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Friedkin Out

Bill Krohn

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  Double, Double

In many ways the last word on Cruising was said the year it was released (1980) in Robin Wood's amazingly clear-eyed Movie essay ‘The Incoherent Text’, which is reprinted in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. In any case, it's not my intention to quarrel with Wood's analysis; rather, I'd like to deepen it by bringing in materials Wood didn't have access to – script drafts, production reports, script supervisor notes and editing notes in the William Friedkin Collection of the Margaret Herrick Library.

Wood argues that the film is progressive for its time on topics like police brutality against gays, and that its form is an important part of what makes it progressive. He links the film's incoherence, which he sees as deliberate on the filmmaker's part, to the critique it is making of patriarchy and its corollaries: homophobia, repression of gays and the warping of gay and straight relationships by relations of domination and inequality. I am less interested in restating Wood's thematic analysis than I am in the one page he devotes to incoherent form – specifically to the detective story side of the plot, which he argues is incoherent both in its progress (‘fractured’) and its conclusions.


1. Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986). p. 63.  

The film suggests then: that there are at least two killers and could be several; that we don't have to feel we know who the killer is, because it could be anyone; and that the violence has to be blamed on the culture, not on the individual. (1)




This is again a traditional thematic interpretation, and a correct one, in my opinion, but it is produced by a narrative that is indeed ‘fractured’ and ‘obscured’ in many ways.

With the film transformed into an object we can replay and examine at our leisure, illuminated by access to the production documents, it is actually impossible to say who committed any of the four murders in the film:

1. The murder of Ted (Don Scardino), the gay next-door neighbor who befriends Steve (Al Pacino) when he goes undercover to catch a Ripper preying on New York's gay community. It is at least suggested that by the end of the film Steve, repressing desires he has discovered in himself, has taken the place of the murderer, who also killed gays because he couldn't face the truth of his desires. This is what happens in Gerald Walker's 1970 novel, and Friedkin leaves us wondering if it has happened in the film, although he gives us an alternative: Ted may have been killed by Gregory (James Remar), his jealous roommate.

2. The murder of Lukas (Arnaldo Santana) in the St. James Hotel at the beginning of the film. As Wood observes, The Killer here is played by a different actor than the one who plays Stuart Richards (Richard Cox), the father-hating homophobe whom Steve nails for all the crimes.


2. Thomas Clagett, William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2003).

3. The murder of Eric in Central Park. We never see The Killer's face in this scene (it is Richard Cox, according to the production reports), and adding to the puzzle is the fact – first reported by Thomas Clagett, (2) who learned it from members of the production team – that Eric is played by the actor who played The Killer at the St. James, Larry Atlas.




4. The murder of Martino (Steve Inwood) in the peepshow. Although a bloody fingerprint links Stuart Richards to this crime, we have no reason, as Wood points out, to trust Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) on this point, because he's under great pressure to catch the killer, and his personal decoy, Steve, has stabbed Richards. Another incoherence revealed by the production reports: although Richard Cox plays The Killer inside the peepshow booth, when we see The Killer in the hall of the peepshow, his face obscured by a cloud of smoke, he is played by Arnaldo Santana, the actor who plays Lukas when he is murdered at the St. James at the beginning of the film!

Stand-ins are used all the time in film, but the abandon with which Friedkin juggled three actors in a role written for one (The Killer in the first three murders is unambiguously identified throughout all drafts of the script as Stuart Richards) recalls a film he almost certainly saw in 1977 because it starred his French Connection (1971) bad guy, Fernando Rey: That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

We know in any case that Friedkin was familiar with Luis Buñuel's work because he accidentally cast Rey in The French Connection thinking he was getting Belle de Jour's Francisco Rabal, whom he subsequently used in Sorcerer (1977). Released in the US at the beginning of 1967, Belle de Jour (which Friedkin more or less remade as a mystery story in Jade [1995]) would have to be one of the recent films whose ‘fractured’ narrative inspired him to say this to Variety in April of 1967: ‘The plotted film is on the way out and is no longer of interest to a serious director … A new theatre audience, I'm told, is under thirty and largely interested in abstract experience … I defy anyone to tell me what Blowup (1966), Giulietta of the Spirits (1965), La guerre est finie (1966) and the Beatles films are about.’ 

But whereas Buñuel has two obviously distinct actresses playing one part in That Obscure Object of Desire, Friedkin interchanges actors playing The Killer – all of whom are supposed to be doppelgangers of one another because The Killer chooses victims who mirror him – in a way that is calculated to induce uncertainty about who is behind the dark glasses at any given time. This only enhances the uncanny effect of the doubling without absolutely calling the reality of events into question before a second viewing.

Maintaining a believable surface is very important to Friedkin's aims as a commercial Hollywood filmmaker, and it explains a drastic change introduced in the editing room. Although Friedkin's scripts for Cruising all follow the pattern set up by Walker of pursuing Steve and Stuart's stories in parallel, and although two more scenes were filmed with Stuart and his neighbor Paul, the first scene in which we see Stuart as a murder suspect is now the scene that was supposed to introduce him early in the film, where he is lifting weights and talking to Paul (William Russ) about his problems with his father, which Friedkin and his editor Bud Smith moved to near the end of the film, after Steve has spotted Stuart's picture in the yearbook. Consequently, we don't have a face to compare to the face of The Killer until after the last of the murders has occurred.

