Throwback Thursday: Cruising

The cinema scene of the late 1970s and early 80s had endured something of an assault by Hollywood-inflamed homophobia (see mostly forgotten films like The Choirboys, Windows and Partners for examples… or don’t).

In hindsight, it makes total sense that William Friedkin’s Cruising – based on the synopsis alone and a perfectly reasonable concern for how the LGBT community would be depicted – inspired picketing and boycotts before it was even completed. The story of a sexually-confused serial killer picking off promiscuous, leather-clad hunks – not to mention a straight police officer whose mere exposure to gay nightlife leads to what could be interpreted by the uninformed masses as a potential “conversion” – didn’t sit well with activists of the day (even helmed, for better or worse, by the guy who brought The Boys in the Band to the big screen).

Today, knowing that LGBT representation in film and television greatly improved in the decades since it was released, sitting down to watch Cruising proves a much different experience. The film is deeply flawed, but consistently fascinating. Set in the leather bars, cruising areas and sweltering, pulsating discos of Greenwich Village, it follows Al Pacino as Steve Burns, a seemingly well-adjusted heterosexual cop who is assigned to go undercover and flush out a sadistic killer picking off vulnerable prey.

With nothing more than some skin-tight shirts, a revealing leather ensemble and an apartment in the “heart of darkness” (read: a gay neighborhood), he begins his investigation. But muscular men and the prospects of satisfyingly violent sex cause him to question his own sexuality and his relationship to his partner (Karen Allen).

Having lost much of its power to offend, the film now functions like a time machine, taking viewers back to a pre-AIDS era that’s both more innocent and ignorant. As Friedkin himself has said, Cruising “isn’t a film about gay life. It’s a murder mystery with an aspect of the gay world as background.” That’s pretty much true. And the murder mystery, left ambiguous as to whether it’s really been solved, is effectively bone-chilling.

Cruising has also inspired a new generation of gay filmmakers. Writer-director Yann Gonzalez credits the film as a major influence on his critically-acclaimed new arthouse hit Knife+Heart and in 2013, James Franco and Travis Mathews put together a part-documentary, part-fiction project called Interior. Leather Bar. Which aimed to reconstruct the film’s lost sex scenes.

Arrow Films will be releasing Cruising on Blu-ray for the first time in August, in a gorgeous special edition package. Special features include a brand-new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, supervised and approved by Friedkin himself as well as archival footage, documentaries, audio commentaries and more. Click here to pre-order your copy.

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