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William Friedkin’s Cruising is a movie that might be more myth than reality for most people — and I’m taking about the experience of seeing the film, not the experience of the lifestyle(s) depicted within. Before the DVD release this was a movie more talked about than seen, and I don’t think that’s changed much. It’s not so much good as it is lurid, but there’s a weird Mapplethorpe giallo style to it that makes it ideal Watch It Now material.

Al Pacino is Steve Burns, a straight guy (he’s dating Karen Allen) who goes undercover in New York’s 1979 gay leather scene to find a serial killer. The killer actually speaks in Serial Killer Voice and has a real vendetta against gays. “You made me do that,” he intones after stabbing victims in the back. (A few frames of porn are famously spliced into that scene, but you probably won’t be able to see them in this streaming presentation.) The film arguably has the same vendetta, as most of these guys are sweaty, greasy and overtly threatening, and there’s a suggestion that the interests of killing and being gay are both communicable. 

There’s not much to the movie’s thriller aspect. The cops are linking two seemingly unrelated strings of murders, and Burns’ own investigative efforts are muted and mundane. Outside of some scenes in bars and a final act that grows increasingly odd, the movie isn’t much concerned with story.

That odd last act is almost worth the time. As Burns slowly dips into the gay scene, he resists physical contact with other men. Eventually he does some drugs and dances and we see a palpable shift. He’s less interested in sex with his girlfriend, seemingly fantasizing about the gay clubs while she’s blowing him. The change is shown to us in glances and overlaid sounds. This isn’t Friedkin’s finest filmmaking moment by any stretch, but it has a few elegant beats.

Part of the film’s appeal now is seeing familiar actors in time capsule roles. Powers Boothe has a moment as a hanky salesman; James Remar from Dexter has a good little sequence, Paul Sorvino is reliable as the lieutenant and television regular Richard Cox is vaguely weird as the/a killer. He’d go on to play Alan Dershowitz, against Ving Rhames’ Johnny Cochran.

And there’s the New York City time capsule element, as well. Many of the extras in the club scenes were recruited from those same bars during operating hours. There’s a lot of hanky code, implied sex and wild times, though for the most part this is like the first US cut of Eyes Wide Shut; there’s always a tree or a dude in the way. The leather bar scenes, while maybe not so realistic (and, perhaps, quite a bit more tame than the real scene would have been) feel a lot more vital than anything else in the movie.

I can see why Cruising made people mad in 1980, and it probably still has the power to make people mad, as the ending is fairly obscure. Going beyond Friedkin’s responsibility to portray gay society in a fair light, though, there’s a real atmosphere to the film. Friedkin is making a gay New York giallo, and that’s worth watching.

Add Cruising to your instant viewing queue at Netflix and watch it now!

The image to the right isn’t the film’s original poster. It’s the Alamo Drafthouse version of the poster, as covered by Devin and available from Mondotees.