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Cruising (1980) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

steve film gay stu

Principal social theme: homosexuality

United Artists. R rating. Featuring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Jay Acovone, Gene Davis, Ed O’Neil, Randy Jurgensen, Larry Atlas, Allan Miller, James Remar, Linda Gray, William Russ, Powers Boothe. Written by William Friedkin based on the novel by Gerald Walker. Cinematography by James Contner. Edited by Bud Smith. Music by Jack Nitzsche. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. Directed by William Friedkin. Color. 106 minutes.


Cruising was one of the most controversial movies ever made about homosexuality, a mainstream film that was initially denounced by the gay community and ignored by the general moviegoing public. Years later, numerous adherents of the film appeared among homosexual and straight critics, who regarded the picture as a misunderstood masterpiece. In 1998, the film had a major revival in theaters. It is a haunting film, one not easily forgotten and that still is able to fascinate viewers.


At night, a tugboat crewman finds an arm floating in the Hudson River. Members of New York City’s gay community are being murdered by a knife-wielding serial killer. Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) assigns a rookie cop, Steve Burns (Al Pacino), to pose as a homosexual and infiltrate the world of the sadomasochistic (S & M) underground. He chooses Burns because he is the same physical type as most of the victims. It is an awkward transition for Burns, a straight man who decides not to tell his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen), the details of his new assignment. Steve moves into an apartment in Greenwich Village using the name John Forbes. The undercover cop meets Ted Bayley, a personable man who lives in the same building. Bayley lives with Greg, a dancer who is currently working out of town. Steve associates with Bayley, an aspiring writer, to gain familiarity with the gay lifestyle. Bayley tells Steve about the first victim of the serial killer, a professor from Columbia University. Steve tentatively starts to go “cruising,” visiting a number of S & M clubs and raunchy gay bars. At first, he is asked to leave by the bouncers because he does not seem to fit in, but soon Steve learns the proper dress, walk, and attitude to pose as a member of the gay community. He begins to have suspicions about a man who tries to pick him up. A brutal killing takes place in a booth that shows gay movies. The cops discover a clue when they identify a coin that has the victim’s blood and a fingerprint of the killer. Based on Steve’s tip, the cops set up a trap for his suspect and give him a brutal interrogation, but he turns out to be innocent. When Steve visits Nancy, he tells her that his new assignment is troubling him, changing him. She suggests that they temporarily split up. Edelson gives Steve pages from a Columbia yearbook with students of the professor who was the first victim. Steve recognizes one of the photos as someone who frequents the S & M clubs. He begins to stake out the student, Stu Richards, but does not tell Captain Edelson about the new suspect. Steve sneaks into Stu’s room, finds his knife and a box full of incriminating letters that Stu wrote to his father but never mailed. When Steve meets Greg, Bayley’s lover, he is insulting and Steve gets into a fight with him. Later, when Stu goes cruising at night, Steve manages to accidentally bump into him in the park. They head to an isolated tunnel to be alone together, get into a scuffle, and Stu is stabbed. At the hospital, Captain Edelson arrests Stu, whose fingerprint matches the coin from the murder scene. Steve is released from his assignment and gets a promotion to the detective division. He returns to Nancy’s apartment. Ted Bayley’s body is found murdered in his apartment, stabbed to death. Greg is the main suspect in this new crime. Steve shaves while Nancy dresses up in the leather coat and dark glasses that Steve just discarded. Steve looks wearily into the mirror and the picture dissolves to show the same tugboat in the Hudson River from the film’s opening scene, except this time in daylight.


Many viewers and critics were puzzled by Cruising ‘s ambiguous ending, which could be interpreted that Steve is returning to normal or that he might have been responsible for Bayley’s death, killing the man to whom he felt attracted in order to shed his gay persona. This latter assessment seems unlikely, but one element has led to this sense of perplexity about Steve. When he confronted Stu in the park, Steve sang the little chant, “Who’s here, I’m here, You’re here,” that Stu sang to each of his victims. The script never explains how Steve knew the killer’s trademark tune. In an earlier scene, a gay cross-dresser told a detective that the killer’s song was overheard when he committed one of his crimes. One can only assume that this information somehow got back to Steve. Since this point is never clarified in the story, it led to confusion for many viewers. In an interview, writer/director Friedkin suggested that he did this to create apprehension in the mind of the audience, so that Steve would become somewhat of an enigma by the end of the picture. It all becomes a matter of audience interpretation. This is also true of the issue of homosexuality in the entire film. After the film’s previews, Friedkin added a written prologue and stated that the segment of the homosexual community depicted in the film was only one component and not representative of the whole. This was the raunchy, in-your-face S & M crowd, repellent perhaps to many members of the audience, but the point of view of the film is neutral toward the activities in these hardcore clubs. Critics looking at the film in revivals have noted a new possible interpretation, that the gay killer preying on this community could now be seen as an allegory of the AIDS epidemic. Of course, nothing like this was intended in the original film since the crisis was just emerging, but the metaphor seems perfect. Other elements of the film can also be studied. How does Steve’s attitude toward homosexuality change? At the start of the film, two police officers are observed harassing homosexuals and ridiculing them. What does their loutish depiction suggest in terms of the attitude of the police? Do the detectives ever take the complaints against these two cops seriously? If so, at what point? Is Ted Bayley the most likable character in the picture? Does he represent a positive portrayal of a homosexual? If so, what is the implication of his murder? Multiple viewings reveal Cruising to be a far more complex film than it may initially seem.

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