Cruising (1980)

Cruising (1980)

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

A naive cop (Al Pacino) goes undercover in New York’s gay S&M scene in order to help capture a serial killer.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Al Pacino Films
  • Homosexuality
  • Karen Allen Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • S&M
  • Serial Killers
  • Undercover Cops and Agents
  • William Friedkin Films

This notorious thriller — lambasted upon its release by many gay rights groups and critics — is ultimately more of a voyeuristic mood piece than an effective murder-mystery. While director Friedkin does a good job establishing the racy milieu of underground S&M clubs (his attention to detail is almost that of an anthropologist), his plot falters when it comes to characterization and consistency. We never learn enough about Pacino’s character to understand — or care about — the transformation he undergoes:

… and Karen Allen as his girlfriend (a potential protagonist for audiences to relate to) is wasted in a bit role.

In addition, the killer’s motivations are never satisfactorily explored, and the film’s resolution — when a likable character is inexplicably killed off — is confusing. With that said, Cruising remains must-see viewing simply for its erstwhile notoriety, and for Friedkin’s attempt at depicting one man’s “descent” into an uncomfortably foreign world.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective use of NY’s underground S&M scene as a setting
  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical notoriety.


  • Controversial Film


3 thoughts on “Cruising (1980)

  1. A must: a real cult (tho not camp) classic.

    I vividly recall the film’s release, and how up in arms the gay community was over it. On the DVD commentary, director Friedkin himself recognizes that the film’s timing was unfortunate: this post-Stonewall ‘thriller’ appeared when there was much social misunderstanding about life in the gay community; gay people were ‘coming into their own’ and were disturbed by the possibility that the world-at-large would use ‘Cruising’ to filter their reality; too many films had already portrayed gays as abnormal as a group.

    What the gay community largely failed to realize, however, was that Friedkin was the guy who directed the film version of ‘The Boys in the Band’. Would someone so obviously sensitive to the gay movement consciously set out to undermine its progress? Was there no ‘wiggle room’? A very touchy time overall.

    Friedkin was also known for being a finger-on-the-pulse/action guy. In a way, ‘Cruising’ is ‘The Boys in the Band’ as an action film, as it focuses on a certain element of the underbelly of gay life and exploits its fiery, unpredictable nature.

    As such, it succeeds. I also recall when some of the events in the film were news – when there was a (?) killer loose in the gay community. Which is apparently why the film is so vague re: resolution. Everything gets blurred here – as such a situation would.

    But, overall, the film’s ambiguous element is much of its strength.

    And I happen to think this is one of Pacino’s best performances.

    The film has one major flaw (spoiler):
    At one point, we’re led to believe that a Broadway dancer would, as a result of a spat, repeatedly knife his lover. Mary, please! We’re talking about someone who is, at times, ‘on point’ for a living!

    Favorite line: “Hips or lips?”

    Favorite inexplicable visual: the intimidating, beefy, black “jockstrap detective”.

  2. This earns its 18 but is still less violent and gory than I was expecting. Good, but flawed; it’s never made too clear how far Pacino’s character has been subsumed into the gay lifestyle. Gorgeously shot by James A. Contner with a fine Jack Nitzsche score.

    I think it does make it obvious who the killer is which was a criticism levelled at the film and Pacino’s character does go on a definite journey here … another criticism.

    A fascinating aspect is Friedkin’s choice to have the killer played by a different person each time with actors who played victims changing roles and playing the killer in other murder scenes. It’s also fascinating observing Joe Spinell’s role in the film; he’s a cop but also seen in the S&M club scenes.

    A thoroughly fascinating film that I feel will just get better and better the more times one views it … flaws and all.

    A must for FFs for its controversy and place in gay cinema history.

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