(William Friedkin, USA, 1980)


1. 1980: Review-Essay

As a film about homosexuality, or a certain kind of homosexuality, Cruising is notable firstly for bringing to the commercial cinema images never before seen there: the leather set, sado-masochism, pick-ups. Which is not to say these images are any “truer” than those of the charming effeminates of La Cage aux Folles (1978); truth is never the issue. There is not a homosexuality, an essential homosexuality, anymore than there is an essential femininity or masculinity. Homosexuality only exists in its different constructions, identifications, cultural positions. It can never be separated from the meanings and connotations it carries. (1) And it is in this light that I propose to discuss Cruising.

There is possibly a sophisticated argument against the film (certainly, it has yet to be made). It might claim that Cruising merely borrows and reinforces an existing signification of gay sexuality as something dark, monstrous, abnormal, even evil, given the Gothic style William Friedkin employs. And, being at least minimally a realist film, it presents this signification not as constructed but as natural, evident to the eye – ‘that’s what the gay world’s really like’. People respond to familiar things in a familiar way, and thus Cruising becomes complicit with dominant ideology.

Although there is some validity to this position, it rests upon a presumption that I find impossible to work with: that we can know how “average” audiences (whatever they are – middle class? Heterosexual?) react to the film, what attitudes it evokes or bolsters in them. For the moment, the question of Cruisings impact and its effects will be put to one side. First, we must understand the film itself. Cruising is essentially about aggression. To claim, as Vito Russo did in Gay News, that the film “indicates that gay life makes one violent” is to ignore everything to do with who is being violent and the possible reasons why. Cruising is not a right-wing sermon warning against gay killers – it explores why gays are killed, why our society has a need to kill them.

A few minutes into the film, two cops are shown travelling the streets in their patrol car. One of them, DiSimone (Joe Spinelli), talks about his wife who has left him: “She ain’t gonna make a fool out of men. I’ll get that bitch.” Then they see two gay men dressed as women; the cops pull up and harass them, and the scene culminates in one of the cops ordering the most vocal gay to give him head. As this is about to happen, the shot racks focus to show the killer going into a bar to find a victim. What is going on here? DiSimone’s aggression towards his wife is re-directed towards the gays – because both homosexuals and liberated women pose a threat to the social and sexual order. What the killer is about to do is only an extension of this first aggression; he is, paradoxically, on the side of the law.

Cruising examines a patriarchal, or phallocratic, society, in which the power invested in men by the law expresses itself through a valorisation of male sexuality, the penis. (2) The film consistently links power with virility: in the scene just mentioned, the gay man is ordered to suck the cop’s “night stick”; the harassing cops are called “hard-ons”; and the killer’s spermless ejaculation is referred to as “shooting blanks”.

However, it is not only the police who are implicated in this association of virility with power. Certainly the most provocative aspect of the film is the way in which it refuses to romanticise its gay characters on any level – they are not presented as the poor victims of patriarchal tyranny. In fact, they help to perpetuate its ideology. The whole ‘leather set’ scene is based on a glorification of phallic power – witness the Nazi regalia, the wrestling magazines, and most particularly the police uniforms. This is Cruising’s greatest insight and its finest irony. The gays, logically, should perceive that they are a challenge to the social/sexual norm and become accordingly radicalised. Instead, they shut themselves up in a ghetto to which society is happy to relegate them, and mimic the brutal and brutalising values of that society. This seems to me a provocation that the gay community should seriously debate rather than merely deride. (3)

The web of associations and links which draw both police and homosexuals together around the theme of power are condensed in the scene where the police, during their investigation of the suspected killer, arrange for a huge black strongman to suddenly burst into the room and slap the suspect (and Burns/Al Pacino) around. Friedkin presents the scene with no narrative explanation before or after, with the result that some have claimed it to be a particularly absurd and sensationalist part of the film. But I would argue that its symbolic connotations are very rich.

