Cruising (1980)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #552


Number of Views: One
Release Date: February 8, 1980
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller/Slasher
Country of Origin: United States, West Germany
Box Office: $19,798,718
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: William Friedkin
Producer: Jerry Weintraub
Screenplay: William Friedkin
Based on a novel by Gerald Walker
Special Effects: Robert Norin
Cinematography: James A. Contner
Score: Jack Nitzsche
Editing: Bud S. Smith
Studios: CiP – Europaische Treuhand AG, Lorimar Film Entertainment
Distributors: Lorimar Productions, United Artists, Warner Bros.
Stars: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Jay Acovone, Randy Jurgensen, Barton Heyman, Gene Davis, Arnaldo Santana, Larry Atlas, Allan Miller, Sonny Grosso, Ed O’Neill, Michael Aronin, James Remar

Cruising 1980 poster 3

Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Jean-Marc Dompierre “El Bimbo”

[2] John Hiatt “Spy Boy”

[3] Mutiny “Lump”


I will never forget the first time I stepped inside The Blue Oyster. This gentlemen only establishment provided one of many running jokes flogged to death by the way over-zealous Police Academy series and introduced me to a world I had never been aware of up until that point. Packed from floor to rafters with testosterone and tight leather, it appeared the last place on earth I would wish to frequent as there was one thing conspicuously absent for a hot-blooded adolescent with a fixation on the female form. Women were strictly off-limits and any hook-ups involved ‘tache on tush shenanigans as opposed to girl meets boy, boy meats girl as I had been led to believe was the norm.


I was never homophobic and considered myself as far more open-minded than most but never before had I been introduced to a knocking shop quite like this and this wide-eyed child found it all a little disconcerting if truth be known. Of course, Police Academy played strictly for laughs and achieved those with ease, at the first time of asking at least. However, I was now fully aware that grown men have all manner of unusual ways to get their kicks and not all of them involve deep-sea fishing and Superbowl play-offs.



When William Friedkin’s Cruising arrived on the scene in 1980, it did so in rather a low-key manner to say the very least. However, its troubled production had been anything but understated. New York gay rights activists had been up in arms over the manner in which it depicted their minority and it was a wonder it ever made it to the screen at all. Clocking in at 102 minutes, almost forty more were excised from the final cut in order to appease the MPAA and achieve an R-rating. Indeed, the whole exercise left Friedkin so exasperated that he suffered a heart attack soon afterwards as a result of the constant headaches shooting this beast presented. Never one to shirk a challenge, Cruising was perhaps a stretch too far even for him.


Al Pacino supplied another headache for the director as he took to his lead role as undercover cop Steve Burns with far less enthusiasm than had become customary. In addition to being bothered by the negative hype that surrounded the project from the get-go, the full-blooded Italian’s ego was at loggerheads with what he was being asked to portray and this is evident in his uncharacteristically muted performance. The ordinarily bankable rising star appeared disinterested and borderline embarrassed by playing Burns and this didn’t help the film talk around its many detractors. Nevertheless, Cruising proved that there is no such thing as bad press and went on to amass almost $20m in box-office receipts during its brief theatrical run out.

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So what was all the fuss about anyhoots? Well, Cruising was considered by many to offer a homophobic political message and it was feared that its release would lead to an outbreak in hate crimes, as a result of its standpoint. Delving into S&M subculture and doing so with a frankness seldom seen at the time, it was seen as presenting the scene as seedy and unsavory which, in turn, left gay men feeling misrepresented and in direct threat of suffering a backlash. Based on a 1970 novel of the same name by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, its title was a double entendre, with “cruising” depicting both police officers on patrol and also an increasingly popular sexual pastime within gay circles.


This scene in question provides the backdrop for what is essentially a slasher film, with Officer Burns (Pacino) finding himself behind enemy lines as he attempts to track down his target. Frequenting local bars with names such as Eagle’s Nest, the Ramrod, and the Cock Pit, this bright-eyed and bushy-tailed heterosexual man is drawn deeper into the darker side of New York nightlife and this invariably takes its toll on his relationship with girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen) who is unaware of his moonlighting exploits as he is not at liberty to divulge his need-to-know assignment to anyone whatsoever. Indeed, his sole confident is Capt. Edelson (Paul Sorvino) who promises that bringing the killer to justice will earn him the foot up the ladder that he so desperately needs and a commendation for his troubles.


Cruising 1980 Karen Allen Al Pacino pic 1

Burns rents an apartment in the heart of West Village, keeps his head down, and takes to the streets in a black wife beater and constrictive leather pants in order to sell his authenticity as a young gay man in pursuit of action. When not cruising, he returns home to Nancy and engages in some decidedly rough and tumble coitus, seemingly in order to reinstate his alpha gene. However, for as much as he appears at odds with what is being asked of him in the call of duty, there is a hint of the asexual about Burns that leaves us unsure as to his sexual preference. Alas, Pacino’s stunted performance is never quite ambiguous enough to blur the lines sufficiently but the fact remains that we’re somewhat left in the dark as to his preference.


What is really intriguing here is Friedkin’s approach to the brutalities themselves. Each assailant then becomes the victim for the next kill and this throws a fairly hefty cat amongst the pigeons as we are never quite sure who is performing these vicious acts or what their motivation is. I may be well off-base here but, with the eighties AIDS epidemic looming large, the murders feel like a metaphor for the dangers of promiscuous sex and the manner in which it spreads amongst those not taking heed of its stark warning. There is little rhyme or reason to these attacks and even the intentions of our good cop become far less than cut and dried.


Cruising keeps us in the dark as it moves towards an open-ended conclusion that many deemed as unsatisfactory. Personally, I applaud Friedkin’s decision to leave us with food for thought and not wrap things up tidily as is so often the case with works such as this. By the time our case is closed, we are left none the wiser about Burns and unsure as to whether the killer is still at large. While the forty minutes of lost footage may have shed more light on our protagonist and his stimulation, it seems fitting that it remains hazy right up to the closing shot.


There can be no argument that Cruising is not Friedkin’s finest achievement in filmmaking and, with so much of his end product ending up on the cutting room floor, we will never know how it could have turned out had he been allowed to go about his business without interference. Having said that, what we are left with is a tense, provocative and deeply affecting piece of cinema that leaves as many questions and answers. I, for one, will never quibble over the additional leg work. But I’m still not stepping a solitary foot in The Blue Oyster, catchy theme music or no catchy theme music.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Whilst most of the violence is hinted at as opposed to shown, the acts themselves pull absolutely no punches and are never less than uncomfortable to witness. As for skin, well there’s a plethora of black leather and little of it covers buttocks so, if your pickle is tickled by the S&M scene, then the Cock Pit may well become your new favorite hang-out.

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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