As scripted, we weren't supposed to see The Killer's face during the first murder either, but Friedkin must have felt secure making shots in which Larry Atlas, wearing shades, is visible because even if he had cut to Stuart lifting weights twenty minutes later, as the shooting script dictated, the first sight of Cox's sad-sack face would have come too long after the first murder to do anything but raise the question: Could this be The Killer?

Also keeping the film (on a first viewing) within the parameters of the genre, further developments would have confirmed that Stuart is indeed The Killer, whose voice in all the murder scenes (credited in the end titles as ‘The Voice of Jack’, played by a fourth actor, James Sutorius, who is heard but never seen) turns out to be the voice of Stuart's father when we finally meet him. Moreover, Smith and Friedkin added to the scene between Stuart and his father brief shots (described as ‘subliminal’ in the cutting notes) of Lukas and Eric, The Killer's first victims, at the moment of their deaths, thereby confirming just before the final confrontation with Steve that Stuart is, indeed, the one who committed all the crimes. That is, I believe, how a reasonably astute spectator would experience the film on a first viewing. Only a spectator like Wood, alerted by other ambiguities, would be able to confirm on seeing the film a second time that there appear to have been at least two killers at work.

The End?

Seeing the documents for Cruising also helps us understand the filmmaker's intentions, which puzzled Wood. For example, we can see that a variety of terminal ambiguities were tried and discarded before he hit on the one he used:

1. In the first draft Friedkin borrows an idea from the ending of the novel, where Steve is just one of ten decoys sent out to trap The Killer. Because they all look alike, being mirror images of The Killer, Steve ends up killing a fellow decoy by mistake in the park.  Seeing the other man go for his pocket, Steve stabs him to death, only to discover that his victim's weapon is a small steel cylinder loaded with mace – the only weapon the decoys are supposed to carry. He is then obliged to mutilate his colleague's body to make it look like another crime by The Killer. Friedkin, already looking for a way to undercut Steve's victory in the film, has him find the mace cylinder in the first draft. No longer associated with the decoys, the mace would still suggest in this context that Steve has killed an unarmed man.

2. In his third and fourth (last) drafts Friedkin hit on the idea of having Steve, after killing Stuart in self-defense, say ‘School's out, Stuart’ in the Voice of Jack, suggesting that he has now become The Killer, and perhaps raising for the audience the possibility that Steve was The Killer all along, or at least some of the time – a decoy turned copycat. In the book only the first happens, and it happens unambiguously – we know that Steve killed Ted, the neighbor he has grown close to, in a homosexual panic. The film follows the book in this respect, but leaves the question of Steve's guilt up in the air.

3. This plan was then modified during production, when Friedkin added and filmed a new scene where Steve is picked up in the park by Eric, only to be interrupted when they have found a secluded spot by Puerto Rican gay bashers whom we've seen earlier. Given that Eric is played by the same actor who played The Killer at the St. James, this could be an ironic near-miss where Steve would have nailed the culprit if he hadn't been interrupted. (In the book Steve unsuccessfully cruises Stuart on a night when Stuart isn't carrying his knife.) Or it could mean, when Eric is killed a few scenes later, that Steve killed the man with whom he almost crossed the line (or did cross the line – in the film, we don't see what happened after Eric and Steve walk off into the Ramble). But this solution was reduced to a fleeting hypothesis which the film ultimately rejects when Friedkin eliminated the line ‘School's out, Stuart’ and attributed a flashback to Eric's murder to Stuart during his conversation with Jack.

4. Before those editing room decisions were made, Friedkin pencilled in a detail of the confrontation between Steve and Stuart in the park: ‘Stuart's knife is not the murder knife.’ The script describes Steve finding that knife with the missing tip in Stuart's boot when he breaks into his apartment, and this moment was filmed. Later, in the finished film, when Stuart prepares to go out and confront Steve, he takes a knife from the boot that isn't missing the tip – presumably the intact restaurant knife Edelson gave to Steve, which he has used to replace the evidence he collected. So in the scene of the duel as shot Steve probably wielded the murder knife himself – a detail that would have compounded all the other ambiguities if it were visible, particularly if the shot of him finding the murder knife in Stuart's boot were eliminated in the editing, as it has been in the finished film. However, in the duel as edited, neither knife is clearly seen.

5. After considering all of these possibilities, Friedkin and his editor Bud Smith hit on a simple way to raise questions in the spectator's mind: At some point in December, when they were close to establishing a final cut, they decided to add the same shot we see at the beginning of the film of The Killer (played by Larry Atlas in this shot) entering The Cockpit, the bar where he picks up Lukas to murder him. The pencil notation on the editorial outline is ‘The Killer Returns to The Cockpit’.


3. Nat Segaloff, Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin (William Morrow and Company, 1990).

By inserting this shot (in the rough cut, just before the discovery of Ted's body; then in the final cut, just after it), they no doubt hoped to fascinate the audience and generate return business. In 1974, according to Nat Segaloff’s Friedkin biography: Friedkin told a class at the AFI: ‘If they're talking about what something means in a movie, usually you've got a movie that people will want to see ... Example: the obelisk in 2001. People went around for years ... saying, "What the hell is the obelisk?" And that's why I put the gunshot at the end of The French Connection.’ (3)




