When a serial killer stalking gay leather bars on the west side of Manhattan claims another victim, the head of the NYPD’s major case squad – Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) – recruits a young cadet named Steve Burns (Al Pacino) to go undercover. Chosen due to his physical resemblance to the victims, Burns seems to know little if anything about gay lifestyles, but accepts the job because he feels it’s the fastest way to a gold shield.
Keeping his assignment secret from his girlfriend (Karen Allen), Burns is moved to the West Village under the name “John Forbes”. He befriends his neighbor, an aspiring playwright named Ted (Don Scardino) who’s having problems with his roommate. Ted isn’t part of the “cruising” culture – men looking for anonymous sex with other men – but Burns is committed to his assignment and becomes a fixture in the leather scene.
The murders continue, apparently at the hands of a different killer each time. The first suspect Burns settles on is employed at a steak restaurant, but after a bizarre and violent interrogation, Edelson realizes they’ve got the wrong man. Burns shifts his attention to a music student at Columbia (Richard Cox) with daddy issues. The cop tries to draw the killer out into the open, but finds his work interfering with his personal life.
Cruising was a 1970 novel by Gerald Walker, an editor for New York Times Magazine. The gritty story dealt with a series of crimes against gay men in New York City, as told from the point of view of a killer, a police detective, and a young cop. Producer Phil D’Antoni optioned the film rights. His first choice to direct was William Friedkin, who D’Antoni had worked with on The French Connection and had just completed The Exorcist.
Friedkin read the book and turned it down. D’Antoni approached Steven Spielberg next. Spielberg was working on his first feature film – The Sugarland Express – and briefly considered the project before passing on it too. One director who wanted in was Brian DePalma, who made an unsuccessful bid to acquire the property, even adapting a screenplay. Some of the material in DePalma’s unproduced script ended up being recycled by the director in Dressed To Kill.
Unable to set the project up, D’Antoni let his option lapse and producer Jerry Weintraub picked up the rights. Weintraub went back to William Friedkin with the property. Friedkin still wasn’t interested, not in the book. What interested him were articles he’d read in the Village Voice about body parts being pulled out of the East River. Men were being killed in the vicinity of the underground leather bars on the west side of Manhattan. Friedkin felt that a murder mystery set against that backdrop would be interesting.
Friedkin wrote a script, based mostly on NYPD detective Randy Jurgensen, who had been sent into the leather bars undercover because he resembled the murder victims. Friedkin visited three clubs – the Mine Shaft, the Anvil, the Ramrod – for several months to explore the scene. He won the cooperation of the leather community by planning to shoot in the real clubs with their real patrons, not professional extras.
When filming commenced in the West Village in July 1979, activists who weren’t so enamored with Hollywood’s depiction of the gay community descended on the shoot by the hundreds. Whistles and air horns became such a problem that the film ended up spending a month in ADR to rerecord much of the dialogue. Some protestors reflected light from rooftops to disrupt the lighting setups.
After months of free publicity, the film opened in February 1980 to strong box office. That lasted one week. Critics overwhelmingly panned Cruising, and once audiences got a look at it, the film completely vanished from public view. It didn’t even appear on VHS until 1996. The film was finally released on DVD in September 2007 and screened publicly in several cities, with Friedkin on hand to spur a reevaluation of the lost film.
Cruising may be the most reckless movie ever attempted by a major director, jumping further than Natural Born Killers or Showgirls and landing with an even louder crash. Not only does Friedkin conceive and execute almost every scene with such awful taste, but the film also manages to portray the gay community as a breeding ground for sin of nearly biblical proportions.
The script is so poorly developed that while it captures details of the leather scene and a police investigation, we’re never given a reason to care about either. The most serious problem with the film is that it generates no sympathy whatsoever for its victims. The club scenes are so repugnant, we’re actually put in a position of rooting for the killers. The human dimension that the story needed feels hacked off with a meat cleaver.
Friedkin’s decision to cast non-actors as club goers or cops makes the movie feel more amateurish than gritty. Al Pacino – adrift at this stage in his film career, no longer a young man, not yet a wise one – looks completely lost. His character is never really the focus; it’s the freak show around him that is. If Cruising has any value, it’s as a social document of a particular scene at a particular moment in history. As a movie, it’s one of the worst ever made.
Brian Webster at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “Was it insensitive of the filmmakers to make this film when it stood to represent the gay subculture to mainstream America? Yes, it was. Is it a great film? No, it’s not. But it’s an interesting one and a fascinating relic of sexual politics circa 1980.”
“It’s a visually stunning movie that gets bogged down in not enough character development coupled with purposefully ambiguous open ended questions with no resolve. It feels like a movie that was hacked up to get released, and the DVD does not supply any additional material to rectify any of these issues,” writes Brett Cullum at DVD Verdict.
Matt Cale at Ruthless Reviews writes, “Seriously, what the fuck is up with William Friedkin’s Cruising? That it’s homophobic is beyond dispute, but more than that, it’s greatest crime is against the very craft of filmmaking. It’s like the anti-movie; lurid and strange enough to warrant a complete viewing, but so disjointed and incomprehensible that it just about flies off the screen.”
“A New York City detective in search of a killer is about to disappear into the night.” View the 1980 theatrical trailer for Cruising.