Film in Focus: Cruising Into Confusion
February 18, 1980
CRUISING. Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by Friedkin, based on the novel by Gerald Walker. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. Released by United Artists.
The controversy over Cruising seems to be drifting toward an anticlimax now that the finished movie is available for inspection. My sympathy, as always, tends to be with the filmmaker against the censor, however well-intentioned the latter may be. I think that it is hard enough making a good movie without having a lot of people screaming at you from the sidelines. On the other hand, I cannot deny that much, if not most, filmmaking is superficially exploitational in its depiction of sex and violence. So what? Most people in every field, including my own, are in it at least partly for the money. Consequently, I have no illusions that William Friedkin, Jerry Weintraub, Gerald Walker, and Al Pacino undertook this project to feed the starving people of Cambodia. Whether any or all of these individuals are homophobic to any extent I cannot say. Much of the initial controversy seems to have been fueled by what A is supposed to have said at a seminar staged by B, and attended by C.
Some years ago, William Friedkin directed Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band on the screen, and I thought that his direction was reasonably sympathetic. Certain gay activists have attacked the play and the film for finally enshrouding the characters in gloom, morbidity, and self-pity. But if gloom, morbidity, and self-pity in the face of approaching middle age make Friedkin and Crowley antigay, then all of Chekhov’s plays can be attacked for being antistraight. It is in the nature of modern characters to be miserable at the slightest provocation.
One of the problems from the beginning may have been that the “story” of Cruising was being told from the outside. Gerald Walker’s novel completely lacks either any confessional self-implication or any philosophical overview. The plot is developed almost entirely from the point of view of two characters: (a) John Lynch, an unmarried rookie cop recruited to act as a homosexual decoy to trap a homophobic murderer, and (b) Stuart Richards, the homophobic murderer. Except for a short prologue and some short plot-catching-up entries from Police Captain Edelson’s Notebook, the novel is divided alternately in chapters headed “John Lynch” and “Stuart Richards.”
Walker’s novel is in many ways much more gruesome than the movie. Richards not only murders his victims with a long knife but mutilates and dismembers them afterwards. There are a great many phallic references to the knife, and to its symbolic function in the Freudian notion of maternal castration. Walker makes a great deal of the fact that Richards murders people of his own physical and facial type, and that Lynch turns out to be a dead ringer for him. In his spare time, Richards is working vaguely on a graduate thesis on Rodgers and Hammerstein at Columbia. His parents have been painfully and traumatically separated since he was a child, and they still bug him, his mother with smothering solicitude, and his father with strangling stinginess. Richards is a discerning movie buff, and two of his favorite movies are Stranger on a Train and The Third Man, both discussed extensively within Richards’s sick mind or their “double” or “Doppelgänger” themes. Walker never mentions Psycho, but there is obviously a great deal of Norman and Mrs. Bates in the Stuart Richards character.
One incongruity in the Richards character in the novel, however, is the frequency and intensity of his heterosexual activities. Between murders he makes out with women like mad as if he were trying to exorcise some dreaded homosexual temptation. By contrast, the Lynch character seems completely asexual. There is never the slightest intimation of a woman in his life, past or present, and even during his army days he did not indulge in any off-base pick-ups. Indeed, we gradually learn that he used to hang around an off-post gay bar, and went in for a little gay-bashing after hours. From a narrative point of view we are thus placed in the hands and minds of two confirmed homophobes, one (Lynch) of the Archie Bunker variety, and one (Richards) completely crackers.
New York’s gay milieu, and for that matter, New York itself, has never seemed so vile, sordid, dispiriting, and degrading. One can almost smell the piss in the doorways, the massive body odors on the steamy city streets. One can feel also the boiling feelings of loneliness, failure, mediocrity, disgust, and raging self-hatred. What one cannot feel is the author’s involvement in this hellish scene. The book is written and structured in a singularly disengaged form. There is not even the sociological hypothesis that kept Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar limping along to its preordained denouement. All that keeps Cruising together as a book is a gory stew of Freudian nightmares, films noirs, and gay guignol.
The movie has made many drastic changes from the novel. The Richards character has been considerably reduced in size and scope, and the plot tilted from suspense to mystery. Furthermore, he has been transformed from a womanizing homophobe to black-leather hard trade. (Walker’s novel never touches on the kind of s&m scene that exists today.) Richard Cox is very effective in the role, such as it is, but he bears not the slightest resemblance to Al Pacino as the rookie cop, now named Steve Burns rather than John Lynch. Pacino is now the one with the steady girlfriend, and he is seen banging away at the slightest opportunity. As in the book, the Pacino/Burns character makes friends with a gay playwright, but the plot payoffs are much vaguer in the film. In the novel the rookie cop kills another decoy by mistake, and then mutilates the body to make it look like the work of the homophobic murderer. Stuart Richards then goes berserk in a steam bath and knifes half a dozen male patrons before being killed in self-defense. The gay playwright is then found murdered and mutilated after having oral intercourse, and the horror resumes presumably with a decoy turned Doppelgänger.
Not only does the second decoy disappear in the film version; the book’s mention of 10 decoys on the case is omitted as well. For all we know, Pacino is the only decoy on the case, and this seems somewhat grotesque on a screen across which potential suspects parade by the dozens. In the book Lynch was carefully instructed not to go “all the way” on his heavy dates. With Pacino it is never made clear just how deeply he is becoming involved. The ending is therefore completely muddled in that one cannot be sure that the Pacino decoy has or has not become the murderous Doppelgänger for the Cox/Richards culprit.
Confusion, however, does not necessarily constitute evidence of homophobia. Whereas the novel can be criticized for being facile and unedifying, the movie’s major flaws are dullness and disorganization. Both Walker and Friedkin seem trapped within a genre in whose logical certitudes they can no longer believe. Hence, a pseudo-realistic open-endedness in both works undermines the mystique of detection and the faith in just and swift punishment. If anything, the movie is even more cynical and despairing than the novel in displaying the omnipresence of evil and corruption. And the police come off even worse than the leather boys in their treatment of street gays. From a political viewpoint, there is in neither the book nor the movie any moral standard against which to compare any lifestyle. The movie can be charged with sensationalizing the milieu to the extent that it implies some of the victims “are asking for it” with their provocative costumes and overly aggressive come-ons.
In a strange way a project like Cruising seems regressive in terms of what was being done on the subject a decade ago with movies like Midnight Cowboy, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and even Fortune and Men’s Eyes. It is as if a less sophisticated audience had emerged in the interim.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 5, 2020