The black man, on the one hand, embodies the energies repressed by white society, shut away in ghettos like the gays. This points to a more general social repression, not just a sexual one. Equally, the black man stands for the super-phallus, the hyper-virile male. And finally, wearing a cowboy hat, he signifies homosexuality itself, or at least the kind of homosexuality that identifies with the icons of phallocentric power. But all this energy is used by the police for their own ends, transformed into a tool of social control that evokes fear and prompts submissiveness. To dismantle this system of domination would mean dismantling all the cultural meanings and transformations it depends upon.

Within the patriarchal structures depicted in the film, law proceeds from the Father, and the film is full of actual or symbolic fathers: Burns has Edelson (Paul Sorvino) as well as his own father to live up to, while the psychosis of Richards (Richard Cox) stems from his relationship with his father. When the fabric of the social order begins to crumble, the Father’s command is to eliminate whatever threatens it: Richards imagines (remembers?) his father telling him “You know what you have to do …”. In fact, the film makes it emphatically clear that Richards is literally ‘not himself’ when he kills – he speaks with his father’s voice, is devoured by the father’s aggressive drive. (4)

Within this context, the role of Edelson is particularly complex. One might imagine him to be the principal virile father-figure of the film, sending out his symbolic, law-enforcing son to clean up the sordid gay world. But this is hardly the case. Not only can one sense a certain sympathy or even empathy on his part toward gays (evident, for instance, in the way one of the harassed citizens from the opening scene comes to him for appeal); more importantly, Edelson possesses none of the standard iconographical or action-based attributes of phallic power. Quite the contrary: he limps (classic Hollywood sign of castrated masculinity), and while Burns and Richards play strenuous, “masculine” sports (body-building, football), he only plays chess and pool – and, moreover, plays them on his own.

In short, Edelson is another victim of the system – the State system as well as the patriarchal system. He himself is subject to symbolic Father, his superior, who orders that the investigation be sped up and the case closed, for the sake of political gain. This demand prompts the brutal treatment of a suspect, which is essentially an attempt to elicit a confession of guilt – even if that confession is not true. Throughout, Edelson is the one who knows all about the victimisation of gays by policemen, but can do nothing to stop it – for how could a police chief be seen to support what is deemed socially abnormal? Symbolically, Edelson has been castrated, because he is a prisoner in a system that drains him of any genuine humanity, agency or even sexuality. He is merely a position, a function; he tells Bruns “It’s only a job”, and refers to detective work as a “body count”.

Aggression does not only run from so-called “normal” society toward homosexuals. The film suggests a second reason for its causes: killing homosexuals is a way of killing (and thereby furiously repressing) the homosexual side of oneself. In this light, the true threat portrayed in the film is bisexuality, and all the dissolution of fixed identities it entails. The police are clearly as fascinated with homosexuality s much as they actively hate (and oppress) it. Edelson knows everything about the gay scene as if he were an insiders, the patrol cop gets sucked, DiSimone is seen frequently in the bars – whether pretending to be gay or actually so is not made clear. But a homosexual impulse inadequately repressed leads to murder. Richards’ words to each of his victims as he knives them – “you made me do that” – seem to mean: you must die for arousing and satisfying the desire I must repress.

Burns is also, and especially, implicated in this knot of repression and aggression. A scene abruptly begins with him vigorously thrusting into Nancy (Karen Allen), in an attempt to affirm both his masculinity (his phallus) and his heterosexuality – but even as he does this, he wears the studded leather wristband which is part of his gay outfit; his repression is incomplete. Later he is followed out of a gay bar and propositioned: “That bulge in your pants ain’t a knife” – a proof of his desire that clearly troubles him. The backlash of aggression occurs later, when he bashes in a door to get to Ted’s flatmate Gregory, an act whose violence far exceeds immediate provocation. Burns resolves his identity problem only when he knifes the killer with almost as much vehemence as the killer’s own victims are disposed of.

