“Ever been porked? Or had a man smoke your pole?” says Paul Sorvino to Al Pacino early in William Friedkin’s infamous, 1980’s film Cruising. Such an exchange is, in a sense, comical. Yet it also highlights the crassness of Friedkin’s film, not to mention its devil-may-care mentality. Depicting the hunt for a serial killer who is targeting gay men in New York’s underground leather bar scene, Cruising is a film that fails on the issue of cinematic representation. Adding to this is that the film is ineffectual as a whole, proving itself unworkable as a thriller or as a coherent examination of themes like sexuality, identity, power and violence.
In Cruising, Al Pacino plays Steve Burns, a happy-go-lucky scamp (at least initially) who is fresh-faced and eager to prove himself. Steve is an officer in the New York City police department and seems to harbor aspirations to one day become a detective. He lives with his girlfriend Nancy (an insanely young Karen Allen) in a massive, sprawling loft, which today would be affordable only for the blue bloods, not the boys in blue.
Things change and darkness descends, however, when a series of murders rock the city’s gay community. The resulting political pressure prompts Sorvino’s Captain Edelson to recruit Burns for an undercover mission: to cruise the city’s leather bars in an attempt to suss out the killer. Burns finds that this nocturnal odyssey takes him into the city’s seediest corners, inundating him with decadence, hedonism and assless chaps at every turn. The investigation slowly eats away at him, driving the film towards a notable, open-ended conclusion that is cryptic and likely unscrupulous – especially for the time period of its release.
In assessing Cruising, one must (at least to a certain extent) attempt to separate its merits as a piece of art from its sensitivity to the subculture in which it is set. On many fronts this is likely impossible, as the choices made about the former directly affect the later.
Yet try we must. On an aesthetic level, there is much to admire about the movie. It’s cinematography, editing and sound design all scream classic 70’s naturalism. These elements create an atmospheric portrait of New York that is on par with many of the more iconic films from that period. Friedkin’s grasp over his craft is especially evident during the film’s many night scenes, which depict the city as a textured, semi-surreal and multi-layered landscape of cool blue, black and silver hues.
Also similar to many films of the 70s is the abundance of amazing character actors that populate each level of Cruising’s cast. One of the first revealed is Joe Spinell, a ubiquitous presence from this period who appeared in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), Taxi Driver (1976), Sorcerer (1977) and Maniac (1980). Spinell is joined by Sorvino, best known for his major role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, as well as William Russ (Alan from Boy Meets World) and Ed O’Neill, all of which contributing to the film’s authentic New York vibe.
Leading the cast is Pacino, who at the time was still deeply immersed in the type of subtle method acting that made him a household name. This was the era that came before the grandiosity, the bug-eyed fanaticism. This is The Godfather-era Pacino, the pre-“Hoo-ah” and “Say ‘ello to my little friend” Pacino, the Pacino who understood that intensity was not related solely to volume.
The problem is that Cruising doesn’t give the actor much of a role to play. Although it strikes chords similar to his titular character from 1973’s Serpico, Pacino’s Steve Burns is never given a fleshed out personality or complete character arc. Friedkin (who also wrote the film) seems intent on leaving the motivations of his film’s main character largely opaque, making the emotional payoff the story negligible and the stakes virtually non-existent.
It also doesn’t help that the film’s pacing is poorly executed, with aspects of its middle-section feeling laborious and even narratively incoherent. One subplot involving Burns striking up a friendly and potentially romantic rapport with his gay neighbor (played by Don Scardino) feels particularly at fault, dragging the story down. Clocking in at only a little over an hour and a half, Cruising feels way longer than it truly is, and that is rarely if ever a good thing.
Friedkin bizarrely seems more interested in simply ogling over leather bars, which are depicted in Cruising as dens of wet, frenzied and animalistic sexuality. Undoubtedly and grossly exaggerated in certain places, Cruising’s leather bar sequences are important in understanding how artistic choices can’t really be viewed or appreciated in a vacuum, regardless of their efficacy or power.
And make no mistake, the scenes in Cruising that take place in leather bars are powerful. One notable example is when Burns stumbles into a bar where nearly every man is dressed up as a police officer, a rare moment that clearly expresses how power and authority has a relationship to to sexuality and identity Also fascinating is how frequently Friedkin chooses to shoot the leather bars from the first person perspective of Pacino’s character, which certainly provided me with new awareness of the “male gaze” and how innately threatening it can be.
Yet therein lies the problem: It is threatening. Despite the impressive impact of some of these directorial choices, they do not compensate for how Cruising almost overwhelmingly characterizes the gay community as dangerous, as decadent, as uncontrollably sexual. And despite Friedkin’s protestations, where he claimed that Cruising was not supposed to be representative of “mainstream gay culture,” one is hard-pressed to look upon the film as anything aside from irresponsible.