Cruising (1980): Friedkin’s Bold, Sleazy Thriller about Gay S&M Subculture, Starring Al Pacino

What on earth motivated the programmers of the Directors Fortnight series of the 2007 Cannes Film Fest to screen William Friedkin’s 1980 scandalous Cruising, a thriller about a serial killer set against New York’s gay S&M club scene?
Our grade: B- (**1/2 out of *****)
Was the event a launching pad for the film’s DVD release in September? Or perhaps wish to let international critics a chance to revisit the picture, which was not a commercial failure but was also not widely seen.

“Cruising” occupies one of the strangest positions in film history. A generation after its initial release, it has turned from a heated political controversy to a film that’s more of a cultural document reflecting its zeitgeist than one that bears genuine artistic merits.  The movie offers a bold, voyeuristic look at one pre-AIDS gay subculture, dominated by promiscuous fetishist sex, heavy drugs, and rock music.

Truth to tell, “Cruising” had never had a chance for fair play with either mainstream film critics or moviegoers. I have seen the film several times, including in Cannes last week, and my initial reaction has not changed. “Cruising” is a well crafted, highly problematic thriller, that couldn’t decide how seriously it wanted to be taken.  As a result, it signals as much sleaziness, voyeurism, and exploitation, as honorable intent to capture an emerging subculture.  “Cruising” belongs to a group of American films whose subtexts are more risque and more significant than their overt texts.

The movie IS significant from a career standpoint, since it may be the last honorable work by William Friedkin, once a Hollywood God (what with the Oscar-winning blockbusters “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” made back-to-back), before his precipitous decline in the l980s, from which he has never recovered.

I happen to be in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, when “Cruising” was shown at the art-revival house Roxy. I went to see it out of curiosity and afterwards I read Mick LaSalle’s piece about the film, which was published in the San Francisco Chronicle. To this day, La Salle’s article is one of the most perceptive ones written about “Cruising,” and the following analysis draws heavily on his piece.

Twenty-seven years after it was produced, “Cruising” still comes across as lurid, sleazy, and crude in the most positive and negative senses of these terms. What’s shocking is the film’s audacity for its times, since it was a mainstream studio movie. Looking back, “Cruising” is the kind of picture that could not have been made prior to 1980–or later.

You can dismiss Cruising as a slasher flick since its deals with a serial killer who frequents S&M sex clubs that were popular in the late 1970s. The murderer follows a pattern: He picks up handsome guys (who all look alike), ties them up and then kills them during sex, either in bed or in public, like Central Park. Boldly shot, the first killing, presented from the likable victim’s point of view, is agonizing to watch.

“Cruising” created a riot and uproar while shooting in New York City. Back then, I was a student at Columbia University and recall vividly the daily reportage about the production, in the gay and straight press. To the best of my knowledge, it’s still the only mainstream film to use the gay S&M underworld as a backdrop, and to depict it as a milieu that’s defined by threat and menace but also endless sexual possibility. Set in the promiscuous late 1970s, the age of sexual liberation (with gay and straight sex clubs), it’s a culture where a man could indulge in–and often fulfill– his wildest erotic fantasies (and nightmares).

In one of his least coherent, least comfortable performances, Al Pacino, then at the height of his career after the success of “The Godfather” movies and the Sidney Lumet’s policiers, plays a straight cop who goes undercover in pursuit of the killer. As LaSalle pointed out, Pacino plays a man on the other side of the looking glass trying to hang on to his hetero identity.

In the book upon which the movie is based, the main interest isn’t in the cop-and-killer saga, but in the hero’s mental state, in his “peculiar” attraction to the gay hardcore scene, which is repellent and shocking, yet alluring enough for him to be a peeping Tom.

In contrast to the gay sex scenes, Pacino’s sex scenes with his girlfriend (played by Karen Allen) are short, dull, and unfulfilling, though it’s telling that after each gay scene, there is a counter-hetero scene (as if to make sure that Pacino’s character is hundred percent hetero).

Midway, the movie reveals the killer’s identity. Tall and thin, he wears biker leather jacket, black boots, and dark glasses. A graduate student at Columbia, he’s writing his thesis on the roots of musical theater. Invading into the killer’s apartment, Pacino finds a shoebox full of unmailed letters by a son to his father, and the film makes the mistake of offering a semi-convincing Freudian psychological explanation to the killer’s deviant identity and aberrant conduct.

Nocturnal scenes of wild, animalistic cruising, heavy-duty sex, and brutal murders are alternated with the daylight world, a nicer milieu of the west Village.  Pacino is seen in coffee shops or walking down the street in with his friendly gay neighbor, Ted (Don Scardino), the only positive gay man in the picture.  Needless to say, the one “normal” gay man soon finds his death brutally, too.

And then comes the eerie finale, which may be the most memorable shot in the whole picture. It’s a chilling close-up of Pacino’s reflection in the mirror, while he’s shaving. You expect cuts and blood, but instead you get a haunted look.  It feels as if the mirror is staring back at him, with a good deal of ambiguity, both sexual and moral. What exactly is he thinking about?

After staring sadly at himself in a mirror, the glass fades away in a dissolve and Pacino’s sorrowful face is superimposed on New York’s tranquil harbor, bringing the film full circle to its beginning, where the hand of a corpse is found in the water.

The first time around, Cruising came out and disappeared rather quickly, though, contrary to popular notion, the movie was not a total flop; it grossed over $19 million at the box-office, a decent amount.

Nonetheless, caught between the emergence of gay activists, who protested the narrow depiction of their lives and the widespread homophobic reaction to the new lifestyle, Cruising eventually began to reappear and be talked about–as an underground video favorite.

And now it’s available for the first time on DVD.

Al Pacino as Steve Burns
Paul Sorvino as Captain Edelson
Karen Allen as Nancy Gates
Richard Cox as Stuart Richards
Don Scardino as Ted Bailey
Joe Spinell as Patrolman DiSimone
Jay Acovone as Skip Lee
Randy Jurgensen as Det. Lefransky
Barton Heyman as Dr. Rifkin
Gene Davis as DaVinci
Arnaldo Santana as Loren Lukas
Larry Atlas as Eric Rossman
Allan Miller as Chief of Detectives
Sonny Grosso as Detective Blasio
Edward O’Neil as Detective Schreiber
Michael Aronin as Detective Davis
James Remar as Gregory
William Russ as Paul Gaines
Mike Starr as Patrolman Desher
Leo Burmester as Water Sport
Henry Judd Baker as Tough Cop
Steve Inwood as Martino
Keith Prentice as Joey
Leland Starnes as Jack Richards
Powers Boothe as Hankie Salesman


Directed by William Friedkin
Produced by Jerry Weintraub
Screenplay by William Friedkin, based on Cruising by Gerald Walker
Music by Jack Nitzsche
Cinematography: James A. Contner
Edited by Bud S. Smith
Production company: CiP-Europaische Treuhand, Lorimar Film Entertainment
Distributed by United Artists
Release date: February 8, 1980
Running time: 102 minutes
Budget: $11 million
Box office: $19.8 million