At the end of that film Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) pursues Mr. Big (Fernando Rey) into an abandoned building, where he unintentionally kills an FBI agent believing that he is shooting it out with the heroin dealer. Insisting to his partner that Mr. Big, ‘the frog’, was there, he disappears, gun drawn, down a long tunnel with light at the end. We hear a shot just before the screen goes to black. But the last of a series of cards after the screen goes to black tells us that the Frenchman got away. Friedkin told the AFI students that the last image of the empty tunnel with the shot going off (which may have been suggested to him by the next-to-last scene of The Third Man [1949]) has a multiplicity of possible interpretations, like Kubrick's obelisk, it was arrived at in the editing room ‘as a kind of joke’ just before showing the film to studio executives for the first time. The shot of The Killer returning to the Cockpit at the end of Cruising, arrived at after many attempts to suggest an alternative to the solution Captain Edelson has accepted, was inserted in the rough cut at the end of the editing process, presumably in the same spirit.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) actually figures in a scene Friedkin jotted down while writing the screenplay for Cruising: the intellectual friends of Nancy (Karen Allen) sit around discussing the meaning of the film's mysterious ending. Uncomfortable with the discussion, Steve gets the last word: ‘Who knows what anything means?’ The scene didn't make it into the film, but Steve's comment could apply to all the undecidable questions the film leaves for the spectator to crack his teeth on.

Incoherence and Genre

Thomas Clagett, who is less convinced than I am by Wood's idea of the ‘incoherent text’, enumerates the problems it presents:




4. cf. Clagett.


One can see Friedkin's concept of identities melding and blurring. But then he does something that completely destroys any hope of coherence for the audience ... Two different, unrelated murderers speaking in the same voice is absolutely not a viable example of Slavko Vorkapitch's concept of total immersion. (4)






5. cf. Clagett


Not only does the Hotel Killer (or Steve, had he said the ‘school's out’ line in the film) speaking in the voice of Stuart's father violate the rules by which a film character's fixed identity is defined, it also makes no sense for Stuart to remember Lukas' murder once we have noticed that the Hotel Killer was played by a different actor. The scene in the park between Stuart and his father, Clagett says would have been one of the most disturbing and frightening in the film had Friedkin not included subliminal flashbacks to the hotel murder (which [Stuart] Richards did not commit) and then to [Eric] Rossman (Richards' first victim) while Richards spoke with his father. These flashbacks, he says, serve as visuals ... (5)




But Clagett also quotes a Time reviewer who suggests, albeit disdainfully, a possible solution to the puzzle by complaining about ‘the last-minute injection of a demon who seems to have drifted in, half-baked, from The Exorcist (1973)’.

The Exorcist, Friedkin's biggest hit, had already gotten away with the same kind of incoherences, which are resolved there by the perceived rules of the genre: When Father Karas (Jason Miller) dreams of his mother after her death, he sees the medallion dug up in Iraq by Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) falling through the air, as well as the clock that stopped in the office of Father Merrin's superior, but the incoherence is resolved in the audience's mind by the central premise of the film: demonic possession. If a malignant centuries-old spirit can possess a little girl, then Father Karas can dream Father Merrin's memories. (A failed gag reported by Segaloff indicates that Friedkin's playful doubling of actors in a single role also [almost] began in The Exorcist: When Ellen Burstyn opens to the door to admit Father Merrin for the first time, the director had planned to have Groucho Marx standing there in Max von Sydow's costume.)

Clagett himself suggests that the metaphor of infection is operating in Cruising, borrowed, perhaps, from Pasolini's Saló (1975) (‘There is nothing more infectious than evil’), but concludes that ‘while the idea has merit, Friedkin's execution lacks coherence’. However, if we accept a supernatural explanation, discordant touches like Stuart remembering the Hotel Killer's murder, Stuart's father's voice coming out of the Hotel Killer's mouth, or ‘The Killer returning to the Cockpit’ after Stuart is laid up in the hospital all make sense: All the murders were the result of demonic possession, and at the end a new potential murderer (Steve or someone else) has been possessed by the same demon, whose latest victim is Ted Bailey.

Made two years after Halloween (1978) and the same year as Friday the 13th (1980), Cruising probably looked like a high-class slasher film in 1980, but it also already contained in embryo the key elements of a mainstream genre that would only take shape in the '80s, the serial killer film: the serial killer and the investigator who is somehow implicated in the crimes he is investigating, as well as the idea of possession, which would become literal in films and TV series episodes where Jack the Ripper (the ultimate reference for ‘The Voice of Jack’) possesses someone and begins his bloody work anew in the present day or even in the distant future. This supernaturalising of the serial killer genre culminated in Fallen, a 1998 thriller in which Denzel Washington battles an ancient demon who jumps from human host to human host to commit his crimes.


6. cf. my ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Zombie’ in the catalogue of the Torino Film Festival’s 2001 George Romero retrospective.  

The idea did not originate with Friedkin. Earlier tales of mad killers (The Haunted Strangler [1958], Wanted for Murder [1946]) posited possession by a figure – often paternal – from the immediate past. What is new in Cruising is the fracturing of the narrative by which Friedkin gets subversive meanings out of horror conventions. George Romero also made the genre politically subversive in his films of this period, but whereas Romero deploys an uncontrolled polysemy within a single genre [6]), Friedkin controls the audience's experience by reducing the horror genre to the status of a ghostly hypothesis (‘half-baked’, in the words of Time), generated by a cop-film whose surface is fractured by incoherences. Ultimately, only a supernatural interpretation, which no one ever credits or even mentions in the film, can resolve those contradictions by pinning the blame on ‘Jack’, a protean entity whose only visible incarnation is the figure of Stuart's dead father.


7. cf. Wood p. 67.  

