The Erotic Underground: William Friedkin’s Cruising

|Kelly Krantz|

The first time I saw William Friedkin’s Cruising was in the mid-90s, when I was in high school. I’d probably read about it in a zine, which is where I learned about most of the weird shit I liked at the time. Luckily, the small video store I walked to most days had a surprisingly diverse selection, and it was no problem to bring home the grainy VHS copy and watch it in my basement lair. The film made a big impact on me. I’d never seen a movie with such explicit and gritty queer content. Everyone was so sweaty! Upon the film’s release in 1980, it shocked many and was characterized as lurid and prurient. Even after all these years, it still has the power to provoke.

There’s been plenty written about the controversies surrounding the film’s production and reception. Activists at the time worried that the linking of a gay subculture with violence would lead the public to view all gay people as murderous deviants. The story is ripped from the headlines, based on a novel that dramatized the unsolved murders of members of the gay leather community in the 1970s. Al Pacino stars as the ostensibly straight cop who goes undercover into the New York gay S&M/leather scene in order to catch a suspected serial killer. The work affects his relationship with his girlfriend as he disappears more into his role. The longer he spends undercover, the more difficult it is to tell if a dedication to solving the case is what drives him, or if something more complicated causes him to take increasingly dangerous risks. There’s much in the film that is left ambiguous.

Avenues for cruising are not what they once were, particularly as smart phones and apps replace in-person seduction, and that’s not even taking into consideration how the covid-19 pandemic has changed the way we live. For an account of the glory days, you could read Samuel R. Delaney’s surprisingly sweet essays about hooking up in Times Square pornographic movie theaters: Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. To Delaney, cruising was liberating, fun, and equalizing. He preserves the memory of these spaces lost to gentrification, the working class nonconformists driven out under the auspices of family-friendliness. The world of Friedkin’s Cruising is much darker and more challenging than the nostalgia of Delaney’s essays, yet on the margins of the crime story, there is still the sense of uninhibited abandon, erotic tension and urgent release found in those works. The lifestyle may have been taboo and unusual to many at the time, but the film doesn’t critique the denizens of the leather bars portrayed, only the predators who brutalize them, whether they be a bored beat cop or a ruthless murderer.

When I first saw Cruising, I didn’t know anyone who would’ve shared my enthusiasm, but it made me feel furtively thrilled and a little scandalized. Today, I own it on Blu-Ray, a far cry from a VHS so grainy that it was hard to tell who was who on screen, and although it wasn’t well received at the time of its release, the movie has undergone reevaluation by the public. Before it hit screens, Friedkin cut about 40 minutes from the film to avoid an X rating, mostly graphic sex in the leather bars, and it is believed that any evidence of these edits has since been destroyed. This fabled footage has captured imaginations of high-profile fans through the years, and it became the subject of a work of docufiction, Interior. Leather Bar directed by James Franco in 2013. Legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe even found inspiration for his own controversial art from the film, a scene where the cops introduce a memorable element of distraction into a tough interrogation.

I’m a huge fan of Friedkin, and this is his work that most commands my attention. One thing I love about movies is that a story involving a situation wholly unlike the one we find ourselves in daily can still reflect something back to us. This series is called The Reckless Abandon of William Friedkin, a fitting way to describe Al Pacino’s undercover cop’s dangerous plunge into rough trade. “Reckless abandon” can be risky, but it can also be a fucking blast. Pull on your chaps and caps (even if they’re metaphorical), polish up the boots, and walk through the curtain into the theater. You might just end up submitting to the truths you learn about yourself.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Cruising screens at the Trylon as part of The Reckless Abandon of William Friedkin, starting on Friday, March 19 at 7 pm. For more information and for tickets, go to

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