Cruising [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (27th September 2019).
The Film

"Cruising" is William Friedkin’s infamous film that not only was produced by a big name studio (Warner Brothers) and starred one of the biggest name actors in the lead (Al Pacino) but it is a wonder that the thing got made at all considering its taboo subject matter: homosexual clubs, open and varied sexual practices, serious S&M enthusiasts, and somewhere underneath it all, a series of serial killings. All this took place in 1980, before AIDS had a name and became nationally known and put the kibosh on a freewheeling life style of non-protective sex and multiple partners. However, here we are almost forty years later and this film still manages to get under the viewer’s skin and which only attests to its director’s powerful vision and Pacino’s brave performance as a straight man going undercover, far undercover, to try and trap a killer that is on the loose.

The film starts with a scene on a boat in the Hudson River as an amputated arm is found floating in the water. What the hell, I mutter, wondering if I hadn’t put on ,Lucio Fulci’s "Zombie" (1979) by mistake because these two scenes are somewhat similar in style. The police are puzzled but ascertain that this very well could be the work of the same perpetrator of two previous gay murders. How one makes that huge jump is not discussed, but so be it; Dr. Rifkin (Barton Heyman) is the pathologist on duty and Detective Lefransky (Randy Jurgensen) doesn’t have time to split hairs as far as details are concerned. “I need the rest of the body to determine cause of death.” he says before departing the scene. “File it under CUPII: Circumstances Undetermined Pending Police Investigation.” There’s some authentic police lingo for you trivia fans; remember that for later because there’s going to be a test. Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) is stymied and is facing some serious heat from the upstairs boys and consequently he needs to think outside of the box. Enter fresh faced rookie Steve Burns (Al Pacino) who is going to be assigned the assignment of a lifetime: because he is similar in appearance to all the recent victims, Edelson tells Burns that he is to work undercover. And when he says undercover, he means it. No gun, nobody is to know, and he reports only to Edelson; otherwise, its hush- hush. Burns later explains to his girlfriend, the only female that appears in this all male world, Nancy (Karen Allen) that he can’t talk about his new position, but that he is sure that it is a first class ticket to sporting the gold shield. Edelson warns Burns that this duty involves delving into the dark world of gay S&M and that it’s “a world onto its self.” Edelson also doesn’t mince words when he asks Burns some rather personal questions: “Have you ever had your cock sucked by a man? Have you ever been porked or have a man smoke your pole?” Burns laughs and replies no, that he hasn’t. If Pacino was meant to look uncomfortable and completely out of his element, this scene sets the stage for what’s to come. In the commentary track director Friedkin comments that Pacino had no idea what he was in store for and that is believable as well.

We see two burly cops riding around in the squad car and if it isn’t everyone’s favorite character actor Joe Spinell as Officer DiSimone alongside fellow officer Desher (Mike Starr) as two corrupt cops on the prowl. Spinell thinks he’s still in "Maniac" (1980) as he is talking about his ex-wife taking the kids and scramming to Florida. They spy two transgender males made up to resemble a couple of she-hulks out on the town and soon the hijinks’ begin as they are ushered into the backseat and soon persuaded to make with some sexual favors. What a pair of lunkheads these two make; "Car 54, Where Are You?" (1961-1963), it ain’t. Friedkin cuts from the car to some lone straggler wearing the prerequisite leather jacket and boots as he crosses the dark street and enters a no name club that is for members only. Cut inside to a special club in the meat packing section of New York where it is wall to wall men in various leather outfits, jock straps, studded bracelets and various multihued handkerchiefs stuck into various back pockets, all a secret code to those in the know. The unknown man that had just entered the club leaves just as fast but not alone. They take a cab to the St. James Hotel and proceed to get down and dirty. The unknown man hog ties his pick up and there he is, on his stomach, totally vulnerable and exposed. A steak knife is removed from the stranger’s boot and the knife is plunged violently into the bound man’s back several times. This scene is intense and in the background Jack Nitzsche’s creepy soundtrack oozes out of the speakers. Friedkin’s soundscape is especially daunting; the leather creaks and moans, chains jingle like spurs, motorcycle boots pound the pavement as the killer stalks his prey, identity unknown, with a killer on the loose. Just before the knife makes its incision, the killer sings what sounds like a nursey rhyme of sorts: “Who’s here, I’m here, you’re here” then the knife strikes repeatedly. Friedkin, ever the master manipulator, comments that during the murder sequences he inserted a few frames of two male bodies having sex just to add a little something to the violent scene. This first murder really explodes across the screen and while intense, it is hardly as exploitative as it could have been. Another man is dead and the killer calmly walks out the door.

Meanwhile Steve Burns is doing some transforming as he moves into an apartment in the West village and he begins to lift weights and starts to channel some inner rage. Hs new identity is that of a former art student that is new to the scene. While disposing of a stack of male porn magazines, he makes the acquaintance of next door neighbor, Ted (Don Scardino), a non-threatening gay playwright whose roommate is away acting in a play somewhere on the coast. The two men hit it off quickly, but there is nothing more to the relationship than merely friendship. One gets the feeling that this was Friedkin’s attempt to display that not all homosexuals were of the leather scene and that this dude was more run of the mill than the parade of beefcake on display at the clubs. That being said I must comment that during the course of the film there never are any snide comments or cheap wisecracks about the lifestyle in question. Friedkin and company shoot the scenes in actual clubs such as The Anvil and The Ramrod like documentarians, merely recording what is happening around them without comment or judgement. And there is plenty of action happening at all times with scenes of implied blatant sexuality right out in the open including a hair raising scene of a man in a body sling about to be fisted by a greased forearm. This film is not for the faint of heart or the weak kneed; as the saying goes, shit does indeed happen.

