What was Exorcist-director William Friedkin doing in a hardcore gay bar, in the middle of the night, dressed only in a jockstrap, socks and shoes?
Let’s start at the beginning.
In 1977, Friedkin was one of the most successful film directors of the decade. 1971’s The French Connection earned him a Best Director Oscar, and he was nominated for the same award for 1973’s The Exorcist. 1977’s Sorcerer, a remake of 1953’s The Wages Of Fear, firmly established him as an exciting renegade director who didn’t play by the rules, and who switched genres for each film.
Looking for his next project, Friedkin originally turned down a film adaptation of the novel Cruising by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, first published in 1970. Telling the story of a New York City cop working undercover to find a serial killer in the gay S&M clubs of Greenwich Village, Friedkin found it outdated and difficult to connect to. He believed the gay scene had changed tenfold since the book’s release, and was now far edgier and more complex.
Friedkin then started to see news reports about a string of unsolved murders around the S&M clubs in the West Side of New York. Over the next two years, plastic bags containing body parts were found floating in the Hudson River.
In 1979, Friedkin read a newspaper headline claiming that the murderer had been caught. Next to the article was a photograph of the suspect, a man he recognised. Paul Bateson, a 39-year old former radiology technician, was ultimately found guilty of murdering journalist Addison Verrill, a regular at the Mineshaft, a popular leather bar. Bateson was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and although he boasted about being responsible for the ‘bag murders’, he was never officially charged for those killings.
Friedkin had recognised Bateson from a scene during the filming of The Exorcist in 1972. In an attempt to explain her daughter’s strange behaviour, Chris MacNeil agrees for Regan to undergo an invasive medical procedure called a cerebral angiography. The scene is extremely disturbing, and just as unsettling as the film’s later horror scenes. The murder suspect, Paul Bateson, had been an extra in this scene, acting in his capacity as a radiology technician. Friedkin remembered him for wearing an earring and a studded bracelet, both of which was rare to see at the time, particulary on a medical professional.
After meeting with Bateson while he was on trial, Friedkin changed his mind about adapting Cruising, thinking that an updated version loosely influenced by the ‘bag murders’ would be an interesting proposition. He originally cast Richard Gere as the undercover cop, but reneged on this – much to his regret – when Al Pacino read the script and asked to play the part.
By that point, Friedkin already had a history of pushing filming to the limits, to attain the ultimate in authenticity. In The French Connection he had filmed the film’s iconic car/train chase for real, without blocking the streets off or notifying the authorities. In The Exorcist, he had fired guns with blanks to unnerve actor Jason Miller, and pushed for special effects to feel as real as possible, leading to Linda Blair and Ellyn Burstyn suffering from back injuries after being yanked around violently in harnesses. For Cruising, Friedkin, still pushing for authenticity, wanted to film the bar scenes in the Mineshaft, the gay S&M club where Bateson met his victim(s).
The Mineshaft and other gay bars were owned by Matty ‘The Horse’ Ianello, a member of the Genovese crime family. Friedkin approached Ianello, asked permission to film there, and in turn Ianello put him in touch with the bar’s manager, Wally Wallace.
After Friedkin outlined his plan to film inside the bar, and use the bar’s regulars as extras, Wallace smiled. ‘Well, you’ll never get actors to simulate what our members do,’ he replied.
That weekend, Friedkin attended the club to scout the location, accompanied by a retired Police detective. ‘Wally and his enforcers welcomed us at the door,’ Friedkin writes in his liner notes to Waxwork’s new reissue of the soundtrack. ‘But we had to check our clothes, like all the other members, and strip down to jockstraps, shoes and socks.’
‘We were the two ugliest guys in the room and nobody hit on us. Participation in any of the activities was by choice. We hung around for a couple of hours, drifting and watching. Even knowing what to expect, we left in disbelief. Don’t take this as judgemental – I was in my early 40s – but we had never seen anything like this. We went back several times before the start of filming and we got to know the regulars. Few had any problems appearing in the film and the sex scenes were all real. Pacino was there for most of it.’
It definitely makes for a strange film and not the obvious choice for a filmmaker with two mainstream hits under his name. Pacino plays the role relatively understated, exactly at the halfway point between his earlier, softer presence and the later, gruff-voiced Pacino which he would start to perfect in Brian De Palma’s Scarface a few years later in 1983.
In film class at University, our lecturer played us a very odd clip from the film. Pacino sits in a room being interviewed by the Police, who are unaware that he is working undercover. Out of the blue, a black man wearing only a jockstrap and a cowboy hat walks into the room, slaps Pacino and exits. The short scene serves no narrative purpose and has stuck with me all these years for its utter randomness. I had thought that the film might have another scene, either an earlier scene feeding it, or a later scene explaining it, but no. When I eventually saw the whole film, it’s just as baffling as watching the scene in isolation. How marvellous.
I recently tracked down Interior. Leather Bar., James Franco and Travis Matthew’s 2013 documentary in which they attempt to film the 40 minutes of gay sex scenes that were cut, and eventually lost, from Cruising. In the hands of a comic actor like Franco, the project is quite difficult to take seriously, and while they are successful in enlisting actors and filming such scenes, the resulting scenes don’t match the sleazy aesthetic of Friedkin’s 1980 film.
The original Cruising soundtrack released in 1980 featured ten songs that appear in the film by Willy DeVille, The Cripples, The Germs, John Hiatt, Madelynn Von Ritz and Rough Trade. Waxwork’s recent 3 x LP reissue expands the soundtrack significantly, featuring a further eighteen songs. The label worked closely with William Friedkin, Sony, and Universal Pictures to locate and unearth the original masters that include the original Jack Nitzsche score sessions, the full recording sessions by the Germs, and all music recorded for the film.
There’s lots to like on this collection – the rock and roll sleaze of Willy DeVille, the post-disco new wave of Rough Trade and the hypnotic bass jazz of Barre Phillips and Ralph Towner. Probably most important, given their lack of available material, is the unearthing of five Germs songs recorded (but not used) for the film.
Hit: It’s So Easy – Willy DeVille
Hidden Gem: Shakedown – Rough Trade