“How’d you like to disappear?” The question is posed by NYPD’s Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) to Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino), whom he wants to go undercover, to flush out an apparent serial killer preying upon young men who frequent the city’s hardcore leather and studs scene. Edelson chooses Burns because Burns fits the profile of the killer’s victims. Edelson flatly enquires into Burns’ homosexual experience; Burns insists he’s never had any. Yet as Burns burrows deeper into the S&M underworld, that initial question—specifically that word, “disappear”—assumes various shades of meaning. Something in Burns—in fact something in Cruising (1980), the movie he inhabits, one very much a case of outsiders looking, or rather peering, in—wants to become lost in that underworld, to disappear into it, to not only taste but to devour the unknown pleasures once taboo and now, thanks to occupational circumstance, permitted. As a crime thriller, Cruising has its points of interest, but as a study in flamboyant masculine sexual-criminal curiosity—not to mention as a glimpse of a New York that no longer exists—it’s an exceptionally fascinating document.
Though made from an original screenplay written by its director William Friedkin—who seemed drawn above all to the milieu; there is a genuine, if very seedy sociological focus at work here—Cruising had its roots in the true story of Randy Jurgensen, a New York City patrolman who took an assignment very similar to Burns’ more than a decade earlier. The based-on-a-true-story clause would eventually be taken up by the film’s producers when New York’s gay community learned of the film’s premise and violently objected to what they regarded as its demonizing representation. They began to stage large-scale protests and acts of sabotage, making loud noises and flashing mirrors during location shooting. Yet however dubious the film’s political agenda may have been—and I strongly suspect that Friedkin had no political agenda whatsoever—time has made the notion of Cruising as being slanderous to gays seem fairly obtuse: as Pacino himself said, he didn’t regard the subculture depicted in Cruising as representing the entire gay community anymore than he regarded the mafia family in The Godfather as representing all Italian-Americans.
Still, things get hazy when one begins to consider the note of ambiguity the film lands on. I don’t want to give everything away if you haven’t seen Cruising, but let’s just say that the identity of the film’s killer remains elusive—elusive in such a way that it could be any number of the leather boys Burns encounters in the Ramrod or the Mine Shaft. Which kind of implies that the evil is perhaps ubiquitous, even inherent in the very desire to seek sexual thrills and camaraderie among vigorously liberated men in aviator glasses and buttless chaps. So, viewed from a certain stance, Cruising a troubling film. But it’s also, I argue, regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, all the more valuable for it.