But all resolutions are thrown into doubt by the final scenes. Richards is arrested but another homosexual is found dead, and it is Ted, Burns’ neighbour in the apartment block. If Gregory is the killer, a reason suggested for the murder – “a lover’s quarrel” – refers not to any inherent quality of gay relationships, but far more a defining characteristic of the dominant heterosexual pattern: mutual possessiveness between two people, with all its attendant jealousies and tensions.

If Burns, in a further unseen act of aggression against his own gay impulse, is the killer, then this throws into question everything we have assumed about the relationship between him and Ted. Earlier on, Ted is presented as a ‘good’, normal, homosexual, someone who can be tolerated by society, and who in turn respects it. Visually, he is never connected with the leather night-life, and his physical contact with Burns extends no further than a good-buddy jab on the shoulder. But, reading back from this scene, Ted’s remarks that he is “seething”, and understands why people get into the leather-set, or Gregory’s allusion to a time when Ted associated with ‘trash’, take on a new significance, casting doubts over apparent innocence or asexuality of his involvement with Burns – and thus over Burns’ reaction to his own desires.

DiSimone is present as the police search the murder scene, again suggesting that aggression can come not from individual ‘madmen’ but from the social order itself; while Edelson too appears, again impotent in the face of the events and their significance, which he fully realises. Friedkin dissolves from Edelson looking at the corpse to a shot of a man, seen from the back, entering a gay bar, a reprise of the first shot of the killer mentioned above. This character is not meant to be identified. He stands for any or all of the film’s possible killers.

The final scene between Burns and Nancy is remarkably ambiguous, inviting equally two completely contradictory readings. Burns turn his gaze to the camera as, off-screen, his girlfriend approaches wearing the killer’s gear. What is Burns’ silent address to the camera meant to tell us: that he is about to killer her i.e. a further aggression against both gays and women, as at the film’s start)? Is the boat in the final shot about to find her dead body in the river? Or is it that at last fixed sexual identities have ben stripped away, and that the scene celebrates the emergence of a playful, bisexual desire? This ambiguity is not a problem. In fact it is Cruising’s greatest strength that it can only be read if one is ready to question one’s own assumptions – as a film viewer, and as a subject within this society.

2. 2007: Department of Speech and Music

In a famous essay of the early 1980s titled “The Incoherent Text: Narrative in the 70s”, the British critic Robin Wood drew special attention to William Fredikin’s Cruising – a film which had been vilified by many gay critics – as “extremely audacious” because “its surface is deliberately fractured, the progress of the narrative obscured”. But Wood added that, despite or perhaps because of its formal experimentation, the film was “not necessarily artistically successful”. In his analysis, Wood compared Cruising to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977), and this corpus was founded on a gnawing ambiguity: was the incoherence of these texts, their dynamic contradictions, voluntary or involuntary, crafted or merely symptomatic? (5)


The cinema of William Friedkin presents, in fact, a richly ambiguous borderline case within contemporary American cinema. Rather than evoking Scorsese and Brooks, one might place Friedkin’s work within a certain cinema of hysteria  that includes auteurs like Oliver Stone, Mike Figgis, Adrian Lyne, Tony Scott and Zalman King – or, further back, Ken Russell. The cinema of hysteria is a mode of filmmaking that actively cultivates incoherence: structured upon moment-to-moment spectacular effect, it aims for the sudden gasp, the revelatory dramatic frisson, the split-second turn-around of meaning or mood, the disorientating gear-change into high comedy or gross tragedy. Many Friedkin films, from The Exorcist  (1973) to Rampage (1992), artfully evoke an intense atmosphere of hysteria – within both the fiction, and its spectators. Yet, at the same time, his films also display a level of control that acknowledges a large debt to the classical cinema of Ford, Hawks or Lang. And so it is within the highly coherent incoherence of Cruising that we can locate its substantial artistic success, and evaluate it as one Friedkin’s finest works.


