Al Pacino is ‘Cruising’ on Criterion Channel

In Hollywood’s problematic portrayal of queer life in 20th century cinema, few films are as notorious as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), which drags Al Pacino—and viewers along with him—into the dark underground world of New York gay leather bars and S&M clubs.

Pacino stars as patrolman Steve Burns, recruited to go undercover by the Captain of Detectives (Paul Sorvino) because he fits the profile of victims of a killer stalking gay men. He’s straight and has a girlfriend (Karen Allen) but is offered a chance to make detective if he infiltrates the culture to get information and possibly flush out the killer. He commits himself fully to the assignment, creating a new identity and cruising the most extreme underground sex bars for information.

Friedkin moves between scenes of murder mystery investigation and the perverse spectacle of the leather trade at its most extreme. The club scenes are shot as if in a dark, shadowy dungeon and a walk through the Central Park at night becomes a public meat market of gay hook-ups and anonymous quickies. Steve observes it all with a blank expression that makes his involvement ambiguous: is he fascinated, repulsed, attracted, or indifferent to the spectacle he sees? When he finally reconnects with his girlfriend, the sex is almost primal, as if he’s exorcising pent-up feelings.

Cruising is based on a novel inspired by real-life murders and is infamous for the protests it sparked in the New York gay community upset with the film’s distorted portrait. Made in an era before Will and Grace and strides made by gay rights activists, it was a serious concern. It’s a brutal film and an extreme, distorted portrait of urban gay life. The film pays lip service to the fact this is an extreme fringe of gay culture but there’s not even an attempt to contrast it with the lives of the majority of New York’s queer community.

Seen with hindsight, it’s an interesting (if not necessarily satisfying) film, part sideshow and part art film dive into a subculture, with hints of suppressed homosexual feelings awakened in the hero. Friedkin goes all in with the dark portrait of the city’s sexual underbelly and pushes Pacino to a fierce intensity, but doesn’t seem ready to explore his emotional odyssey. It’s an experience, Serpico in a bondage sideshow with art film photography. A fascinating artefact but ultimately wanting.

It costars Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Ed O’Neill, James Remar, Powers Booth, and Mike Starr.

Rated R

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Cruising [Blu-ray]
Cruising [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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