Cruising (1980)

*. Cruising was a controversial movie when it came out both for its subject matter and for the hash it made of its storyline. I don’t think it needed the assistance of either of these problems to stumble as badly as it does, but I’ll say a bit about them anyway.
*. The gay community objected to the movie’s portrayal of homosexuality and I think they had a point, though all of the confusion makes any final assessment of a pro- or anti-gay message problematic. Is the killer really gay, or just conflicted? Is he a killer because he’s conflicted? Then you have to ask the same questions about Steve Burns (Al Pacino). Is he gay? Conflicted? A killer?
*. As far as the leather scenes go, I found most of that stuff just exploitative window dressing anyway. The question I kept asking myself was whether this would still be a passable serial-killer movie if they’d left all that out and played the story straight (for lack of a better word). I think the answer to that question has to be No. Without the leather angle this is a movie that wouldn’t have anything interesting or different about it at all. There’s just nothing else to recommend it.
*. Nothing? With Al Pacino starring and William Friedkin directing? Yes, I said nothing. Pacino is hopelessly miscast (Friedkin had wanted Richard Gere), and can’t do anything with the character of Steve Burns. I’ve always thought of Pacino as an actor with only one gear and he can be very good or very bad mainly depending on the part. In Cruising he is very bad. Apparently his notion of cruising consists of hanging out at leather bars looking morose.
*. But then none of the people in these bars seem to be having a good time, even when they’re having sex. That struck me as the least realistic part of all. For people who are into it, I think S&M is supposed to be fun. Especially if you’re going out to a club.
*. Then there’s William Friedkin. He wasn’t a first choice either. Apparently the studio had originally tried to interest Spielberg (!) in the project. Meanwhile, Brian De Palma wanted to do it but couldn’t get the rights to the novel. So he went off to make Dressed to Kill.
*. No, I don’t know what happened to William Friedkin. The French Connection and The Exorcist, both of which are great movies, were a hell of a start to a career that went nowhere (though I know people who like Sorcerer and rate To Live and Die in L.A. very highly). But I don’t know how anyone could come away from Cruising and think Friedkin was a director of any standing or ability whatsoever. There’s no suspense, or even any sense of style, in a film that cries out for both. The climax, for example, is abrupt, in the dark, and over before you know it. It’s hard not to fall into sexual analogies for one’s level of disappointment.
*. As far as the hash of a story goes, Friedkin himself confesses that he doesn’t know what was going on at the end or what any of it meant. Different actors, for example, are used to play the killer, though I don’t know if this was intentional or had any purpose. In some cases I think such ambiguity plays well, but it’s defeated here by the fact that I really didn’t care if Steve was the killer, or a killer. But then did Friedkin care? I don’t think so.
*. Karen Allen provides a sounding board for Steve’s masculinity crisis. Powers Boothe sells coloured hankies. And Joe Spinell is a dirty cop just before he’d play a serial killer himself in Maniac. That forty years later Maniac, an ultra-low-budget slasher flick shot in 16 mm, stands out as a better movie says something about how big a failure Cruising is.

5 thoughts on “Cruising (1980)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I’m one of those who love To Live and Die in La and Sorcerer, and see them as being of a piece with French Connection and Exorcist. But Cruising seemed to be evidence that a hot topic was enough in itself to fuel interest, and the miscast lead is only part of the problem. The giallo never quite gripped American cinema, and instead seemed to be subsumed into tv whodunnits. Cruising didn’t catch a wave of interest in adult cinema, quite the opposite.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think part of the problem was that Friedkin just wasn’t that interested in the project. Apparently it took a few attempts to get him to sign on to direct.

      I haven’t seen To Live and Die in L.A. in a long, long time. About the only thing I remember is Wang Chung’s theme song (why has that stuck in my head?) and driving against traffic on the freeway. I’ll try and give it another go sometime soon. I mainly recall it as being a decent cops-and-robbers movie but nothing special, but maybe I’ll see something more in it with the benefit of hindsight.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        There’s a decent copy on YouTube, in the UK anyway, and I think it’s worth the effort. Hard-bitten cop show, proves he could still do it. And the Wang Chung score is awesome IMHO!

  2. chandlerswainreviews

    You’ve offered up a most logical insight in pointing out the film’s failure and that is in considering the lack of interest remaining were the movie shorn of it’s leather trappings. I also couldn’t agree more about Pacino, both in miscasting and in career demeanor. I could count the performances I’ve found impressive from him on the fingers of two fingers, probably one of the main reasons I’ve always been left cold by “The Godfather”, but that’s a story for another time.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, with Pacino it seems to be that when he works, he works, and it mostly comes down to the part he’s playing. I thought he was good in The Godfather! But I was just recently making notes on the remake of Insomnia and thinking to myself “this is the worst I’ve seen out of Pacino since . . . Cruising.”


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