Cruising is a masterpiece of ‘80s cinema, taking Friedkin’s style to the furthest reaches of disorientation and ambiguity. In this mystery about a serial killer in the New York gay scene, Friedkin systematically confuses every variable of the culprit’s identity, including his body shape and voice tone. Inevitably, the cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino), who goes undercover to crack the case, becomes psychologically contaminated by all this shape-shifting frenzy. By multiplying, to the point of a vertigo of contagion, this network of echoes, mirroring effects and doppelgangers (the hero is like the killer, his wife dresses in leather in the final scene … ), Cruising becomes far more than a generic mystery-thriller set in the underworld of the gay, leather-bar, sado-masochistic subculture. The film is not about an individual killer or his string of victims, but an entire social system running on sexual repression and twisted, murderous impulses.


For Friedkin, this society is founded, above all, on the Law of the Father. Cruising is full of Real, Imaginary and Symbolic fathers, from the twin fathers that undercover Burns must deal with (his biological father and his police chief, Edelson [Paul Sorvino]), to the fearsome patriarch that the disturbed Richards (Richard Cox) constantly hallucinates. Within the logic of collective violence that the film builds up, whenever the social order is menaced, the Father’s command is to eliminate the threat: Richards imagines (or remembers?) his father telling him “You know what to do …” before his hysterical acts of murder. Indeed, Friedkin makes it emphatically clear that Richards is – like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) – literally not himself when he kills: he speaks with his father’s voice, becoming the possessed vessel of an aggressive Other.


The dynamics of voice construction are particularly remarkable in Cruising – can it be an accident that a character is enrolled in a Department of Speech and Music? – and it is this aspect of the film’s complex sound design that I will concentrate on here, as an indication of Friedkin’s stylistic mastery over his deliberately fracture narrative. But first, it is necessary to look at a little of the under-recognised history of the disembodied voice in contemporary cinema, beyond certified classics like Psycho or Lang’s The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1932), which have been well analysed by Michel Chion.


For complex reasons of social and biological conditioning, voices in cinema – voices that are detached, for a moment or for an entire film, from identifiable bodies, faces, lips ­ tend to be hard to place. This explains why feature animations, especially from America, must so strenuously publicise their voice-stars as if they were body and soul in the film: without that advertising, most viewers would never realise they were listening to Scarlett Johansson or Billy Crystal dubbed onto a lion or a pig. Certain films – particularly within the contemporary horror and mystery-thriller genres – play very cleverly on our general inability to place, identify or recognise a voice. In Robert Benton’s  Twilight (1998), for example, we hear the killer clearly speak a few lines off-screen during a crucial scene – and the filmmakers rightly bet on our inability to not realise that we have already encountered this character, seen and heard him speak in the usual full-disclosure manner, earlier in the plot. Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth  (2003), written by Larry Cohen, likewise depends on the likelihood that viewers will not place Kiefer Sutherland’s voice for the first 87 minutes of the film, until he appears in the final moments – thus allowing a red herring plot twist to be unveiled just before that point.


Some thrillers weave exaggerated peculiarities of voice production into the very fabric of the plot, and make them integral to the texture of their cinematic effect. Such films exploit the difficulty of placing voices in two senses – being able to recognise them, and also being able to physically, spatially locate them (a more recent example of this deliberate confusion can be found in Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.) This is one of the properties that characterises the stalker/slasher/serial killer thrillers that emerged since the late 70s, picking up the thread of Dario Argento and others. In Donald Cammell’s The White of the Eye (1987), for instance, the psychopathic central character, deranged husband Paul (David Keith), is a hi-fi expert – he employs a strange ritual of standing in the lounge room of his customers and emitting a strange hum, in order to gauge the acoustics of the space. At the end of the film, when he is pursuing his wife through a large canyon with various passageways, he will stand in the middle of this space and once again repeat his chilling resonance technique. A telefilm of great, minimalistic complexity, Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), is also central to a study of this topic.


But, of all the films in this modern tradition, none are as militantly intent on exploiting ambiguities of vision and hearing as Cruising. The principle generating the film’s matrix of hysterical contagion is the strong suggestion, at every point, that the person we assume is the killer may not be the killer – indeed, we are led to suspect, in one way or another, that virtually every character in the film could be the killer, potentially or actually, in the past, present, or future of the narrative. It is this radical concept of rampant ambiguity that generates the film’s social critique – rather than this reading being cleanly superimposed upon the fiction as a humanist message or moral.