As Burns slowly tries to absorb the culture and pun intended, learn the ropes, he is shown being schooled in the mysteries of the colored handkerchiefs by a young Powers Boothe in a nameless clerk role. For reasons unknown, Burns decides upon a yellow hanky worn in his right pocket, meaning that he gives golden showers, but when called upon to explain his preference; Burns lamely responds that “he likes to watch.” Indeed, don’t we all? His fellow club goer blatantly tells Burns to stop being an asshole and to remove that signifier immediately. Lesson learned Burns sulks in the corner but then Friedkin displays the power of the male gaze as his camera shows a steady parade of costumed heavies that all give Burns the once over twice. We see several unknown men come past and then appraise Burns, including a man that resembles the earlier killer, but then we are stunned by the appearance of a sweaty Officer DiSimone as he strolls by, talking a walk on the wild side.

I must mention the soundtrack that is used in "Cruising". Even though it was the tail end of the dreaded disco era, thankfully there isn’t any of that garbage heard, but instead we hear several Willy DeVille tunes including the rocking "It’s So Easy". The soundtrack of the film rocks the house including some early punk rock sampling by The Germs and "Shakedown" by Rough Trade. However there is a scene in the film that betrays Pacino’s apprehension and that is when he shares the crowded dance floor and a amyl nitrate soaked hanky with his partner, Pacino dances like a seizure ridden chimp and he hardly fits in with the rest of the leather boys that know how to bust a move. I was thinking, why doesn’t someone call this fraud out and end these shenanigans? As the film progresses, sooner or later Burns is going to have to get intimate with another male, and as he lays trussed like a turkey on Thanksgiving, his fellow brethren burst in much too early and break up this intimate party. Back at the station house the two are interrogated and Burns acts like he didn’t do anything wrong. Then suddenly there is a scene that simply made my jaw drop. The door to the interrogation room swings open and in steps a large black man, sporting a cowboy hat, boots and a jockstrap and nothing else, and he bitch slaps Burns across the mug. “Who is that guy” he yells, stunned. The interrogation is momentarily halted and Burns tells Detective Lefransky that the other dude is innocent; he’s only guilty of being gay. The big bad black dude returns again and once again dispenses a nasty backhander across Burn’s playmate’s mug twice. These cops are tough!

We are witness to two more murders, one being in Central Park at night and the other at an adult bookstore movie booth; in the woods, the place is alive with all types of nocturnal activity; we hear moans, twigs breaking and in the mix, the ever familiar nursery rhyme chant of the knife wielding killer as he strikes from behind. If there is anything that I can say about this film it is that the majority of the film absolutely exudes a grim shade of dread; this is the film that paved the way for other serial killer films like "Se7en" (1995) and ever popular "Silence of the Lambs" (1991). As we watch this film progress, we are witness to Burns’ isolation and despair as he begins to ponder just exactly how much of this masquerade is authentic and how much is him doing a job? I basically began to wonder how much trouble is becoming a detective worth. We have watched the duplicity of Burns life and seen the hefty price he has paid. He begins to question his own sexuality, his personality and even his own sanity. By the end of the film, we see that Burns has assumed the role of the killer as he strikes out with his own concealed knife on the supposed killer. And even then, the ending is completely nebulous, as we see the killer (Richard Cox) as a man with serious father issues and a shoebox full of unsent letters, addressed to a man that we are told died over ten years earlier. The last scenes of the film are the best in the entire film as Pacino shaves in Nancy’s bathroom and gazes at himself and at us; what does it all mean ultimately? Meanwhile Nancy puts on the leather jacket, hat and shades, momentarily becoming a mirror image of Burns or is she too donning a costume that will ultimately allow her to be free as well? There are no easy answers given by me or by the director and each of us are left to ponder just what the hell did we watch? As the tugs go out to sea by the river, the suns burns endlessly, another hot summer night slowly descending upon the city.

This is a stunning film and deserves to be seen; congratulations to Arrow Films for presenting the film in a brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and supervised and approved by writer-director William Friedkin.

Video

Presented in widescreen 1.85:1 mastered in HD 1080p 24/fps using AVC MPEG-4 compression, the film looks very good with plenty of strong deep blacks in some dimly lit scenes. The scenes shot outdoors, especially the scenes in Central Park with existing lighting, really captures what it was like to be cruising for a good time.

Audio

Two audio tracks are included in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround and English LPCM 2.0 stereo. The soundtrack comes alive due to a newly remastered 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio supervised by William Friedkin and Mink Deville never sounded better! Includes subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing so you won’t miss any dialogue. “Lips or Hips?” asks Al Pacino. Subtitles are included in English SDH only.

Extras

Not one but two additional audio commentary tracks featuring the director William Friedkin alone and the second audio commentary with William Friedkin discussing the film’s merits with critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode. Friedkin offers plenty of behind the scenes stories regarding the conditions during filming and how the gay community was divided by the making of the film.

"The History of Cruising" (21:05) featurette is packed with many talking heads from the film in their current condition. This is a lively and interesting featurette that sheds additional light into the film.

"Exorcising Cruising" (22:31) featurette someone thought that pun filled title was catty. Features the director and producer Jerry Weintraub discussing why the film was made and the social impact of it then and now.

Original theatrical trailer (3:28) check out the interesting color palette used in the original trailer.

Overall

Arrow Films does another great job with this film. Excellent! Definitely for mature audiences, this slice of life manages to capture time in a bottle, harkening back to a more footloose time, albeit though still fraught with risks.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: A Overall: A

 


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