Even though it is only a hypothesis, or perhaps because of that, the metaphor of demonic possession – the horror genre as an hypothesis that is never stated or confirmed – becomes the support of an allegorical interpretation. Wood was the first critic to propose that all The Killers, however many there are, speak with the Voice of Jack because each is possessed by the Law of the Father, ‘that demands the rigid structuring of the subject and the repression of all conflicting or superfluous realities’ (7): Stuart's father, Steve's father (alluded to in one unexplained line of dialogue when Steve and Nancy are in bed) and Steve's surrogate father, Captain Edelson, who refuses to pull him off the undercover assignment when Steve tells him that he's losing it. (‘You know what you have to do’, 'Jack' says to Stuart several scenes later.)




All I have added to Wood's reading is a fuller account of how Friedkin handles the classical genre – a staple of B westerns and gangster films – where a disguised or discredited lawman goes undercover in a world of outlaws. (The first bar we glimpse in the film is called Badlands.) Deliberate incoherences undermine the genre even as the film apparently plays by the rules, only to end with an enigma like Kubrick's obelisk: The Killer returning to the Cockpit. Obliged to think back or even to resee the film looking for an answer, the spectator receives a second genre-coded interpretation that delivers a subversive message about the source of all the violence in the film, which is the patriarchal structure of society. This idea was reinforced when Friedkin decided during production not to build the set for the scene where Stuart talks to Jack, who was supposed to have a lavish office in an abandoned building. Instead, their park-bench conversation takes place on the Common in front of Grant’s Tomb.

Cruising never really becomes a horror film, any more than The French Connection becomes an anti-cop film, even after that ambiguous off-screen gunshot at the end, signifying perhaps that Popeye has murdered his prey, whose body will simply disappear; or perhaps that he is firing in the air so that his partner will be able to testify that ‘the frog’ was really there when Popeye is brought up on charges of killing his second FBI agent. Rather, the presence of the horror genre on the level of pure connotation (Eric, for example, looks like the Frankenstein monster) ‘saves the appearances’ by suggestion, making the film potentially intelligible to audiences accustomed to more conventional fare, at the same time that it delivers a subversive message. The ad image that sold The French Connection, after all, showed a plain-clothes cop shooting an unarmed criminal in the back.

Subversive in form and in meaning, Cruising aspires nonetheless to be a commercial film. Its commercial failure and the cult following that has since grown up around it would suggest that it was ahead of its time, or more accurately, behind it: like Heaven’s Gate (1980) and They All Laughed (1981), it opened in the first year of Reagan’s presidency, when Hollywood was also turning back the clock after a decade of progress. American cultural revolutions happen almost as fast as those in China, and a film like Cruising, which might have garnered praise or at least close critical attention a few years before, was an offensive anomaly by the time it opened.

The Friedkin Method

If genre is one of the adhesives that hold a Friedkin film together, the universal solvent that is always threatening to pull it apart is montage. Trained as a documentarian, Friedkin is a montage director not only in his action sequences, but also when it comes to larger structures. Every shot, scene and sequence in a Friedkin film is a module which can potentially be displaced, eliminated, added or even duplicated (like the ‘Killer returns to the Cockpit’ shot) as part of the process by which the film is being created, and this is also true at the script stage, where it is easiest to see the process at work.

As a result, a Friedkin film is a collage rather than the execution of a sketch or plan whose unity gives a priori unity to the work, as would be the case with Fritz Lang, to name a classical director Friedkin admires and to some degree emulates. Individual Friedkin films may conform more or less to this description depending on the circumstances of their production, but in the freest ones – and Cruising is the freest film Friedkin ever made – the creation of meaning through montage is foregrounded as it is in the work of only a few American directors, most notably Joe Dante, who pays tribute to Cruising in the peepshow murder at the beginning of The Howling (1981).

In the first through third drafts of the Cruising script, for example, the murder of Eric in the park comes immediately after the murder of Lukas at the St. James, but in the shooting script Friedkin decided to put Eric's murder where it is in the film, after Steve has already started his decoy activities. Then, three weeks into filming, Friedkin wrote a new scene in which Steve is picked up by Eric, only to be interrupted when they have retired to the bushes by Puerto Rican kids who attack them with sticks, until a patrol cop drives them off. The scene was filmed, and in the editing Friedkin and Smith decided to fade to black when Steve goes off with Eric, leaving it ambiguous what happens afterward.

None of the scenes was rewritten, but by displacing one sequence, adding another and then eliminating part of it in the editing room the director opened up the possibility that Steve killed Eric. Moreover, by the time he got around to writing a new scene for Eric, Friedkin had already used Larry Atlas, who plays Eric, to play The Killer in the hotel room, so that when Steve is picked up by Eric it's possible that he is with The Killer. Because the morgue scene that originally followed Eric's murder now follows Lukas's murder, the semen the coroner analyses for Edelson is now semen taken from Lukas's body – an improvement in terms of realism over the first arrangement, where it came from the body of Eric, who doesn't have intercourse with his murderer.

In the book Stuart doesn't have sex with his victims, and in interviews done under the pressure of massive gay protests, Friedkin stressed that the murderer in the film is a gay-hating heterosexual  – a description which could apply to the Park Murderer and the Peepshow Murderer, but not to the Hotel Murderer. Friedkin's statements that he himself wasn't sure whether there is more than one Killer in the film are more accurate: one or possibly two homophobes (Stuart and possibly Steve, depending on how we read Steve) and one or possibly two homosexuals: the Hotel Murderer, who could have been Eric or the figure we see entering The Cockpit at the end, and Ted Bailey's murderer, who could be Steve or Ted's roommate.

