A serial killer brutally slays and dismembers several gay men in San Francisco's S&M and leather districts. The young police officer Steve Burns, a "beat" officer still wet behind the ears, is recruited by Captain Edelson of the NYPD Homicide Unit to go undercover onto the streets as decoy for the murderer. The victims in these killings are all homosexual men known to frequent "Leather," S&M (Sadism and Masochism), and B&D (Bondage and Dominance) clubs so Burns, in "deep cover," must mascarade as gay in order to attract the killer. He fits the victims' profiles: dark hair, dark complexion, dark eyes. Working almost completely isolated from his department, he has to learn and practice the complex rules and signals of this little society. While barely seeing his girlfriend Nancy anymore, the work starts changing him. Internet Movie Database
Gerald Walker (novel)
Cast Al Pacino .... Steve Burns Paul Sorvino .... Capt. Edelson Karen Allen .... Nancy Gates Richard Cox .... Stuart Richards Don Scardino .... Ted Bailey Joe Spinell .... Patrolman DiSimone Jay Acovone .... Skip Lea Randy Jurgensen .... Det. Lefronskyk Barton Heyman .... Dr. Rifkin Gene Davis .... DaVinci Arnaldo Santana .... Loren Lukas Larry Atlas .... Eric Rossman Allan Miller .... Chief of Detectives Sonny Grosso .... Det. Blaisia Ed O'Neill .... Det. Schreiber (as Edward O'Neil) (more)
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This was Pacino's most controversial film. There were protests during the making and release of it. It was criticized for being homophobic. However, here are some more positive points of view on it after some time has passed.
Pacino has said the finished product was nothing like the script he signed on for.
Cruising Presskit info on the real life murders it was based on:
"Cruising," a Lorimar Presentation of a Jerry Weintraub Production written for the screen and directed by William Friedkin, is a murder mystery based on a series of brutal killings of homosexuals which took place in New York City from 1962 to 1979. The film, released by United Artists, a Transamerica Company, stars Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino and Karen Allen and was produced by Jerry Weintraub.
William Friedkin's original screenplay, based upon Gerald Walker's 1970 novel Cruising is patterned after actual crimes. Characters and events have been drawn from the files of the Homicide Division of the New York City Police Department, the Medical Examiner of the City of New York, the District Attorney's office, and from the documented experiences of undercover police assigned to track down the killers.
The backgrounds for the actual- slayings- and for-.'the film are the S&M heavy-leather bars and sex clubs clustered along the waterfront of the West Village and the Central Park cruising area known as the Rambles.
Characterized by intense and often violent sexuality, this is a world that exists far from the mainstream of g4y life, experienced by only a few homosexuals and by almost none of the straight community.
Veteran New York City police officers Randy Jurgensen and Sonny Grosso, who served as technical advisers on "The French Connection," collaborated with Friedkin again to assure the authenticity of dialogue, locations and events.
Several homicide cases, occurring over the course of seventeen years, serve as models for the action in "Cruising."
From 1973-1979, a series of unsolved "Bag Murders" took place. Dismembered limbs arid torsos -- some of them mutilated and wrapped in black plastic bags -- washed ashore near the World Trade Center and on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River. I Physical evidence such as tattoos and remnants of unusual clothing, corroborated by testimony, indicated that at least four of the bodies were those of homosexuals who had frequented the waterfront sex clubs. However, not all of the Bag Murders were ever officially classified as homicides. Since the cause of death and the exact identity of the victims could not be determined, some of these cases are referred to in police files as CUPPIs: Circumstances Undetermined Pending Police Investigation.
Another series of unsolved killings -- 11crimes of passion" in which the victims were mutilated or stabbed scores of times occurred during the seventeen-year period. Some o f the victims were well-known., Interviews with friends and relatives as well as sexual paraphernalia found at the scenes led police to conclude that the victims were homosexual.
In the early 19601s, the District Attorney began receiving complaints that gays were being harassed by two men, one black and one white, who were representing themselves as police officers. Nicknamed Salt and Pepper, this shakedown team's method of operation was to patrol the West Village piers and parked trucks where gays were known to cruise, catch them in a compromising position., f lash their badges., and demand cash in return for their release. At least two of the homosexuals who filed complaints with the District Attorney were later found slain in their apartments.
Responding to this series of shakedowns and murders, the New York City Police Department decided to send an officer undercover. The Department hoped that arrest of the real killers would not only prove that the men were impersonating police officers., but might possibly solve some of the other homicide cases still under investigation.
