Deep down, you had a feeling your leather trousers might be a tad on the tight side when you bought them, but you had no idea they would be this tight. Here's some free advice the next time you find yourself in the leather trouser section of your local supermarket: Always try them on while sporting a raging hard-on. Oh, and no half chubs or one quarter wood, I'm talking a fully erect member up in this motherscratcher. When the guys at say, the Anvil or the Ramrod, start to grind up against you on the dance floor, you want to make sure the inevitable boner you unfurl stays within the smooth confines of your leather trousers. Of course, the chances of your cock and some of your balls escaping the leathery grip of your pants are pretty remote. But still, you want to maintain an air of dickish dignity, while, at the same time, keeping the contents of your package firmly under wraps, as no-one likes a show off, especially in a place like, the Cockpit. If you think leather trousers sound complicated, honey, you ain't seen nothing yet. How do you think the ambitious heterosexual NYPD patrolman at the centre of Cruising, one who probably thinks listening to Chic automatically makes you a card-carrying Friend of Dorothy, is gonna react when he's given the opportunity to hopscotch his way to detective? Pretty excited, I guess. Wait a second, did you just say, "hopscotch his way"? Burn my "Cher's first facelift commemorative dishrag" with an acetylene torch, but that sounds a little gay? Oh, it's gay all right. In fact, it's so gay, you'll be asking Powers Boothe about the coloured-coded world of back pocket bandanas in no time. While a lot of straight men, particularly the one's who lived in New York City circa 1980, wouldn't be too pleased about the prospect of donning a black undershirt in order to catch a serial killer, I, on the other hand, would have jumped at the chance to be exceedingly fabulous at the height of disco; well, the tail end of disco.
Whether it was the height, the tail end, or even smack dab in the middle of the disco era, it doesn't matter, the opportunity to go undercover as a gay man sounds like the chance of a lifetime. Of course, we're not talking about an episode of Glee, so you can forget about mincing, frolicking, sashaying, or telling total strangers to talk to the hand, as those types of mannerisms are strictly forbidden in this universe. No, this is an ultra gritty look into New York's underground S&M bar scene. In other words, throngs of burly men in leather thongs, motorcycle caps, studded bracelets, assless chaps and biker boots are what are in store for you.
Given that film is written and directed by William Friedkin (To Live and Die in L.A.), this isn't going to be your average crime thriller–you know, the kind where a cop on the edge tries to catch a psychopathic killer. Even though it sort of starts off like your typical police procedural, the film quickly transports us to the heart of the meatpacking district where we find two patrolmen named DiSimone (Joe Spinell) and Desher (Mike Starr) cruising the streets in their radio car. After they have finished soliciting/harassing two transgender prostitutes, one of which is named DaVinci (Gene Davis), the camera follows a dark stranger in leather as he walks toward a building located across the street.
The first thing that struck me as the leather-clad man made his way to the unmarked, windowless building were the sounds he made as he walked. And I'm not just talking about the sound of his motorcycle boots hitting the pavement, there was something strangely alluring about the way his leather jacket creaked with every step. On top of that, I was also quite taken with the manner in which the metallic accessories attached to his outfit (chains, zippers, studs, etc.) seemed to jingle-jangle as he moved. Accentuated by the eerie-sounding drone music provided by composer Jack Nitzsche, the fact that the sight of this mysterious figure walking toward his equally mysterious destination was so compelling is a testament to the skill of William Friedkin as a filmmaker.
With our curiosity sufficiently piqued by this brava display of sound design, and, not to mention, monochromatic cinematography, we're ready to be sucked into the leather bound world of soggy jock-straps, wool socks, hairy chests, denim vests, and nipple licking that await us on the other side of the door. The man who we just watched enter the club, an establishment whose walls are adorned with hubcaps, exits the club just as quickly with a man with dark hair and dark eyes. After securing room at the St. James Hotel, and engaging in some sparse foreplay (the sound of creaking leather is ever-present), the two get down to business. All tuckered out after a rigorous bought of anal sex, the man who was picked up by the dark stranger awakens to find himself naked and hog tied with a knife to his throat (his leather restraints seem to get tighter the more he struggles). Suddenly the dark stranger says, "Who's here, I'm here, you're here," in his trademark creepy voice, and proceeds to stab the musclebound man with the dilated anus multiple times in the back with a kitchen knife.
Meanwhile, back at police headquarters, Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino), who is growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress he's making with the case of the so-called "homo killer," decides that he needs to penetrate the leather bar scene with a more reliable phallus. Asking Steven Burns (Al Pacino), a fresh out of the academy recruit, point blank, if he's ever had his cock sucked by a man, Edelson wastes little time offering him the chance to go deep undercover to draw out a serial killer(his dark features are similar to that of the majority of the killer's victims). Of course, the catch being that he has to infiltrate a subculture he knows nothing about.
Just like with the punk and goth scenes, this process takes time. The people who make up these specific subcultures can spot an imposter like that, so you better do your homework. Taking baby steps, Steve Burns slowly transforms himself into John Forbes, an art student with a thing for black undershirts. Renting an apartment in the West Village, and making friends with his new neighbour, a playwright named Ted (Don Scardino), there's a new man on the scene and he's ready to cruise. Okay, maybe he's not quite ready to "cruise," but he's learning the ropes. Hanging out at infamous leather bars such as the Ramrod, the Anvil, and the Cockpit, Steve observes the crowd as they interact with one another.