Like Dante's gremlins, cloned by montage from a relatively small number of fully-articulated animatronic puppets in the 1984 film of that name, there seems to be no end to Friedkin's Killers, whose proliferation is also a sign of the endless fecundity of montage. But whereas the gremlins have no referent in reality, The Killers in Cruising initially had two. Besides Gerald Walker's novel, Friedkin was inspired by a series of unsolved murders of gay men whose bodies were found dismembered in trash bags over a period of seventeen years in New York City, and by the recollections of Randy Jurgensen, a New York City detective who had already been a consultant on The French Connection and The Brink's Job (1978), playing a small part in the former. During the ‘60s Jurgensen actually did earn his detective's badge by going undercover as a gay man in the West Village to catch two men who were shaking down gays by impersonating policemen.

It was probably the Bag Murders, where the victims were patrons of New York's leather bars, that inspired Friedkin to transpose Walker's story, originally set in the mainstream gay community, to that milieu, while Jurgensen's story inspired the characters of DeSimone and Desher (Joe Spinnell and Mike Starr), two cops in a patrol car who are shaking down gay hustlers for money and sexual favors in the film. (Jurgensen also claims to have witnessed an interrogation like the one conducted by a naked black cop wearing a cowboy hat and boots – apparently a form of psychological intimidation – which is by far the most bizarre scene in the film.) The three strands of inspiration are set down one after another at the beginning of Cruising, more like footnotes than like streams feeding into a single river: first, a dismembered arm found in the East River, then a scene where the rogue cops sexually harass a couple of leather-clad hustlers, and then, by means of a rack focus, the first shot of The Killer entering The Cockpit, leading to the murder at the Hotel St. James. Subsequently, the film does nothing to unify its three sources, leaving that impossible task to the hapless Captain Edelson.

Applying Occam's razor, Edelson theorises that The Killer is also the Bag Murderer, which is what one would expect in a well-behaved cop-thriller, but Friedkin's only gestures toward supporting this idea – a scene where another trash bag full of severed limbs is found and a statement by Steve that he found trash bags in Stuart's apartment – didn't even make it into the shooting script. At the end, when Edelson offers Stuart an eight-year sentence if he confesses to the Bag Murders, he makes the offer under protest, but the scene where he is ordered to do so by a superior and utters a Nixonian ‘It's wrong’ was eliminated on the editing table. This makes Edelson the sole proprietor of the cinematic equivalent of the Warren Commission's ‘lone assassin’ theory, so that when he shambles into the camera and out of the movie, devastated by the news that his decoy lived down the hall from the latest victim, he also represents the cop-thriller genre, whose weapon of choice is the one sharp instrument that decidedly has no place in Cruising, despite the assurance with which Steve wields it in the last scene.

DeSimone and Desher are yet another addition to the contingent of doppelgangers that populate the film and put the skids to Edelson's Cartesian worldview. Introduced as woman-hating homophobes, they quickly call into question standardised notions of gay and straight by demanding sexual services from the hustlers they are harassing, who wear women's wigs and high heels but are otherwise dressed like bikers. Then in two later scenes DeSimone makes unscripted appearances cruising Steve in a bar and in the park, just before Steve is picked up by Eric, adding DeSimone to the list of possible Killers in the film. Clearly DeSimone and Dresher have no place in Edelson's worldview, because when DaVinci (Gene Davis), one of the harassed hustlers, complains to the Captain about the actions of the two patrolmen, he indignantly throws him out of his office – a later scene where he calls the two cops on the carpet was cut out after the second draft. Consequently, when Edelson recognises DeSimone, the responding officer at the scene of Ted Bailey's murder, as the rogue cop DaVinci described to him (an exchange pencilled in as the scene was being shot), it is yet another blow to his belief that the evil he is fighting can be localised, tracked down and eliminated.

Stakeout on Gay Street

‘Are you a police officer?’ the bouncer (David Winnie Hayes) at The Cockpit asks Steve when he shows up wearing his habitual decoy uniform. It's Precinct Night, and Steve has ‘the wrong attitude’ – not for the first time. He has already been berated by The Light Man (Leo Burmester) for displaying a yellow hanky symbolising water sports when he ‘just likes to watch’. 

i. As originally scripted, Steve, after assiduously learning the symbolism from the proprietor of Hot Hankies (Powers Boothe), is wearing a dark blue hanky when he is approached by The Light Man – a cautious approximation of the symbol for ‘looking for a blowjob’ (light blue). But judging from The Light Man's anger, dark blue can also mean ‘water sports’.

ii. When Friedkin shot the scene, he equipped Pacino with a yellow hanky and inserted it before the scene in Hot Hankies, motivating Steve to visit the shop to learn how to avoid further mistakes. This order, which just makes Steve a fish out of water, was preserved in the editing all the way to the last rough cut.

iii. The scene with The Light Man was then moved in the final edit to immediately after Hot Hankies, when Steve should really know better, raising serious questions about his competence as a decoy, or his possible fondness for water sports.

In this micro-sequence the humor is at Steve's expense, but as originally conceived the mix-up about the hankies confounded both the timid decoy trying to fit in while avoiding a risky fashion statement and the jaded habitué, each of whom is thrown by the rampant polysemy of the milieu.

