Twenty-eight years after its release, William Friedkin's most controversial film, Cruising, arrives here on DVD for the first time. A murky murder mystery set in and around the S&M leather bars of New York's West Village, the project had barely gone into production when articles pouring vitriol on the film and Friedkin started appearing. Six years after the director transformed Linda Blair into a demon in The Exorcist, it seemed as though he had himself become evil incarnate in some people's eyes.
"His film promises to be the most oppressive, ugly, bigoted look at homosexuality ever presented on the screen, the worst possible nightmare of the most uptight straight and a validation of Anita Bryant's hate campaign [launched against anti-discrimination legislation by the conservative pop singer]," wrote gay columnist Arthur Bell in the Village Voice. He urged readers to give Friedkin and his crew a "terrible time". "Bell's columns were very negative," confirms Friedkin, "and I remember one or two others, like the New York Magazine, at the time, but it wasn't the mainstream press."
When the production hit the West Village in the summer of 1979, so, too, did a large and vocal segment of New York's gay community determined to make filming difficult, if not impossible.
Protesters threw bottles and cans at the cast and crew, blew whistles and chanted anti-Cruising slogans. They gained access to apartments adjacent to where Friedkin was filming and turned stereos up loud to ruin the sound recording. Some even climbed on to rooftops and ingeniously shone mirrors at the sets to disrupt the lighting patterns. Had Friedkin seen any of this coming?
"You never anticipate those sorts of confrontations," he says. "But I didn't know whether [Cruising] would be accepted or not – that's not something I think about when I start a film. It's a story that interests me and, hopefully, it will interest others."
Not everyone was opposed to the film. Patrons of the notorious leather bars (some of which were owned by the Mafia), such as The Anvil and The Mine Shaft, where Friedkin shot the film's most memorable scenes, and "guys that hung around on the West Side", also took to the streets, to protest against the protesters. "They were very upset by the fact that other people of the gay community were picketing, basically, their lifestyle, which they had absolutely no sense of trying to hide," he says.
Indeed, all the extras in the hedonistic, popper-hazed club scenes were real punters. "It never occurred to me that you could get actors to go out and portray those scenes, which I had seen prior to making the film," says Friedkin. "I simply tried to show it as I saw it. I did not try to affect it one way or another."
Watch the original 'Cruising' trailer
Part of Bell's anxiety was undoubtedly provoked by the thick vein of homophobia running through Gerald Walker's novel, from which the film was adapted. In it a cop sent in pursuit of a murderer of gay men deals with guilt over his own emerging homosexuality by becoming a copycat killer. Friedkin's film (the first for which he received full screenwriting credit) is not a straightforward adaptation of the book, however. In fact, the director says he was not much impressed with it when he was approached to make the film by producer Jerry Weintraub, and turned it down at first. The book was "long outdated in terms of the gay scene in New York," he says, "[and] it was really of another era."
A lot had also changed in the decade since Friedkin made The Boys in the Band, based on Mart Crowley's play about a group of (mostly self-loathing) homosexual men gathered for a party in Manhattan in the 1960s.
"When I made Boys in the Band, gay life was very much in the closet in terms of the work place and... the social scene," says Friedkin. "There were gay men still trying to hide the fact that they were in the gay community. By the time Cruising came along in 1980, there had been the famous Stonewall Riots, and other demonstrations of gay people asserting their rights. So the situation had changed, on a massive level."
The idea of Cruising became more attractive when the Village Voice ran reports about gruesome murders that were taking place on the West Side and Lower West Side of Manhattan. They were "the most evocative stories about these murders that the mainstream journalists and the police were largely ignoring," says Friedkin. "They were mostly unsolved and they were taking place in those clubs and around those areas. I thought, 'This will make an unusual background for a murder mystery.'"
Another factor was a friend, Randy Jurgensen – a policeman who had been technical consultant on Friedkin's The French Connection and also appeared in the film. He had worked on a detail known, says the director, as the "Pussy Posse", in the 1960s, when murders were also happening in the bars. "He was on the undercover police section that dealt with prostitution, male and female, and he was assigned to go into the clubs to see if he could attract the killer."
Jurgensen became the model for Al Pacino's character Steve Burns in Cruising, who swaps his patrolman's uniform for leather duds and poses as a gay man to trap a serial killer stalking New York's S&M bars and peep shows, and undergoes a crisis of identity and apparent sexual disorientation.
"He told me that the experience of being undercover as a heterosexual in the gay bars was very disturbing to him and upsetting, and produced a lot of tension and a lot of questions. I never went into specifically what those were," says Friedkin, "but I understood his anxiety. So I tried to reflect that a little bit in the Burns character."
Whether or not Burns acts on his burgeoning homosexual feelings is open to interpretation. So, too, controversially, is the question of whether he has become a killer by the end. Whereas Walker left his readers in no doubt, Friedkin deliberately creates ambiguity by offering this transgression as a possibility rather than as a certainty. There may even be several killers. Burns appears to get his man, but does he?
"I don't know who the killer is," says Friedkin. "And I don't know if Burns is a killer or not. I don't have the answer. But I wanted very much the implication that he might be, because many of these murders, not all, were unsolved."
Friedkin is arguably doing something much more interesting than simply linking homicidal tendencies to latent homosexuality; Cruising appears to be about the slipperiness of human sexuality, and how rigid cultural attitudes to sexuality can create conflicts within individuals and society.
Friedkin's elliptical style, though, leaves many questions unanswered, and opens the film up to multiple interpretations. Inevitably, he found himself facing charges of homophobia. "What can I say about that?" he says, when I ask him about the accusations. "That's like asking someone, 'Are you still beating your wife?' Let me put it to you this way: none of the people who wrote about those aspects of the film knew anything at all about me. They did not know me. You could possibly make a judgment about someone from the films they direct. But I don't much believe in that sort of psychobabble.
"I made a film about a story that was unusual, original and I was very interested in, and that because of my connections in that world I was able to depict it as honestly as possible. But the film does not take a position for or against anybody. Probably the people that come out looking bad are the cops... I did not make the film, contrary to [the opinions of] a very small handful of critics, as a kind of put-down of the gay lifestyle, which I never felt and I don't feel to this day."
When Cruising was re-released theatrically in America last year in advance of the US DVD release, it received a far warmer reception than it had in the past. Some people who remembered the demonstrations in 1979/80 wanted to protest, says Damon Romine, director of entertainment media at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), but times have changed. "In 1980, the gay equality movement was still in its infancy and advocates did not want the only images of gay people to be either sex-obsessed or serial killers. But we are in a different time now where there are a wide variety of multi-dimensional images."
Without a broader, more multi-faceted context, he argues, Cruising "perpetuated misperceptions that straight people already had about gay people, while further pushing gay people into the closet, scaring them from coming out."
Today, gay culture is reflected in everything from sitcoms and style shows, to movies and TV dramas. Not everyone thinks Cruising deserves a break. But maybe this time it will get a fairer hearing.
The deluxe edition DVD of 'Cruising' is released on 25 February