The sound design of Cruising is extremely controlled, logical and systematic – as well as being very stylised and pared down, since the film is in the Sidney Lumet mode where scenes are presented as brute facts, without undue establishment or lingering. Specific foley noise effects – such as footsteps, and the killer’s jangling keys or cuffs – are eerily isolated in the sound mix; while other expected atmosphere effects, such as street noises, are sometimes elided altogether for the sake of an autonomous texture of post-synchronised voices. Around 80 per cent of the film, by my reckoning, uses post-synchronisation for the voices, as well as for the rest of the sound atmosphere – an astonishing sign of how stylised the film really is.


Cruising sets up a system in which different sorts of places or locations have their own distinctive sound, including their own kind of music. All scenes of police work (police procedurals, interrogations, investigative discussions and so on) occur against a background of grim silence, except for stray, specific, unnerving sounds like the saw used on bodies in an autopsy room. Scenes of Burns undercover talking in daytime cafes are rendered in direct sound. Domestic scenes showing Pacino’s interactions with his wife, Nancy (Karen Allen), are accompanied by a classical cello theme (Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid, ca.1780, by Luigi Boccherini) that is mixed with a high degree of echo. Certain scenes that provide key bridging sections in the narrative are scored by extracts from “A-i-a” from Three Day Moon by bassist Barre Phillips (elsewhere, a collaborator of Jacques Rivette and Robert Kramer), as well as guitar and percussion by Egberto Gismonti and NanĂ¡ Vasconcelos. When Burns is waiting outside the killer’s apartment, a long passage from Ralph Towner’s “Waterwheel” is introduced.And the scenes in the underground gay bars are associated with punk-style rock tunes, all of them provided by the film’s illustrious rock composer, Jack Nitzsche (whose proudest achievement in cinema was his contribution to Cammell & Roeg’s Performance [1970]).


However, as soon as this discrete system of differences is established, the film begins overlaying and superimposing its diverse kinds of images and sounds – shortly before his death, Nitzsche recalled Friedkin’s rather Godardian penchant for stacking – i.e., running several pieces of music at the same time. But the sudden cutting or shuffling between different pieces of music can be just as jarring and significant as the stacking in Cruising. A love scene between Burns and Nancy is accompanied by a rock song that we have already heard in the bars; and the repetition in the final image of the film’s first image – a boat entering frame, about to find the remains of a dead body – comes with Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid, by now deeply chilling in its effect and connotations.


Alongside these kinds of juxtapositions, the film explores – like When a Stranger Calls Back – many kinds of ambiguities of sound placement. For instance, the film systematically makes it difficult to discern when a song is diegetic (happening inside the scene) or extra-diegetic (overlaid on the scene as commentary). In one of the gay bar scenes, Friedkin jump-cuts the songs in a way that clearly removes them from occurring within the scene, as we at first imagine them to be. A later bar scene retains and hellishly exaggerates a single diegetic sound effect – patrons blowing their police whistles – but replaces the music that would be playing in this space with an atonal wall of sound used at various points of the film’s score.


I have already mentioned the cinematic filiation of the Father’s Voice in Cruising with the Mother’s Voice in Psycho – and the way in which both voices are psychotically channelled through the body of the murderous son. Many casual viewers of the film are unaware that the killer speaks, in fact, in two radically different voices – his own, and his father’s – according to the situation that he is in; and that, in at least one scene, he passes directly from one voice to the other. The Father’s Voice is a very particular kind of voice: very low, heavy, always post-synchronised, almost obscenely close to a microphone. Indeed, I believe that Friedkin stylised the film’s entire sound design to such an extent in order to build everything around this voice as the central element – so that all other voices diverge from it or resemble it, in varying and shifting degrees.