All the humor in the finished film is at the expense of the police. The carnivalesque sequence of Precinct Night, where the clients of The Cockpit are dressed like cops, introduces a series of scenes where the cops, sporting the epicene men's wear of the Seventies (except for frumpy Edelson), accessorised with an occasional pair of handcuffs, look gay. This subtle reversal of roles encompasses two converging plot-sequences: one sequence where the police are pursuing Steve's inaccurate hunch that Skip Lee (Joe Acovone), who cruises him after he has been kicked out of The Cockpit, is The Killer, and another sequence where they are trying to solve the Peepshow Murder. The two strands converge when a tip from DaVinci sends two detectives to eat a steak at The Iron Horse, where Skip waits on tables – judging by the brief montage of patrons cutting into steaks, a kind of heterosexual equivalent of the leather bars where the theme is ‘meat’. The steak knife they make off with, which is probably given out in several hundred New York restaurants, is a perfect match to the broken knife-tip the Peepshow Killer left in his victim's body.

This discovery gives rise to the film's funniest sequence: two Keystone cops in an unmarked car trying to hear what's going on in a hotel room fifteen feet away through the sputters on a defective bug (Steve is begging Skip, who doesn't care much for bondage, to tie him up), followed by ten Keystone cops thundering up the stairs and breaking in on a trussed-up Steve, who whispers to Detective Schreiber (a young Ed O'Neill, sporting the name of Freud's famous paranoid), ‘What are you doing here?’ In the nightmarish interrogation scene that follows, police headquarters seems like yet another men's club that should be called Naked Black Cowboys. ‘Who is that guy?’ Skip screams after the mystery cop slaps him, and a hand holding a steak knife drops into frame in front of him. ‘Ever see this knife, Skip?’

Skip's interrogation ends with Detective Lefransky (the real Randy Jurgensen again) ordering him to drop his pants and produce a sperm sample, after which Schreiber promises to perform the medieval-sounding ‘floating ball test’. Cut to Edelson learning that the fingerprint from the peepshow isn't as good a match to the suspect as the knife blade. ‘Listen boss,’ says Lefransky, unfazed by the news. ‘Let me have this guy – I'm telling you I can make him give it up!’ ‘You got the wrong guy,’ says the bleary-eyed Chief of Detectives (Allan Miller), who was dragged out of bed to witness this.

Dialogue was written and filmed where we learn that Skip is being kept in custody for his own protection and that he tried to kill himself by battering his head on the bars of his cell. A remorseful Steve was going to visit him after catching Stuart, giving Skip a chance to tell him to go to hell, but this wasn't even filmed, while other scenes that might have appeased the wrath of the protesters were filmed but cut. (One of them was the scene where the Chief of Detectives orders a reluctant Edelson to close the books on the Bag Murders by pinning them on Stuart. It took place in a men's room.) Instead Friedkin shows us that Skip isn't The Killer the first moment we see him, with one radiant close-up of him looking like a Pasolini angel after he spots Steve in The Cockpit.

Apart from that the director trusts to his infallible instinct for the comedy of police work to make his point. Near the end of filming he wrote a new scene for DeSimone and Desher, just before they get the call about the murder of Ted Bailey. They're playing poker in the squad car, and DeSimone suggests they up the stakes: ‘Loser gets three whacks on the ass with a nightstick.’ When he loses, DeSimone insists on paying his debt of honor, and when his partner demurs he pulls his gun on him. That's when the call comes about another murder on Gay Street. The scene was shot and eliminated after much hesitation. It may yet turn up in the extended cut Friedkin hopes to do some day of Cruising.

Steve and Nancy

In classical cinema cause and effect rule, to such an extent that in a Fritz Lang film each shot is the effect of the previous shot and the cause of the next. These structures, which define what Gilles Deleuze calls the movement-image, are loosened in the time-image, which begins with the neorealists and is radicalised by modernist masters like Resnais, Antonioni and Buñuel, whose influence on Friedkin has already been mentioned.

Because Cruising takes Friedkin's modular approach to film structure to its farthest extreme, the film straddles these categories in a peculiar way. No shot or scene is necessarily linked to any other, but one of the axes along which Friedkin manipulates his modular elements is cause and effect, which is still one of the main connections that can be established by a cut. As we saw with the micro-sequence built around the symbolic hankies, these manipulations can transform characters, those supposedly stable and circumscribed essences which Cruising suggests are highly malleable – not so much because we see them undergoing spectacular transformations, but because Friedkin and his editor treat them as structures composed in time and space out of modules which can be transformed by the same editorial operations that fracture the narrative: displacement, addition, subtraction and duplication.

On the simplest level this is true of the extras in the cruising scenes, who are themselves identifiable modules to be arranged in tableaux by camera movement and the editor's shears. They are less like film extras than like the ‘extras’ in a painting, because each is every bit as much a character as Steve, who is simply a structure built of more modules than they are. Their constant milling motion is an image of the film itself as a modular construct.

Thomas Clagett observes that Cruising is full of entrances and exits, which he links to the theatricality of the bar scenes, but on a formal level doors are symbols of montage, as in the films of Lang, where a door opening often effects the transition from one shot to the next. In Cruising this symbolism is subjected to Alice in Wonderland transformations: DaVinci leaves Edelson's office, and in the next scene Steve enters through the same door, with nothing but a shot of Edelson's chess game (which otherwise serves no purpose) to keep them from bumping into each other. The Killer exits the Peepshow, pulling the sliding door closed behind him, and Steve enters his apartment after a shot that holds on the closed door for a couple of seconds. Scenes of Steve cruising the streets and the bars at the beginning of his assignment are condensed in montage sequences where he repeatedly approaches the entrance to a bar wearing one outfit and enters the bar in the reverse shot wearing something completely different, like one of Buster Keaton's time-lapse magic tricks. These sly variations on Lang's style symbolise the transformational operations of montage in Cruising, operations which underly its metaphysics of fluctuating identities with unsecured borders, just as the shot-reverse shot underlies Hitchcock's metaphysics of transference, or the pitiless succession of cause and effect embodies Lang's metaphysics of destiny.

