31 Things We Learned from William Friedkin’s ‘Cruising’ Commentary

"I think this should have been an X-rated film."
Cruising Blu

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits William Friedkin’s most controversial film, Cruising.

William Friedkin has made nineteen features (so far), and more than a few of them are highly memorable pop culture fixtures including The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Sorcerer (1977), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). One of his best struggled to find an audience on release but went on to find a growing critical praise over the years, and now Cruising (1980) has received a fantastic restoration from Arrow Video that is a must-own for fans. In addition to a stunning picture the release includes an older commentary track with Friedkin as well as a newly recorded one with critic Mark Kermode.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the new commentary for…

Cruising (1980)

Commentators: William Friedkin (director/writer), Mark Kermode (journalist)

1. At one time upon the film’s release it opened with an on-screen disclaimer that Friedkin describes as “an ass-covering measure that covered no ass.” It was meant to declare that the film’s content was not intended to critique a certain subset of society.

2. The film is a very loose adaptation of Gerard Walker‘s novel, but a bigger inspiration for Friedkin was the discovery in the 70s of body parts discarded in New York City’s East River which coincided with a series of slayings targeting gay men.

3. Some of the parts were found in body bags belonging to NYU’s Medical Center Neuro-Psychological Division which is where he filmed a scene for The Exorcist (1973). An extra in that scene, a radiographer named Paul Bateson, was later charged with being the serial killer responsible for those body parts and was convicted of murder. Friedkin went and spoke to him while in custody, and Bateson admitted committing the first murder but having no recollection of the rest.

4. “Every incident in the film happened,” says Friedkin regarding the various interactions we see between cops and potential perps. The cops patrolling this area at the time were known as “the pussy posse.”

5. One of Friedkin’s friends on the police force, Det. Randy Jurgensen, has a role here as the lead detective and was the real inspiration for Pacino’s character. He’s the cop who went undercover trying to catch the real killer and told Friedkin that the work made him question his own sexuality.

6. Friedkin filmed a scene involving the two uniform cops from the beginning where they play a game of Liar’s Poker (involving serial numbers on dollar bills). One loses intentionally so he has to be whipped on his bare ass by his partner’s nightstick.

7. The early club scene was filmed at The Mineshaft, “a members only club for the purpose of extreme S&M.” All of the extras are the club’s actual members. The man who owned the club was the head of the Gambino crime family and another of Friedkin’s friends. “I used to go to his house and have breakfast with him in his kitchen.” He said they could film there as long as the movie wasn’t about his business.

8. Some of the murder scenes include subliminal flashes of anal sex during the stabbings because “I felt that because the murderer used a knife, a very sharp edged knife to kill his victims, that there was a kind of reference to anal intercourse.” The connection between a killer’s blade and his dick is well-established elsewhere, but this is the first I’ve heard someone draw a direct connection to anal sex specifically.

9. He sent the film to the MPAA with forty extra minutes of footage that he had no intention of keeping and “which amounted to pure male pornography.” It was a bait and switch to give the MPAA something to demand he cut with the hope that they’d leave him the rest, but he still had to go back fifty times to secure the R rating.

10. James Franco made a film called Interior. Leather Bar (2013) which imagined what might have been included in those legendary and lost forty minutes of footage, and he moved forward on the film before speaking to Friedkin. Franco eventually called the director during production, explained he was making a film about the missing forty minutes of Cruising, and then asked “What were the missing forty minutes of Cruising?”

11. The morgue scene at 13:00 was the first time a feature film was given permission to shoot in an actual morgue. The city’s Chief Medical Examiner, Michael Baden, was fired for that decision, but he went on to a lucrative career as an expert forensic witness.

12. Stephen Spielberg was originally going to direct Cruising but ended up making something called Jaws (1975) instead.

13. Richard Gere was signed for the lead role in Cruising and very excited for the project. “I think he would have been wonderful,” says Friedkin, “because he had a strange, ambiguous quality about him.” Pacino got a hold of the script and decided he wanted the role, and as one of the biggest and most acclaimed actors at the time (Serpico, 1973; The Godfather Part II, 1974; Dog Day Afternoon, 1975) it was decided that he would be the better bet.

14. It turned out that Pacino was extremely uncomfortable during filming. “He had never frequented that world, and it freaked him out throughout the whole film. If there’s a note that appears to be fear in his performance, it was there for real.” They agree that Pacino’s fear actually benefits the character, but Friedkin makes it very clear that he wishes he had gone with Gere.