A particular sequence from Cruising can be used to illustrate a number of these devices and strategies in their tight interweaving and fusion: a murder scene in a park, which is followed by a transition to a domestic scene between Burns and Nancy. One of the ongoing complexities in the mix of the music in Cruising has to do with how much reverb or echo is placed on the songs – and this differs, for the same songs or pieces of music, from scene to scene. The park scene creates a small but unsettling kind of sound ambiguity with the echo it adds to the song “Spy Boy”: it seems almost like ambient, diegetic sound, something that could be playing in the park during this communal cruise, like an extension of the bars and their music – although logically, realistically, this could not be the case. As in Cronenberg’s Crash  (1996), Friedkin uses the image of people receding into the distance as a stylistic cue for fading out the music. Friedkin continues the strange effect created by this song straight after the murder has been committed, when – after a brief and virtuosic sound transition involving screams, musical punctuation, traffic noise and the sound of a train whistling past – we go to Burns walking down the street, and that same song “Spy Boy” is coolly back on track. Then, in the following domestic scene – breaking the sound pattern that has previously been set up in the film – Burns and Nancy have sex with this song still overlapping the scenes, in place of the previous placid Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid theme. Just as our confused cop has forgotten to take off his undercover leather wristband before intimate marital relations, the sound, too, helps to scatter the bases and muddy the hitherto distinct categories of place and identity.


Throughout the park scene, the killer speaks in his father’s voice. (At this point in the plot, it is important that we do not see his face clearly.) This voice is given a further inflection in the high-pitched childlike chant that the killer uses – “Who’s here? I’m here. You’re here”. This chant also focuses us on the deadly problems of placement in a modern thriller, of knowing exactly where the killer is positioned, or what the linguistic shifter here concretely pinpoints. Friedkin uses the hallowed techniques of the stalker/slasher genre but, like Walton, exaggerates them to radical ends: the killer’s voice-off occurs over a flurry of shots, in concert with sudden entrances into frame by both the victim and the killer, and the killer’s subjective point-of-view plunging off into some undecidable clump of dark foliage.


Another hallmark of the contemporary stalker-slasher-serial-killer thriller, from an aural point of view, is the manner in which the conventional role of words, of dialogue, is progressively downplayed for the sake of utilising voice as pure sound: screams, grunts, mindless chants, sinister games with vocal mimicry, and so on. In Cruising, this process of transforming voice into pure animal sound carries over from the killer and his victims to all of the characters, including the nominal cop hero Burns and his marital partner: hence the sex scene, which evacuates dialogue altogether for the sake of an exaggerated (and again post-synchronised) sequence of bodily exclamations. For William Friedkin, this abstracted, disorienting collage of noises is the very sound of violence.



Postscript 2012/2018: Thanks to Jonathan Hertzberg and Yusef Sayed for corrections to my some of my initial music source attributions.

MORE Friedkin: The Birthday Party, Jade, Rules of Engagement, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial


1. See Richard Dyer, “Pasolini and Homosexuality”, in Paul Willemen (ed.), Pier Paolo Pasolini (British Film Institute, 1977). Dyer’s method of analysis provides a useful and much needed corrective to the simplistic assumptions of a polemic such as Noel Purdon’s “Gay Cinema”, Cinema Papers, no. 10 (1976). back

2. See Guy Hocquenghem’s Deleuze & Guattari-inspired Homosexual Desire (Allison and Busby, 1978). It should be said that this book, which informs my critical position on Cruising, seems not to be accepted by a majority of the Gay Movement. back

3. See, for example, the dismissive (and parodic) comments made on the film and its possible interpretations in various 1980 issues of the Australian gay newspaper, Campaign. back

4. This offers a fascinating parallel to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) where, at the end, Norman Bates, fully “consumed” or possessed by the memory and/or spirit of his mother, can deny responsibility for all the murders he has committed. Richards, having become his own father, can issue the same denial. back

5. Wood’s essay is reprinted in both editions of his Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986 & revised and expanded edition 2003, Columbia University Press). back

© Adrian Martin July-August 1980 / September 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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