In the early drafts of the script the scenes between Steve and his girlfriend Nancy, a character who doesn't exist in the book, spell out a classical causality: Steve tells Nancy that he has a new assignment that he can't tell her about, and when she tries to get it out of him he tells her that there are things she doesn't know about him – like the fact that he likes to collect stones at the beach. She laughs. (In the film Friedkin ends the scene before the joke.) After Skip tries to pick him up and he ‘chokes’, either from fear of being killed or of becoming gay, Nancy is surprised to see him turn up looking beat after a long night, telling her not to let him ‘lose her’. Then when he walks in the door of his apartment after the Peepshow Murder and slumps on his couch, the sounds of the neighbors arguing drive him out and goes to see her again. They end up in bed, where she worries that his assignment might change him, and he asks if she wants him to quit. Seeing him in this scene with Nancy immediately after the Peepshow-Apartment module, it's hard to imagine that he has just killed someone a couple of hours before – the door gag functions instead as a metaphor, telling us that he could change into the Other, not that he has.

Later her suggestion that they break up after his attempt at catching the bad guy has failed ludicrously follows the old Hollywood schema of the double downer: a professional setback followed by a romantic one – things are really looking bad for our hero. Then to top it off, in a scene Friedkin added to the third draft, she confronts him in the street with the accusation that he's gay, and he can't deny it without risking his cover. After that, understandably, he goes off his rocker a bit and attacks Gregory for calling him ‘a pussy’. But finally he gets his man and gets his woman back, and it looks like a beautiful day – doesn't it? The note of doubt sounded at the end has very little to refer to apart from the horrors Steve has witnessed, which will hopefully be erased from his mind like that beard he's shaving off ...

It would be cumbersome to trace all the changes that resulted in the Steve-Nancy relationship we see in the film, but a few can be highlighted.  The biggest change came from a production improvisation: instead of a dialogue scene in bed where Nancy tells Steve he's changing and he asks her if she wants him to quit, Friedkin had them improvise a sex scene, beginning with Steve on top and Nancy, who is visibly wincing at the pain his thrusts are causing, then switching to Nancy going down (off-screen) on Steve, who is grimacing.

The two shots, unmistakably signifying Steve's inability to achieve orgasm with his girlfriend, were inserted in the rough cut after the scene of Steve returning home, which was disconnected in this cut from the Peepshow Murder and connected instead to the scene of Steve popping reds in an attempt to dance wildly (cf. Peter Sellers in The Party [1968]) with the guy in the purple shirt. In that earlier version of the film, the scene where he wearily returns to his apartment signifies his exhaustion after all that dancing; and after he flees the sounds of the argument to Nancy's, his sexual difficulties may have been brought on by exhaustion and amyl nitrate abuse. But the close-up of his face as Nancy fellates him would almost certainly have had as soundtrack the disco music from the dance scene, which he is imagining with eyes closed in an effort to come.

In the finished film the sexual material was split up and used to create two modules: one in which Steve's strenuous efforts with Nancy are followed by him asking her not to let him lose her the next morning, and one in which he hears the Dionysian soundtrack of Precinct Night while she's fellating him. The first new module (painful sex in the missionary position) follows the murder of Eric, so that when Friedkin cuts from Eric's face as the knife goes in, to Nancy's face as Steve pounds her, the rhyme raises a suspicion the spectator will only be relieved of (in a first, naive viewing of the film) by the ‘Jack’ scene, where a flashback ties Stuart to the murder of Eric. The second module (distracted fellation) now follows Skip trying to pick Steve up after he has been barred from Precinct Night, which is therefore linked as cause and effect to the shot of Steve, eyes closed, with the sounds of Precinct Night playing in his head …

As for the Peepshow-Apartment module, it has been put back together, but now when Steve exits his apartment, closing the door behind him, we cut to Edelson opening another door and walking into an office where he gets raked over the coals by the Chief of Detectives – a scene which bounced all over the place until it landed here, where it primarily serves to keep Steve from running to Nancy's arms, as he had done in the previous version of the scene where he comes home tired after we have just seen the Peepshow murder. Then when Edelson, discouraged by the dressing-down, returns to his office and learns that The Killer left a fingerprint at the peepshow, we cut back to the scene where Steve dances with the guy in the purple shirt, which has now become a prelude to fingering Skip. Whatever Steve was doing before he came home, his reaction to the quarreling neighbors is not to run to Nancy, but to get back to the job – either because he's desperate to close the case, like his superior whose trajectory has briefly been substituted for his, or because he needs to find a patsy he can frame for the murder he just committed at the peepshow. Another place where Steve’s actions were disconnected from Nancy is the attack on Gregory, which is no longer motivated by a setback in Steve’s relationship with her, leaving it open that it may have to do with his relationship with Ted.

Steve and Stuart

This is not the kind of causality that operates in a classical film, where a character whose essence doesn't change responds to a series of external stimuli, confronts the Other and triumphs in the end. The causality that operates in Cruising is magical: the magic of contagion as embodied in the myths and rituals of primitive man. Curses, possession, manna, eating the dead enemy's power, and all the variations on the theme of contagious magic we see in primitive superstitions are working on Steve in the finished film: he becomes impotent with his girlfriend (a typical effect of the ‘evil eye’), when he is with her he is invaded by forbidden sounds and sights (like the succubi of old), and he may even have been possessed by an evil spirit that makes him repeat the crimes he has been sent to solve. The only way for him to become himself again is to confront the real Killer and win back his manhood and his honour. 

