“Al Pacino is cruising for a killer.”
Director/Writer: William Friedkin / Writer: Gerald Walker / Cast: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Richard Cox, Karen Allen, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Jay Acovone, Randy Jurgensen, James Remar, Ed O’Neill, William Russ, Powers Boothe, Gene Davis.
Body Count: 5
Laughter Lines: “C’mere. I wanna show you my night stick.”
How many 80s/90s films dealt with ye olde sexy police woman going undercover as a stripper/hooker/exotic dancer to weed out a serial killer? Tons. Literally, this was the plot to every third steamy late night cable thriller back in the day.
So it says quite a bit about social attitudes that inverting the template, inserting a male cop into a gay environment where he has to blend in – really blend in – resulted in critics mauling the film, protesting from gay rights groups concerned about the depictions in the film, and, to this day, fierce online debates about it all.
Friedkin’s bleak, grimy film takes place in ’79-’80 New York City, where the discovery of dismembered body parts in the Hudson River leads investigating detectives to trace victims to the seedy underground leather scene. Enter Pacino’s Steve Burns, selected by his superior given his physical similarity to several of the victims. Burns agrees (somewhat eagerly) to go undercover and infiltrate the community to try and lure the killer.
His girlfriend (Allen) is kept in the dark and, as Burns goes deeper into the clubs, bars, and general life, he finds himself torn in two directions. The leather-clad, silky voiced killer, meanwhile, continues slaying men in public park cruising grounds and a porno theater, often heard singing a little rhyme in a creepy tone. The cops begin focusing on a suspect who works in a steakhouse that has many of the same type of knife being used, and Burns hangs out with his sweet natured playwright neighbour, Ted.
Friedkin deliberately fucks with us throughout, changing which actor plays the killer more than once in difference scenes to disorientate and confuse – at one point, an actor who played the killer then switches to be the next victim (although all are overdubbed by James Sutorius). Such is the interchangeability of the larger situation, the homogenic aesthetics of the scene, and the ambiguity around the film’s coda.
Cruising is a confronting vehicle, likely especially for heterosexual audiences in 1980, with the added discomfort of watching men casually and intimately touch the ‘straight’ lead. Gay men remain divided on it; at a time then gay rights were gaining a little bit of traction (just prior to the AIDS crisis), protestors saw the film (based on a novel and a series of genuine, unsolved murders) as a step back towards optics they were trying to distance themselves from: Predatory, sex-fuelled, vampire-esque lifestyles of hedonism that, by day, could be the guy at the store, at the gas station, waiting your table…
Around 40 minutes of footage was excised over around fifty submissions to the MPAA which, according to Friedkin, mostly consisted of X-rated antics captured at the clubs. It does feel like something is missing as we speed towards the end, but the is-it-or-isn’t-it note things end on is, it seems, likely intentional and plays into the is-he-or-isn’t-he nature of existing as a gay person in society, especially at that point.
But it is a slasher film? Hmm… like a leather daddy straddles his sub, Cruising can play around with versatility. More than enough is borrowed from stalk n’ slash antics for it to be of interest (oddly, the film it reminded me of most was Maniac, from which Joe Spinell plays a skeezy beat cop here). It’s probably too high-end, too polished, despite the filthy gutter it plays in, to qualify, but …why the hell not? Taste the rainbow.
Decidedly not for all audiences – gay or straight – relievingly non-judgmental about the counter culture it explores, and exquisitely shot. Have fun spotting all the before-they-were-famous faces: Ed O’Neill, Powers Boothe, James Remar, Burr DeBenning.
Blurbs-of-interest: Don Scardino was the lead in He Knows You’re Alone; Joe Spinell was also in The Last Horror Movie; James Remar was in The Surgeon; Gene Davis (the crossdressing informant, DaVinci) played the nudie killer in 10 to Midnight; Burr DeBenning was in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.