A favourite early scene that takes place during Steve's rope learning period features Al Pacino asking Powers Boothe's "Hanky Salesman" about the handkerchiefs that are hanging in his shop. If I heard this right, a light blue hanky stuffed in your left back pocket means you like to receive oral sex, while a light blue hanky sticking out of your right back pocket indicates that you give oral sex. When it comes to green, the left back pocket signifies you're a hustler, and the right implies that you're a buyer. Moving on to yellow, the left is all about receiving golden showers, and the right means you give them. Just as he was about to explain what the colour red represents, Al's character bails. Which is a shame, because I was dying to know what the red hanky stood for. I'm gonna go ahead and assume that it had something to do with anal fisting. Anyway, like Steve, I was a little confused by the yellow hanky. And not by what constitutes a "golden shower" (people peeing on one another for erotic or malicious purposes goes back thousands of years), but by which pocket meant what.
Slightly embarrassed by the yellow hanky mix up that took place at the Ramrod, or whatever club it was (it was the one with the hubcap motif), Steve is more determined than ever to immerse himself into the gay leather bar scene. And what better way to do so than to lift weights in your apartment as "It's So Easy" by Willy DeVille kicks some serious ass on the soundtrack. And it doesn't end with sculpting his Italian-American physique. Nuh-uh. Letting guys size him up at the clubs (of course, making sure you have the correct hankie in your back pocket when said sizing up commences), developing a rapport with the bartenders, Steve is on the fast track to becoming a regular. Which is weird, because it took me a couple of months just to get to the point where I felt comfortable enough to ask the bartender at my favourite nightclub what time it was. But then again, Steve is racing against the clock (um, hello? there's a killer on the loose).
It's true, mistakes are made–Steve shows up to one of the clubs on "precinct night" not wearing a police uniform (on certain nights of the week, some of the clubs have theme nights), which is ironic, since he is a cop (he's told to leave immediately)–but for most part his gayness is strong. Only problem being, he seems to be growing bored with vaginal intercourse. How could I tell? Well, the look on his face as Nancy (Karen Allen) writhed on top of him practically screamed hetero-ennui (he reverts back to the straight world every so often to fornicate with his girlfriend). I'm not sure if this was done on purpose, but every time Karen Allen would appear onscreen I'd think to myself: What the fuck is that? Of course, it's obvious she's a human female, and quite an attractive one, I might add. But other than Karen, the film is pretty much devoid of women.
The murder sequences for the killer's next two victims, while not as gruesome as the one in the hotel, are no less effective when it came to communicating a sense of dread. The one that takes place in the park makes excellent use of sound to create its foreboding ambiance (eerie synths, crickets chirping, the sound of men moaning in the distance, and branches snapping), while the murder in the peepshow uses flickering shadows and "Lion's Share" by The Germs to spell out its terror.
If you thought being murdered to The Germs was awesome, wait until you get a load of the next scene. Wandering into the, oh, let's say it was the Cockpit, Al Pacino enters as, get this, "Shakedown" by Rough Trade is playing on the soundtrack. Whoever it was who decided to include Toronto's own Rough Trade on the Cruising soundtrack needs a raise. Seriously, Rough Trade and Cruising are practically made for one another. At any rate, Steve's gay cred is solidified once for all when he steps out onto the dance floor and begins to bust a move to Willy DeVille's "Heat of the Moment." Sniffing amyl nitrate while soaking in a sweaty pool filled with black undershirts, hairy forearms, and off to the side anal fisting, Al Pacino pumps his fists to the music as the leather dandies watch with teary-eyed admiration.
After an elaborate sting operation involving a Ramrod regular named Skip (Jay Acovone) fails to bear any fruit–though it does provide us with the sight of giant black man wearing nothing but jock strap and a cowboy hat–the film shifts into stake out mode. Following a hunch, Steve decides to tail another Ramrod regular during the light of day. Yeah, that's right, daytime. Was I saddened by the fact that the film is no longer taking place at night? Sure I was. I mean who doesn't love to watch gay men in leather jackets acting tough after dark? And, as everyone knows, the daylight is a cruel mistress, one that will eventually destroy the darkness. I think the lyrics to the Meri D. Marshall smash, "My Obsession," perfectly encapsulate my feelings on the subject: "Strangers in the daylight / Lovers after midnight / This is my obsession / I live for the darkness, I must confess."
One of the pluses that came with this shift in decor was that we finally get to see the exceedingly handsome Richard Cox in this so-called "light of day." His first appearance as Stuart Richards, which occurs during the hanky code fiasco at the Ramrod, took away my ability to breathe properly. The way he sneered at Al Pacino's character, the collar of his denim shirt brushing ever-so-slightly against chin, was so fucking hot. However, seeing him pump iron without a shirt, ride the bus, and relax in the park was, to quote myself, "tantamount to titillation torture."
The allure of black leather is so strong in Cruising, that even Karen Allen is briefly tempted by its creaking appeal (much like Det. Bayliss was drawn to leather in the Homicide: Life on the Street episode titled "A Many Splendored Thing"). Capturing the sleazy charm of the leather bar scene in late '70s New York City (the club scenes ooze authenticity), William Friedkin has made a compelling document of a period of time that will never be repeated. Sure, people still wear leather and have anal sex, but I bet they don't do it with as much gusto. No, this film is a must for anyone who loves leather, old school Al Pacino (you know, before he became Foghorn Leghorn), jock straps (especially when they're worn in a non-athletic environment), extras who nearly trip while climbing up stairs, awkward nightclub dancing, and, of course, denim vests.
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