Cruising ★★★★

William Friedkin astonishes me. His big passion project and $22 million gamble Sorcerer had bombed hard, thanks in large part to opening against Star Wars and portraying a seedy unpleasantness that was apparently fast going out of vogue. His next movie, The Brink's Job, a crime caper apparently taken after the likes of The Sting, made next to no splash whatsoever. And so Friedkin, ever the raconteur, decided to double if not triple down on the grimy unpleasantness of Sorcerer's prologue segments in Cruising, a giallo homage set in New York's gay fetish night scene.

This is, if you can imagine, an early Argento picture replete with all the strage coloured lighting and claustrophobic theatrical bloody murders, but played with the energy of that scene from The French Connection where the cops accost the Black patrons in the bar for information. So demented is Friedkin's absolute commitment to portraying an inherent nastiness, the film actually feels uncomfortable to watch for long stretches. Take an early scene with two cops. One complaining his wife has taken off with the kids, his partner's attempt at consolation basically amounting to "Women, they're all scumbags." Right before they accost and sexually assault some transgender sex workers.

It's gross, deliberately so. There are very few good people here, and most of them end up dead at the hands of a serial killer. Pacino is Steve Burns, the undercover cop cruising the gay nightclubs in some attempt to find the guy, then sneaking off to have rougher and rougher sex with Karen Allen to reassert his own view of his masculine identity. And it's a great performance, too. Possibly the last of the subtle Pacino performances, given Scarface came along pretty much straight after.

I know I keep falling back on this, but Cruising truly is a grim movie. Often hard to watch, constantly pushing the boundaries of good taste. It might have the dimmest view of New York since Taxi Driver. It's labelled a thriller, but it's as much a horror movie as any 80s slasher, perhaps moreso, injected as it is with a heavy dose of late-70s sleaze. It's a movie that only William Friedkin could and would have made, and after the last time a gambit like this fell through for him, I'm glad he had the guts to do so.

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