As if one needed more evidence that the sexual revolution was over, both Cruising and American Gigolo were released on the same day not one month into the eighties. Yes, on February 8, 1980, William Friedkin’s insistently grotesque gay S&M thriller slithered while Paul Schrader’s desperately stylish, hetero but homoerotic murder mystery sauntered into theaters.
Classically puritanical Hollywood long had a history of equating the pursuit of sexual gratification with death and violence, but after 1977’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar punished Diane Keaton’s protagonist for her promiscuity with graphic murder, what had been subliminal was now easily readable on the surface. Thanks to Hollywood’s fairly recently lax ratings system, in which nudity, sex, and buckets of blood were viable with an R rating, viewers could now have the pleasure of seeing explicitly unpleasurable films that, in their castigating attitudes toward eroticism, were anything but fun.
Of course, to point out the dubious sexual politics underlying these films is not to reject them outright; movies—especially studio movies, with all those fingers in pies—are more than the sum of their strange parts. William Friedkin’s sweaty, lurid tale of a cop (Al Pacino) going undercover as a gay man to infiltrate the leather community to catch a killer who’s been slaughtering other gay men was reviled upon its release, yet has now grown in many critics’ estimation. The retrospective regard isn’t all that surprising, both for the way auteurism (more overbearing in critical circles now than it was then) attempts to recoup every film by an acknowledged master as somehow worthy, and for how the film is ensconced in an insular, bygone community that viewers can look upon with prurient, safely distant fascination.
As a post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS document, Cruising is indeed quite a trip. Friedkin’s camera (which one could call fearless, though in this case that’s just another way of claiming the things that it’s capturing are genuinely dangerous) plummets into the dimly lit S&M bars of the meat-packing district with disrespectful abandon, picking up on the odd popper-sniffing, nipple-squeezing, or public whipping as it snakes around their rooms. While his take is not as insistently apocalyptic as Gaspar Noé’s view of gay bar Rectum in Irreversible (2002!), it’s clear that Friedkin directs these environs as though he has entered into some vision of irredeemable hell. In the most shocking bit left in the film following its allegedly drastic cuts, we see a man grease up a hairy forearm with Crisco before, it is implied, he slides it up the ass of a ready and willing partner strung up in a sling, while other patrons watch with randy glee. The sexual extremism—the masochism and mayhem—is clearly catnip for prestige gore-hound Friedkin, who directs the film not wholly without eroticism but with a distinct outsider’s point of view. This is narratively justified since the detached camera eye would match that of its undercover cop’s perspective, but it feels downright anthropological, particularly since we now know that many of these men were unwittingly dancing on the edge of a volcano.
Friedkin delights not only in the different-colored-hankie codes, the cinematic appeal of a face encased in a leather gimp mask, conversations about water sports, or the odd electronic light-up belt, he also practically exuberates in the violence inflicted upon the men. In the opening scene, Friedkin seems to sneer along with the killer—whom we only see in an extreme close-up on his mouth—as his knife penetrates a hogtied man’s bare back over and over, blood dripping down his shoulders as he screams into his pillow. A later scene—in which a peep-show murder sends sprays of blood all over quick-cut images of gay pornography—cements the film’s take on homo desire. However, the most dubious aspect of the film to protestors of the time, such as The Celluloid Closet’s Vito Russo, was its unsubtle implication that the protagonist’s extended masquerade in the community was either turning him into an unrepentant leather queen and/or bringing out his latent sadist. Cue many scenes of Pacino staring torturedly into mirrors.
Richard Gere was reportedly intrigued by the idea of starring in Cruising, an interest that I’m sure horrified handlers who were trying to quell the gay rumors that had already surfaced in the burgeoning movie stud’s career. Instead, Gere got to flaunt his physique in a safely straight context when Paul Schrader cast him as his American Gigolo. A film that’s long been considered more iconic than particularly good, it’s a slick, fashionably beige murder mystery that’s Cruising’s aesthetic opposite in almost every way: it’s brightly lit where the former was murky and demonic, a Los Angeles daydream rather than a New York nightmare, an aphrodisiac instead of an atrocity. This doesn’t mean it celebrates sex, however. Friedkin may be a sadist, but Schrader is a masochist. As evidenced by his earlier script for Taxi Driver and his later Mishima, Schrader might have fit right into Cruising’s mise-en-scène full of self-flagellators.
