Just prior to its DVD release on September 18, Warner Bros. will re-release William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) in selected theaters across the country, including the Castro in San Francisco. If it plays well there, the film will have come full circle, having begun its life sputtering amidst howling controversy. Few films have been as reviled; the gay community protested it during its production, critics hated it and audiences stayed away. I first looked at Cruising back in the 1980s on VHS and likewise found it repulsive. But looking at it again years later in a cleaned-up transfer, with some big city experience and some knowledge of Friedkin's work gave me a whole new perspective. Not to mention that just about every Friedkin film except The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) has been misunderstood in its own time. And, ironically, Friedkin insists that even The Exorcist has been misunderstood, since he never considered it a horror film.

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Given all this, Cruising can now be ranked among Friedkin's very best films. Like all his work, except maybe the recent, excellent Bug, it takes place in a thoroughly researched, vividly documented sociopolitical world, in this case, the gay S&M leather bars of New York City, circa the late 1970s and early 1980s. Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is a relatively naïve cop who goes home to his girlfriend (Karen Allen) each night, but he fits a certain physical type and so he's recruited to pose as a gay man, infiltrate the bars and learn the identity of a serial killer. In his persona and in his new apartment building, Steve befriends a neighbor, an unsuccessful playwright, Ted Bailey (Don Scardino), who in turn lives with an egomaniacal actor.

It's Steve's most successful contact, however, since his time in the bars is mainly spent dealing with his own insecurities. Many reviews have suggested that Steve is forced to confront his own homosexual tendencies, but Friedkin leaves this element totally ambiguous. Indeed, Pacino's face during these scenes registers exactly the right amount of steely guardedness and astounded curiosity. His initial, lame excuses used to fend off potential mates ("I'm with somebody," etc.) eventually fade away, but even his use of the accepted lingo registers as a wee bit panicked. It's a great, multileveled performance.

Perhaps the main problem that early critics had is that the murder mystery is disturbingly ambiguous. Steve may catch a killer that fits a certain bill, but not all the clues add up, and it's very clear by the end that no victory has been achieved. Moreover, Friedkin deliberately throws us off track. He starts his movie by showing chopped-up body parts being discovered in the East River, but the club killer never dismembers anyone. Also, the killer and several other characters speak with the same memorable, harsh, murmuring voice (the same actor, James Sutorius, dubbed them all, although most of the movie had to be looped due to the near-continuous chants of protesters). The movie ends with three specific shots -- none of which I'll give away -- suggesting that anyone could be a killer, or gay, or straight, for that matter. That simply looking at someone's face, or the way they walk, reveals nothing. As the complex 1970s antihero gave way to simpler and more straightforward storytelling in the 1980s, these kinds of movies became increasingly opaque for viewers.

Friedkin's overall design on the movie is surprisingly effective, ranging from occasional subliminal imagery to an astonishing soundtrack, full of suggestive, offscreen noises and music (the new transfer has been remastered from its original mono into 5.1 Dolby Digital). When Pacino moves into the specific universe of this subculture, it feels as if he's traversed mountains. His own life with his cuddly girlfriend is miles away. Likewise, he's cut off by the overall ineffectiveness of the police department. We learn that people impersonate cops in order to procure free sex from gay prostitutes, and when the prostitutes show up at headquarters to file a complaint, the response is 'there's nothing we can do.' Hence, no cops can be trusted in this movie. Steve's superior officer, Captain Edelson, is superbly played by Paul Sorvino, whose sad, hangdog face shows a kind of acceptance that all his work will make very little difference. In another scene, Steve meets Edelson in a pool hall with his first nibble of information, which turns out to be totally obvious and completely useless.

All this may imply that Cruising is a dreary, depressing, or even horrifying experience. On the contrary: taken as a character study, it's a gripping yarn full of exciting breakthroughs and dramatic dead ends. (Based on a novel by Gerald Walker, Cruising is one of the few times that Friedkin wrote the screenplay himself.) In one exhilarating scene, Pacino agrees to dance with a male admirer, and they share some "poppers," back then served by sucking on a blue handkerchief. The scene suddenly brightens and Pacino begins dancing with vigorous abandon.

Cruising is not without its laughs as well, especially in one scene at police headquarters where a suspect is being questioned. Movie buffs will want to look carefully for an amazing cast of familiar faces and up-and-comers including Richard Cox, Joe Spinell, Ed O'Neill, James Remar and Powers Boothe. The real-life police officer Sonny Grosso, whose story helped inspire The French Connection, is here too, as a detective. In other words, once we advance to the point that the gay subtext stops being such a big deal, Cruising can and will emerge as one of the great cop movies of its era.

(Note: I saw the movie at a press screening, but it turned out to be a projected DVD rather than a restored film print.)