Patrolman Randy Jurgensen, who had been on the force since 1957 and who had previously worked cm important cases involving weapons and narcotics, was selected to pose as a homosexual in the West Village gay community.
His assignment was to rent an apartment in the area, to establish a gay identity for himself, and eventually to infiltrate the sex clubs in an attempt to lure the killers into a position where they could be apprehended.
Jurgensen was promised a promotion a Detective's gold shield if his undercover mission succeeded. While undercover, however, his double identity was to remain secret from his friends and relatives as well as from the uniformed officers from the Fifth and Sixth Precincts.
He was instructed to pick up his salary in cash and to make oral ''reports to the Captain' of the Major Case Squad at a local pool hall, or over the telephone to a special number.
Jurgensen quickly discovered that in order to be successful he would have to initiate himself into a totally new code of behavior, including new ways of dress and speech. He bought a wardrobe of tight pants, leather jacket, sneakers, black boots, and studded leather wristbands. He wore make-up in the form of a star painted over one eye. He visited erotic boutiques and quizzed the clerks about the sexual meanings of different-colored handkerchiefs placed in the back pockets of jeans. He cruised the piers and trucks, learning the lingo and customs of cruising.
Jurgensen also befriended homosexuals. who later provided him with the introductions necessary for admission to the subterranean leather bars. Inside the bars, he blended into the cabaret scene. Though he made many arrests during this period, the Salt and Pepper killers eluded him.
Jurgensen worked alone except when he felt an arrest was imminent. One evening he cruised a man with a reputation for vicious sexual behavior, a man Jurgensen felt might be one of the killers. Wired with a tiny transmitting device, Jurgensen agreed to accompany the man to a transient hotel in the meat-packing district just north of the waterfront bars. Jurgensen's backup team, including Detective Sonny Grosso, was monitoring his conversation with the suspect when the transmission suddenly went dead.
Though they had agreed to wait until Jurgensen gave a predetermined signal that the suspect was displaying a weapon, Grosso and his partners rushed upstairs to the room, broke down the door, and found Jergensen stripped to the waist. The transmitter had malfunctioned; the suspect, though arrested and, convicted on a, variety of charges, was never proven to be one of the murderers.
Jurgensen also underwent a personal identity crisis as a result of his intensive undercover efforts. His Captain had assured him that just as the undercover narcotics cop doesn't have to become a junkie in the line of duty, Jurgensen didn't have to become a homosexual in order to succeed in the investigation of homosexual murders.
But Jurgensen began to feel increasingly alienated from the Police Department and from the straight world to which he only intermittently returned. He had acquired friendships with gays who had no connection with the violent leather scene, and he felt a growing sense of compassion for mainstream homosexuals who were subjected to harassment, discrimination, or unjustified arrest.
Jurgensen's ultimate fear was that his' relationship with his family and girlfriend might be jeopardized if his undercover activities were ever revealed. One night, his fears were realized. As Jurgensen was strolling down Christopher Street toward the bars -- arm in arm with two gays, wearing leather and a star painted over one eye his girlfriend's brother drove by, instantly recognizing him. In spite of the personal tensions created by this incident, Jurgensen was unable to reveal the true nature of his assignment.
While the action in "Cruising" is patterned after a variety of crimes which took place over the course of nearly two decades, Al Pacino's portrayal of Steve Burns closely parallels the experiences of Randy Jurgensen in his undercover assignment.
Detectives Jurgensen and Grosso appear in "Cruising" as Detectives Lefransky and Blasio.
©1998 San Francisco Chronicle
CRUISING: Drama. Starring Al Pacino and Karen Allen. Directed by William Friedkin. (R. 105 minutes. At the Castro.)
Fifteen years after its original release, William Friedkin's ``Cruising'' has transformed from a political issue to a peculiar cultural document.
The 1980 thriller, about a series of murders set against the background of New York's gay S&M club scene, can be seen as a glimpse of a pre-AIDS gay subculture. Or as an opportunity to see Al Pacino looking uncomfortable in skin-tight pants and a tank top.
Most important, ``Cruising'' can at last be viewed as a piece of film making. The picture, which begins a one-week revival today at the Roxie, has to stand as one of the most original thrillers of the 1980s. It's a lurid, twisted film that brings you into its world and completely works you over.
