I twice saw William Friedkin‘s Cruising, a loose, ironed-out adaptation of Gerald Walker’s crime thriller — once at an early press screening, later with ticket buyers. Both times my reaction was “reasonably well-handled and exotically interesting from time to time (I liked the nocturnal Central Park scene between Al Pacino and Richard Cox), but who was Pacino’s character deep down, and what was the thing with Cox’s disapproving father because the voices aren’t the same?”

Something was missing. It never felt solid. More of an odd detour flick than anything else. And I didn’t get the final scene at all (Karen Allen trying on leather gear, tugboat chug-chugging up the Hudson River).

But this morning I thought to myself, “Okay, it’s been 39 years and re-watching it will only set me back $2.99…maybe I’ll have another look.”

“If ever there were a filmmaker ill-suited to adapt Gerald Walker‘s fine 1970 novel Cruising, William Friedkin would most certainly poll near the top of the list. Here is a director who displayed in the excellent, hard-driving action pictures The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. a bona fide talent for bravura action sequences and propulsive narrative drive.

“Those films possessed very little in the way of emotional complexity — each one centered itself around a fearless law-enforcement official hell-bent on busting a notorious criminal, no matter the questionable illegality of their actions in doing so — and that was okay, because audiences were so entertained they didn’t care that the purported thin line separating cop from criminal wasn’t dutifully explored.

“Friedkin’s crude but effective technique showed that he was probably best when he didn’t think, but just did — did, that is, what just came natural to him during his creative bursts of single-minded filmmaking fervor.

“So when he squared off against the challenging task of both writing and directing the adaptation of Cruising, he might as well have been trying to make forward progress by moving a wall. Walker’s novel was an unsettling, disturbing psychological thriller that dealt with a series of gruesome murders plaguing the Manhattan area: promiscuous homosexuals being butchered and mutilated by an unknown assailant. The police enlist ten officers who resemble the physical make of the victims to go undercover as homosexuals to act as decoys, with the hope of one of them attracting the killer.

“The one officer the story centers on is a racist, anti-Semitic, severe homophobe who begins to frustratingly question his own sexuality in the process. In essence, he turns out to be a doppelganger of the killer, who’s a racist and homophobe as well, but also a functioning but coarse heterosexual who kills gays to metaphysically kill the gay man he fears is lurking inside him.” — from Jack Sommersby’s efilmcritic review, posted on 1.26.15.

Wiki boilerplate: “Raymond Murray, editor of Images in the Dark (an encyclopedia of gay and lesbian films), writes that “the film proves to be an entertaining and (for those born too late to enjoy the sexual excesses of pre-AIDS gay life) fascinating if ridiculous glimpse into gay life I —albeit Hollywood’s version of gay life.” He goes on to say “the film is now part of queer history and a testament to how a frightened Hollywood treated a disenfranchised minority.”

Friedkin: “Cruising came out around a time that gay liberation had made enormous strides among the general public. I simply used the background of the S&M world to do a murder mystery; it was based on a real case. But the timing of it was difficult because of what had been happening to gay people.

“Of course, it was not really set in a gay world; it was the S&M world. But many critics who wrote for gay publications or the underground press felt that the film was not the best foot forward as far as gay liberation was concerned, and they were right. Now it’s being reevaluated as a film. It could be found wanting as a film, but it no longer has to undergo the stigma of being an anti-gay screed, which it never was.”

“In a 2006 interview, professor Camille Paglia stated: ‘I loved Cruising — while everyone else was furiously condemning it. It had an underground decadence that wasn’t that different from The Story of O or other European high porn of the 1960s.”