has great releases.

This release features a brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, supervised and approved by writer-director William Friedkin, along with audio commentary from the 2007 DVD. The two features from that release, The History of Cruising and Exorcizing Cruising, are also on the disc.

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