On one level ``Cruising'' is just another slasher movie. A killer is making the rounds of the S&M clubs, picking up guys, tying them up and hacking them to death. The killer (Richard Cox) is tall and thin, and wears the regulation sunglasses, chains, biker jacket and hat. Later we find out he's a graduate student doing his thesis on the roots of the American musical theater. It was either that or have him be an interior decorator, I guess.
Yet despite some crudeness in conception, ``Cruising'' exists on a level far above a regulation slasher, thanks to its bizarre, one-of-a- kind setting and Friedkin's impassioned direction. Friedkin knows how to make you care and knows how to get you scared. The first killing, presented from the likable victim's point of view, is agonizing to watch.
``Cruising'' created an uproar as it was being filmed in New York, and turned out to be the only mainstream Hollywood film to use the gay S&M underworld as a backdrop. In the film, this is an environment rife with menace and possibility, an aggressive, animalistic world completely divorced from the female principle. It's into this world that straight, nice- guy cop Al Pacino goes undercover -- all 145 pounds of him -- in pursuit of the killer.
The rumors were that in the midst of the controversy Pacino became unhappy with the role and played the lead in ``Cruising'' under duress. If so, duress works fine here. He's a cop without a gun -- and a straight man trying to pass as gay. He plays a man on the other side of the looking glass trying to hang on to his identity while concealing it from the world. No wonder he looks pained. ``Cruising'' is a unique thriller in that the main source of interest isn't in the cop- and-killer angle, but in the hero's mental state.
It's clear from the beginning that on some level our hero is drawn to this hardcore scene, but the beauty of the film is that Friedkin draws us into it as well. The scene may be repellent and shocking, yet we understand its power to take this fellow nightly to an edge he might never have explored in the course of a lifetime. He has entered a primal male universe. In contrast, Pacino's sex scenes with his girlfriend (Karen Allen) are dull. They know each other already. Nothing bad can happen. What's the fun in that?
The crime-story aspect is slick but doesn't have as much impact, and when the picture begins to focus on the killer, ``Cruising'' enters into pretty thin territory. But the movie shifts back to Pacino for an eerie ambiguous finish: a wonderfully chilling close-up of Pacino's reflection staring back at him with strange, cold satisfaction.
©1998 San Francisco Examiner, Lasting images of "Cruising', Bob Stephens, 1980 crime movie long overdue for reappraisal
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN'S "Cruising" is a great film of the urban, North American night. His voyeuristic camera roams the streets that come alive with sexual promenades after sunset, and it lingers in noisy, jam-packed bars, watching men search for the man of their fantasies.
This is a world where gays disguise themselves as SS officers, bikers and cops out of a romantic impulse or the requirements of S&M role-playing. A serial killer also conceals himself the same way to move unrecognized among them, compulsively choosing his victims. And a real policeman (Al Pacino) adorns himself with leather and chains in a pretense of gayness to trap the murderer.
"Cruising" is not only a hunt within a hunt, but a film that is obsessed with entrances and exits. It's a movie with a vast undercurrent of restlessness, of people looking for a satiating experience, looking anywhere, everywhere. Men constantly go in and out of erotic clubs, tunnels in the park, rented rooms, private booths in porn shops and, in the officer's case, the inadequate refuge of his girlfriend's apartment.
With a twist of the hips, a cool hitch of the shoulders, arms swinging loosely, and a self-assertive stride, Friedkin's actors glide along, checking out the action.
Scenes of the other, daylight world include the undercover cop's pleasant walks to a cafe with his new gay friend (Don Scardino), moments in spacious rooms where his lover (Karen Allen) sometimes plays antique string music on her phonograph, and sequences in which he casually leans against a stone wall or sprawls on the bright lawns of a college campus, the places where he begins his surveillance of the main suspect.
The murders are, as they should be, terrifying and morally repulsive. Friedkin never lets the audience forget that a real human being, not a caricature, is dying. There's an ever-present, carnal sense of vulnerability that the director underscores with a tracking shot of two men walking down a gloomy street. As they hurry past, we observe them from behind a string of ugly meat hooks, and are reminded of intense animal suffering and the dreadful objectification that makes killing easier.
For all the thematic darkness of Friedkin's best works, they've been dramas of the human face, and this movie is no exception. In a highly imaginative scene, Friedkin has several cruising men come, one-by-one, from opposite sides of the frame and halt before Pacino in a point of view shot. We're forced to review each of them in a striking close-up, and it seems like they're auditioning for us. And near the film's conclusion, we see Pacino staring sadly at himself in a mirror. The glass fades away in a dissolve and his sorrowful face is briefly superimposed on New York's tranquil harbor.