Gere’s Julian is a male escort strictly for the ladies. Much sought-after, he spends lavishly on things like a Mercedes-Benz (shot with pornographic affection in the opening credits as Julian drives it down the California coast), state-of-the-art stereo equipment, and Armani suits. And he can seduce a woman with a simple line: “I know what you’re thinking . . . you want to be with me.” Gere’s beseeching puppy-dog eyes and slightly feminine bedroom whisper were never again so well exploited, possibly because the actor unwisely steered clear of these types of objectifying roles in the future. The sexual pleasurability and gratifying chic of the film’s finely tuned atmosphere in its early scenes soon dissipates, however, when Julian gets fingered for the killing of a financier’s wife with whom he had been engaging in rough sex at the behest of her abusive husband. As he tries to exonerate himself, everything about his sensually driven way of life begins to crumble: his clothes get shabbier, his concentration falters, and he even has to destroy his beloved sports car once he realizes that evidence has been planted in it to frame him.
Claiming Bresson’s Pickpocket as a major influence, Schrader’s intentions are more high-minded than Friedkin’s, yet American Gigolo’s kinship to that austere, Dostoyevskian tale of crime and punishment also reveals it as essentially a morality tale. This was one of what Schrader would call his “lonely man” films, all of which center on melancholic antiheroes—drifters and outsiders who toggle between anxiety and narcissism. Often, Schrader seems to palpably identify with them, yet Julian has always struck me as a creation particularly distanced from Schrader; his character is predicated upon such an essential superficiality and shallow consumerism that he seems worlds away from Schrader’s Calvinist austerity. The film aligns itself with an outsider’s point of view, but the way in which it judges its protagonist for his physical pursuits feels very Hollywood.
Synthesizing the bloodstained nastiness of Cruising and the stylized eroticism of American Gigolo, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill was also, amazingly enough, released in 1980. Beset by as much picketing as Crusing, De Palma’s thriller was taken to task for both its perceived misogyny and homophobia. Such a response is unsurprising for a film about a sexually frustrated middle-aged housewife brutally killed, in graphic detail, by a pre-op transsexual.
But De Palma’s ironic vision is not only an intentionally exaggerated fantasy—it’s a film that takes fantasy as its very subject. [Here’s a spoiler warning for those who haven’t seen the film, as the following information is not made totally clear until the film’s ending.] A radical remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (Gus Van Sant, your attempts were doubly superfluous!), Dressed to Kill exists at the intersection of two sexual fantasies: both Angie Dickinson’s Kate Miller and Michael Caine’s Dr. Elliott/Bobbi are in search of sexual thrills, if in a way unwittingly. Surprisingly to herself, Kate impulsively pursues a handsome man through the labyrinth of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (or, in De Palma’s stunningly choreographed masterpiece of a scene, is he pursuing her?), ending in her getting laid in the back of a cab and in his dank bachelor pad. Meanwhile, Dr. Eliott, Kate’s psychiatrist, is following Kate, and the attraction he feels toward her has triggered his female alter ego: bewigged, trench-coated Bobbi only emerges when Dr. Elliott gets an erection. In this cruelly elaborate crisscross of sexual impulses, both Kate and Bobbi have their orgasms, though Bobbi’s, unfortunately for Kate, comes at the end of a straight razor blade.
From the beginning, this is a film in extremis, with Dickinson and her Penthouse-model body double putting themselves front and center in an explicit shower scene (the unrated European version, commonly available now, features more full-frontal close-ups). The essential repugnance of Dressed to Kill, which revels in grungy 1980 New York’s subways and steam-pipes, obscures the playfulness of its director’s approach. There’s nothing unknowing about its sexual ideologies, a fact that makes the film a commentary, maybe even a corrective, to others that punish their characters for their pleasure. De Palma’s oft-critiqued cinematic sadism cannot be recouped solely by virtue of its self-reflexivity (Body Double, for all of its smarts, still rankles). But Dressed to Kill doesn’t chastise its characters for their sexual fantasies; rather it unapologetically lays bare the Hollywood mechanisms that keep those fantasies strictly in the realm of the horrific.
Michael Koresky is the staff writer of the Criterion Collection, as well as the co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. His writings have appeared in Film Comment, Cinema Scope, indieWIRE, Moving Image Source, and The Village Voice