First Time Watch: Cruising (1980)


By Christian DiMartino

William Freidkin’s Cruising received three Razzie nominations when it was released in 1980, for Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay. Keep in mind, these are the same blokes who gave Stanley Kubrick a Razzie nomination for The Shining. Razzie voters thrive on nominating the biggest names imaginable. The nominations for The Shining clearly aren’t justified. Cruising is a little more justified, but here is a film that isn’t as bad as it is incomplete.

Freidkin was at the peak of his powers when he made this film. It came off the heights of films like The Boys in the Band, The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer. Yet you can be the greatest filmmaker in the world, and sometimes even you can’t win the fight against studio interference, which, if I had to guess, was where Cruising sort of went wrong.

The film is set in New York city, and captures much of what was going on in terms of the New York gay leather bar nightclub scene. As the film opens, a man takes another man back to his apartment, and one of them ends up murdering the other. Turns out, there is a serial killer who is murdering homosexual men. The police devise a plan to have one of their detectives go undercover to this gay S&M night scene and try to narrow down who this killer may be.

Said detective is Steve Burns (Al Pacino). The misstep of Cruising is that there are a lot of interesting routes that Freidkin could’ve gone with this character, and for whatever reason doesn’t. When being hired, a chief (Paul Sorvino) bluntly asks him if he’s ever been with men. Burns, we soon realize, has a girlfriend (Karen Allen), but when asked this question, denies it in a manner of nervousness. Is he caught off guard by the question, or is there another side to him? Why was Burns specifically asked to do this? As Burns gets deeper and deeper into the investigation, we see that it is really troubling to him and his relationship. Again though, why? Is there something deeper within him that he, and Freidkin, are neglecting to reveal? We see Burns tied up at one point in the film, as if he was into it… or maybe he was just doing it for the investigation. The film poses these questions… but they just sort of remain questions.

The gay community threw quite the ruckus upon this film’s release. The reason being that the film depicts gay culture in an erotic BDSM manner, which means that violence is included, and that the film is trying to say that the violence being condoned to these men goes without saying. If that makes sense. I get where they were coming from, but honestly, my problem with the depiction of  homosexuals in this film is that everything here feels really nasty and sleezy. Shoot, this was before the AIDS hysteria, maybe it was. Yet there is no middle ground. There might be one gay character here who comes across as a normal person; everyone else is into the kink. It’s weird too, because some eleven years prior Freidkin made The Boys in the Band, a film that should be considered groundbreaking for its progress and depiction of the gay community at the time. Whereas with this film, it feels like a step backwards.

This didn’t bother me quite as much though because Freidkin’s film is pretty well made and entertaining, anchored by another pretty strong Pacino performance. Freidkin apparently wanted Richard Gere for the role, which would’ve worked too, but never count out Pacino. The problem with Cruising though is that, by the end, it does sort of lack an identity. What, exactly, was this film trying to get across? There isn’t enough depth for the Pacino character, which really would’ve ultimately brought a stronger connection to the film.

Which leads to the final point. While this is not a terrible one- it does have its merits- it also ultimately feels like an incomplete one. Why? Because supposedly 40 minutes were cut out of the final cut. My guess is, Freidkin’s original cut went much deeper, and much more sexual. In what ways, we may never know. This was 1980 though, so they probably had no interest in the sexual depictions Freidkin was going for. The film is still pretty brave, for its time, but also it should have gone deeper, and maybe it did before the studio got its paws on it. It’s not fair to judge the film on what it could’ve been, though. We just have to judge the film for what it finally is, and what it is is… okay.

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