It is at this point that Stuart finally enters the film, although early drafts introduced him at the beginning and established systematic parallels between him and Steve, as Gerald Walker does in his novel. Again and again, in every version of the script, the similarities between hunter and prey are verbally stressed, climaxing in the knife duel in the park where ‘The moment is suspended. A ritual-like mirror of STEVE and STUART knife to knife’. But nothing of this conception – based on the second principle of ancient magic, the metaphorical relations of imitative magic – appears in the way scenes with Steve and Stuart are filmed, apart from the residual similarities of dressing alike for the showdown and both having tough fathers. When Steve wounds Stuart, for example, it’s shown in a classical shot-reverse shot knife duel, where the script dictated a two-shot. At this point the script comments: ‘[Steve] has made his choice, he's done his job, and he's a civilised member of society’, which is a more accurate description of what Friedkin filmed than all the script's plans for a searing climactic vision of two doppelgängers going mano a mano.

That's because Stuart, unlike the multitude of shade-wearing Killers in the film, is not a double, but a scapegoat – the sacrificial animal who is slain in a ritual to carry away an infection that is menacing the individual or the tribe. That's how Edelson treats him, when he tries to plea bargain a deal to get all the Bag Murders off the books, and that's how Steve treats him. It is important to bear in mind that a scapegoat is not necessarily innocent – in ancient saturnalian rituals, a prisoner who has already been condemned for one crime was dressed up as a mock king and killed for the crimes of the city, particularly the crimes of the real king. There is no better place for a filmmaker to learn about these matters than the films of Fritz Lang. As Jean-Louis Comolli and François Géré point out in their analysis of Hangman Also Die (1943), the traitor Czaka, who is killed and framed by the Czech underground as the assassin of the Nazi leader Heydrich, is guilty of many crimes, but not the crime for which he is executed – an incoherence which makes it impossible for the spectator to fully partake emotionally in this secular scapegoat ritual, however much he may approve of its aims.

Similarly, although Stuart on paper (in every version of the script) is the source of all the violence in Cruising, in the film his evil is divvied up among four actors and disseminated into the acts of a small army of doubles, possibly including Steve, who is at any rate part of the spreading pattern of contagion, so that the spectator, whose traditional certainties are troubled by the fractured surface of the film, can only conclude after some reflection that Stuart ended up taking the rap because Edelson and Steve needed to break the case. In truth, the yearbook clue is as tenuous as the knife clue – it merely focuses Steve's attention on Stuart, whom he remembers from one of the bars, and enables him to provoke a murder attempt. The fact that Stuart's fingerprint is on the bloody quarter found at the peepshow is good enough to win Steve his gold badge and clear the books of all the murders Edelson has been taxed with solving.

We know the surprise that the film reserves for Edelson; all that remains is to describe the one it reserves for Steve. As previously noted, Friedkin's third draft contains a scene where Nancy surprises Steve in decoy garb on the street near his apartment and announces that a mutual friend who followed him has reported that he is frequenting gay bars. Obliged to maintain his cover, Steve admits to being gay, and Nancy says it doesn't matter – she still loves him and wants to help him, if only to come to terms with his true nature so that he doesn't have to hide it from her and his friends. This scene was dropped in the next draft, but at some point Friedkin jotted in his notebook that Nancy might cut her hair and dress like a boy to try to win Steve back. Instead, when it came time to shoot the last scene, he improvised a substitute for that idea: from off-screen he directed Karen Allen to pick up Steve's discarded leather-boy accoutrements – hat, shades, jacket – and put them on.

As scripted, the last shot was going to be Steve looking at himself in the mirror while he finishes shaving and the mirror begins to cloud over, but a sound editor, with Friedkin's approval, added the sound of steps and creaking leather in the off-space, suggesting that Steve is looking past his own image at the image of Nancy transformed into a leather-girl, complete with boots. A metaphorical cloud was originally going to threaten to obscure Steve's identity as Nancy said, off-screen, ‘It looks like a beautiful day. Doesn't it?’ but instead he is seeing, in the same mirror, unclouded and reflecting his face restored to normal, a woman dressed like The Killer.

We know the equation Lacanian psychoanalysis draws between the mirror and the mother's body as two surfaces in which the child sees reflected his own physical and psychic unit. The image Steve is seeing in his shaving mirror, however, is of a bisexual body. It could be his own image as a bisexual man, or as The Killer, or it could be an image signifying that his relationship with Nancy has been irrevocably contaminated with the S&M games he has been playing: Mom has turned into a slightly scary surrogate for Dad. (The subliminal shots of sodomy Friedkin and Smith inserted into the Hotel and Peepshow stabbing sequences were reportedly taken from a heterosexual porn film. Those buttocks could be of either sex, so that the image being flashed is of S&M-tinged phallic domination, applicable to heterosexuality as well.) Or finally, bearing in mind that costumes like the one we see Nancy trying on now sell like hotcakes in erotic emporia all over the world, the image of Steve is seeing in the off-space – like the image we have seen of Karen Allen trying on the hat and jacket, which look cute on her because they're a couple of sizes too big – may be a very sexy one, and a playful unseen symbol of film's power to create by putting things together in a new way.


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© Bill Krohn 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author.
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