Creepy story time... In 1972, director William Friedkin – huge after The French Connection – is shooting his spiritual/psych-horror masterpiece The Exorcist in downtown New York. For a scene requiring mock brain-scans of the ‘possessed’ lead character Regan MacNeil, Friedkin films a real-life radiologist and his assistant, Paul Bateson.
Flash ahead to 1979. Friedkin is planning an adap of Gerald Walker’s novel Cruising, inspired by a real-life serial killer carving up leather-boys in the city’s underground gay-bars and dumping their body parts in the Hudson River, wrapped in black plastic bags. When he learns that his Exorcist radiologist assistant Bateson is currently awaiting trial for the post-coital slaying of gay film critic Addison Verrill, Friedkin decides to pay Bateson a visit to do a little research into the psyche of his Cruising killer.
Bateson is later imprisoned for life – for the Verrill murder – but (wait for it...) not before dropping hints while in custody that he was also the body-bag killer. The latter cases remain unsolved, but there’s every chance that Friedkin had not only inadvertently consulted the actual killer at the heart of Cruising while planning the film, but had also cast him in a film he made years before it...
“I’m fascinated by dual lives,” says a spruce, surprisingly sober Friedkin on the Making Of. “Y’know – respectable radiologist or shop assistant by day, but something darker by night. I thought the Cruising book had dated and wasn’t relevant, but it was that connection to a real killer that made me want to do it.”
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
As the rubbishly named Steve Burns, the cop tasked with infiltrating the gay subculture, Friedkin cast a flagging Al Pacino who, after his early ’70s streak of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and two Godfathers, hadn’t had a hit in five years. The fear in Pacino’s eyes pings the perfect note of watchful vulnerability – all phoney swagger and stifled innocence when a cock-sure portrayal would have just been limp. Friedkin feverishly tracks Burns’ halting descent into the underworld: a seething swarm of jerking torsos, glinting Aviators and amyl-misted bulge and body worship. Instantly clocked as being straight, Burns transforms himself, pumping out a sixpack and strapping on the chaps, going native to sniff out his quarry… (Friedkin revels in the irony of his upstanding undercover hero getting busted on a themed police-costume night – the real cop being the only one not dressed as a cop).
The brooding, brimming air of a city on edge recalls an earlier New York-set movie featuring a young man balancing his disgust and desire… Cruising is Pacino’s Taxi Driver, with Friedkin – like Martin Scorsese – canning the clammy ’70s/’80s NYC mood of high-tensile hedonism. Director of photography James Contner washes out his colour to highlight the culture contrast, sustaining a distinctly noir-ish tone of ethereal intrigue: those leering glares and devious glances drenched in midnight blacks, sparkling whites and moody blues.
It’s the era’s most black-and-white colour movie: liquid and lurid, but also hard-boiled and dark-hearted. And, this being Friedkin, Cruising doesn’t skimp on the shocks: cruel, claret-sprayed stabbings; suspiciously real-looking body-parts scattered like butchers’ off-cuts; and the notorious fisting scene – a punter strapped and spreadeagled on a sling, swooning as he takes intimate delivery of a greasy forearm and knuckle sandwich.
Exorcising Cruising carefully picks over the film’s divisive reputation, with the shoot disrupted by airhorn-honking protesters, angry at a perceived anti-gay angle. “I understood them,” sighs the director. “But I also understood that they were trying to stop free speech.” That’s an astute – if defensive – way of putting it. Although Cruising is a glossy, Hollywoodised take on gay culture, Friedkin insists that he was simply using the scene as backdrop for his murder mystery, and the kneejerk twitches seem quaint with hindsight. Friedkin’s view of the clubbers is more homoerotic than homophobic. They’re the popper-dropping innocents; partying, posing, fondling and fucking… It’s the brutalising cops and bullying authority figures who are the ones indulging their prejudices.
Cruising is no lost classic, but the critical shoeing doesn’t square with Friedkin’s intelligence and steady, sparse technique. He teases terrific performances from Karen Allen and Paul Sorvino (loping around like a sulky bullock), with an unusually unshowy Pacino describing Burns’ all-too-human meltdown as a steady downward spiral. And there are plenty of sharp themes bustling away under the seedy surface: a Hitch/Argento-like kink on stabbing as proxy penetration; prescient riffs on identity and transformation… “There’s a lot about me you don’t know!” Burns tells his wife, cueing the final shot: Pacino pressed into his bathroom mirror, washing and shaving (as if he can simply scrub and scrape away his undercover alter-ego) before glancing through the glass and into camera, challenging… Is he in the closet or has he found his calling? Can we ever really know anyone? It’s Friedkin’s trademark tease: human behaviour as an opaque, shifting conundrum with no easy answers.
That goes for the killer’s (unrevealed) identity, too. Friedkin isn’t in any way interested in whodunnit. He wants to remind us that there’s always someone out there doing it, getting away with it… Whether or not we bump up against them is down to that ultimate, universal mystery: fate.