15. There were protests during filming as the city’s gay community felt the movie was bad news for their movement towards civil rights. They would blare music, reflect lights, throw rocks, and yell at Pacino with derogatory slurs. It forced them to re-record a lot of dialogue for the film.

16. Kermode draws a comparison to Basic Instinct (1992) as another film which was protested for one thing before being revealed to be about something else. Friedkin doesn’t see the connection.

17. “I’ve never worked with an actor who was less prepared,” says Friedkin about Pacino. He adds that Pacino seemed to following in the footsteps of Marlon Brando in not memorizing his lines and choosing instead to be “spontaneous.” Kermode seems surprised.

18. They inexplicably fail to mention the Powers Boothe cameo at 26:10 as the hankie salesman.

19. Friedkin spoke with a man who survived an attempted murder by the alleged serial killer at the time, and he mentioned the assailant’s little sing-song couplet “Who’s here, I’m here, you’re here.” He made note of it and included it in the film.

20. The film uses different actors as the killer at various times and shares a voice between them. “It’s not an attempt to confuse about who the killer is but to underline the fact that there were multiple murderers.”

21. The clubs would have theme nights where patrons had to dress like cops, wear only jockstraps, or even go completely nude. Kermode asks if he ever visited the clubs on those nights, and Friedkin replies “Yes, and I was the ugliest guy in the room. Nobody ever hit on me.”

22. The head of the MPAA at the time was Richard Hefner, host of a long-running show on public access called The Open Mind — “we used to refer to it as The Empty Head” — and he was no fan of challenging cinema. They played the film for him at a dinner gathering, and Hefner called it the worst film he’d ever seen.

23. The S&M clubs frequently played the same music you’d hear in “regular” clubs including the likes of KC and the Sunshine Band and Donna Summer, “and I hated that stuff. I just hated it!” He instead went out with composer Jack Nitzsche and found young punk bands to give a “harder edge” to the bar and club scenes.

24. This is Ed O’Neill‘s feature debut.

25. Sonny Grosso, the real cop who Roy Scheider played in The French Connection (1971), has a cameo here as a cop too.

26. The 6’5″ black man wearing a jockstrap and a cowboy hat is played by the real cop who really used to do this during certain interrogations. They did that in part so the perp would lose credibility when trying to complain about the detectives’ behavior. “It was very extracurricular.”

27. The scene where Pacino’s character confronts his neighbor’s roommate (James Remar) and kicks in the door “is the only scene where I let Pacino cut loose and do a Pacino.”

28. For a long time Pacino wouldn’t talk about the film, and Friedkin adds “that’s a good thing because he’s not very eloquent.”

29. He still wishes he had gone with Gere for the lead, but he’s come to appreciate Pacino’s performance in the film. “I think that Pacino’s performance works, now. I didn’t at the time, but I can see that there are aspects of it now that do work which I didn’t realize when we were shooting. I thought I had made a mistake.”

30. The corpse’s position at 1:33:39 is modeled on the cover of David Bowie’s album Lodger. “It also was an interesting position to find a dead body in.”

31. He’s making no claim or suggestion that Pacino’s character is a killer but allows the possibility that he may be. Kermode asks him how he directed Pacino for the final scene seeing as he didn’t tell him to play it like a killer, and he says he only told Pacino the following. “You’re happy to be home, you’re happy it’s all over, and you’re shaving. And then at a certain point I want you to look in the mirror at the camera.” He adds that “I don’t know what the hell it means” and that it’s for the audience to figure out.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Pacino had no idea what the vibe was in that community.”

“This story was clearly not in the best interests of gay rights.”

“Every mounted policeman in New York was assigned to protect the film by Mayor Koch.”

“It was a drinking bar called The Ramrod.”

“He was definitely not the easiest actor I’ve worked with. He was mostly unprepared.”

“I shot everything in that scene. It’s a fist-fucking scene, and it went on for minutes.”

“I can think of a film that inspired Sorcerer very much.”

“I wasn’t interested in making safe hits.”

“There are no obvious heroes in any of my films because I don’t believe in the concept of heroes.”

2001 is one of the greatest films ever made, and it’s completely incoherent.”

“I only speak in metaphor.”

Final Thoughts

Cruising is a fascinating time capsule of a film, but more than that it’s also an entertaining and engrossing thriller. The way Friedkin plays with the senses in regard to the killer make for a unique approach to the slasher sub-genre. Arrow’s new Blu-ray release features a couple older featurettes and the two commentaries, but it’s the restoration that makes this worthy of a blind buy for fans of the filmmakers and/or atmospheric thrillers.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.