Thursday, April 8, 2010

Far Out Films from the Seventies: Cruising (Shot in 1979, Released in 1980)

***This is part of a piece that originally appeared at my main site, Moon in the Gutter.***

While I can't prove it, I suspect that the very evil spirit Pazuzu, otherwise known as Captain Howdy, from William Peter Blatty's THE EXORCIST inhabits many more of William Friedkin's films than one might think. You can feel the Captain in the final shots of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, just after Popeye Doyle has shot an innocent man and he doesn't care. The Captain certainly makes his way into SORCERER, he's what is keeping Roy Scheider's character driving that truck long after any mere human being would have completely collapsed. John Pankow is clearly possessed by him as the credits role on TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., and that's certainly the Captain's glare staring at Linda Fiorentino from Chaz Palminteri in JADE. While he is just a bit player in those film though, Pazuzu is present in nearly every scene of CRUISING, a work which is surely Friedkin's most controversial and dangerous film.
CRUISING started out life as a true crime novel by Gerald Walker. The controversial book was bought up by movie producer and concert promoter Jerry Weintraub in the late seventies and was offered to Friedkin shortly after. Friedkin's career was in trouble by 1979 and he needed a film that could reestablish him as the major American director that he clearly was.
Even though he had just been nominated for another Oscar for AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, Al Pacino's career had also gone slightly off the tracks by 1979. It had been nearly five years since DOG DAY AFTERNOON and the very personal BOBBY DEERFIELD had failed to spark any kind of fire with audiences or critics. CRUISING must have seemed perfect to Pacino as the film he signed on for would be a fairly traditional murder mystery that would bring him back to the New York streets; unbeknown to Pacino though is that nothing involving William Friedkin could have a hope at being traditional.
I first saw CRUISING just after my seventeenth birthday in 1989. Pacino had become my favorite actor a few years before and Friedkin was one of my favorite directors, so CRUISING was a film that I had greatly anticipated seeing. My thoughts in the past near twenty years haven't changed in regards to the film. CRUISING is still to me one of the most effective and undervalued American films of the past few decades, and no amount of critical or popular derision will change my mind.
I have always thought of CRUISING as THE EXORCIST'S strange and dark little brother. While the often misread EXORCIST does finally remind us that, if there is indeed evil in the world, then there must also be good, CRUISING has real black and cynical heart that suggests that all men posses evil or at least have the capacity for it. In CRUISING, Captain Howdy doesn't lose.

Many critics have argued that CRUISING fails as a murder mystery, and I would agree with them. This film isn't interested in who the killer is, ultimately it is more about who the killer isn't. As the great Laurent Bouzereau documentary points out, Friedkin cast several people as the killer, including at one point an actor who played one of the film's early victims! Friedkin makes it clear early on that this is a film, like THE EXORCIST, that deals very much with the transference of evil and the loss of one's own identity. If THE EXORCIST was a great spiritual work posing as as a horror film, then CRUISING is very much an existential horror film posing as a murder mystery.
There were several things that struck me re-watching CRUISING this week. One is just how sad and dislocated nearly everyone looks in the film. All of the characters in it seem to be going through their own very personal one point Pacino's character pleads with his girlfriend Karen Allen "Don't let me lose you" but if you listen really close it sounds like he is saying, "Don't ever lose you." The film is filled with odd little moments like that, moments that remind us that sometimes the easiest thing to lose in this life is yourself.
The Karen Allen character is fascinating and she is really splendid in the role. As the only major female character in the film, and one of the only positive, Allen is only seen with Pacino in their apartment as a reminder of the life that he is losing that he might not even want. Early in the film Pacino whispers to her, "There's a lot you don't know about me." and that perhaps sums up the film perfectly.
Outside of Karen Allen, the only other real positive force in the film is Ted, Pacino's gay neighbor played wonderfully by Don Scarino. The film's main critics that continually accuse the film of being homophobic seem to always look over this role. Ted is the most human character in the film and the one who is ultimately sacrificed the hardest. His scenes with Pacino are the warmest moments the film has and it gives CRUISING an extra added layer that makes it much more complex than its critics have often given it credit for.

The infamous club scenes in the film are still incredibly evocative. What really struck me was, and the documentary mentions it, is how nonjudgmental the film is in these sequences. I would argue that some of the only real joy and freedom the film exhibits comes through in these scenes. CRUISING doesn't feel like a denouncement of the gay community or this particular subculture, instead it feels like a denouncement towards people who can't accept truths about themselves; which goes very much back to the loss of identity and the susceptibility of evil.
Technically one thing that struck me while watching this film is that it feels more like an Italian film from the period, rather than a Hollywood studio production. A big part of this is the massive amount of post dubbing that the film went through due to all of the noise the protesters were making while they were shooting it. I kept thinking about Fulci's underrated NEW YORK RIPPER from just a few years later as well, and I wondered if Fulci had seen CRUISING and had it mind when he produced that subversive, brilliant and incredibly cynical work.
The cast is extraordinary. Friedkin managed to find some of the most unforgettable faces of the period and everyone from Paul Sorvino (a powerful performance) to Richard Cox and Joe Spinell are incredible to watch in this. One moment with Spinell when he briefly faces off with Pacino in a Central Park tunnel is particularly chill inducing.
As for Pacino, I have always considered CRUISING to be one of his great moments. Gone is the ferocious intensity that had inhabited DOG DAY AFTERNOON and later SCARFACE. His performance here is chillingly cold, subtle and finally very tragic. It is a shame that Pacino's bad experiences shooting the film have caused him to not talk on the film. It is a bold, adventurous performance that contains some of the best moments of his incredibly distinguished film career. The last shot alone belongs in any best of Al Pacino reel imaginable, and it is one of the most complex and stunning closing close-ups in film history.
The sound of CRUISING is also particularly great, from Charles L. Campbell's incredibly creepy soundscapes to Jack Nitzsche's experimental and crucial score, CRUISING sounds like no other film I can think of. Also worth noting is the amazing line up of songs Friedkin added from bands like The Germs to Willy Deville's unforgettable IT'S SO EASY. Tarantino is a major fan of CRUISING and his director's cut of DEATH PROOF features this stunning little Deville number.

The film opened up disastrously in the bitterly cold February of 1980. Friedkin had been forced to remove over forty minutes of material and the protests that had been with the film during production bled over into its brief release. While not a total box office bomb, the film received scathing reviews across the board as very few critics bothered looking past its surface. It was pulled shortly after but seemed to almost immediately gain a cult following and the last two decades has seen the tide slowly but surely turning in its favor. The currently available DVD will probably find a lot more critics, but I suspect it will also strike many people in the way it strikes a great film that has never been given its due.

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