Over the last 15 years, it has been impossible to forget some of the images from "Cruising." For example, two cops in a prowl car engage in an incongruous, misogynistic tirade as they contemptuously scan a crowd of gays on the sidewalk. (The scene is made more strange by the absence of environmental sound; it's as if the policemen were in a dreamlike, floating vehicle, accompanied only by eerie synthesizer music.) There's a frantic, drug-propelled dance of two men in front of an electrical American flag, and we watch snaky duets during "Precinct Night," a bizarre, sexual variation on a policeman's ball. A man whose entire head is zipped up inside a leather executioner's mask haunts the bars with an air of menacing detachment.
Furthermore, there's a shoe box crammed with unmailed letters - a son's hopeful rantings to a long-lost, implacable father. We pass cardboard women in swimsuits that are on display in a store window, and their semaphoric arms signal a message that might be urgent, but is indecipherable. And we encounter the unnerving, sexually ambiguous figure of Allen dressed in Pacino's cruising outfit, carelessly playing with the garments of an adventure that almost cost him his sexual identity and his life.
In the Scardino character, "Cruising" has one of the most positive portrayals of a gay on film. In the street scenes, there's a virile drive that's unequalled in other big city movies. In the large, overall rhythms of the film - the back and forth journey between darkness and the light - there's an unexpected somber beauty.
When "Cruising" came out, it quickly disappeared without a trace. Caught at first between the emergence of gay activists who protested the narrow depiction of their lives and the widespread homophobic reaction to the proclamation of a new community, the film eventually reappeared as an underground video favorite.
Friedkin's neglected crime movie is overdue for reappraisal, and the Roxie's weeklong exhibition may be the beginning of such a reconsideration. (The director's previously announced appearance on opening night has been canceled.)
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If I were a film about a murderer of S/M men cruising through urban Gaymerica, I wouldn't want to have been born in 1980, bracketed by 1979's White Night Riots and 1981's new "gay" disease. But the year Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in a landslide election--the year I was trying to figure out how to curl my bangs into feathers--also happened to be the year a lot of ink was spilled over William Friedkin's film Cruising. There was plenty to be angry about in 1979-1980, when tempers flared, protest erupted, and headaches followed. It's only strange that so much of that anger focused on this movie.
In retrospect the Cruising flap of the late `70s looks to be more about bad timing than bad intentions. The film is--and was--a sympathetic film about part of a subculture Mapplethorpe and the NEA eventually helped to make famous. Cruising-land is a place where gay victims are innocent and detectives (imagine) want to help. It features the sweet humor of undercover cop Al Pacino, in leather, entering a bar called Precinct 9 and facing a crowd of men all in police drag, then being kicked out by a doorman for being too cuddly. The film shows a man who, through a series of hot encounters with men in dark bars and alleys, is transformed from his too-happily-married condition to a confused, self-questioning state. And it has stuff some people only wish they could reminisce about: 1980s pseudo--'fros, play-cuffs, bandanas.
Then there is the issue itself, which has aged just about as gracefully as the film. The implication that people who practice S/M like to move from play to murder would have been frightening in the early `70s, when gays and nongays alike were mistakenly looking at sadistic murders, like the ones Dean Corll committed, as an extension of S/M culture.
But Friedkin's movie doesn't connect those dots. His film never got much of a chance to imply anything, good or bad. It got buried by yield signs coming from all directions (family movie chains that wouldn't show it, protesters who didn't want it made or seen, viewers who were scared by it).
But now that S/M has moved out to the suburbs, now that AIDS and the new strain of right-wing misanthropy have taken its place in the protest pantheon, it would seem like at least one part of the world should be ready, finally, to appreciate the beauty of Al Pacino's naked butt on screen. Apparently not.
QUOTES ABOUT THE FILM
Since getting her chance seven years ago in the low-budget but high-profit National Lampoon's Animal House, she has worked fairly consistently. And there's only one movie, William Friedkin's Cruising, that she prefers not to talk about.
As one critic observed at the time: "In this movie, her character was not supposed to know what was going on in Al Pacino's life, particularly when he disappeared into the homosexual underground in search of a killer. So Friedkin reasoned, Why did she need to see a script?"
She never saw one.
"I wouldn't do that again," she said firmly. "Oh, maybe if Fellini or Bergman offered me a film. Or Woody Allen. Otherwise, no. I learned my lesson.
Winnipeg Free Press, Aug. 8, 1985
Currently unavailable on dvd but you can buy the video at Amazon.com