Talking Al Pacino in ‘Cruising’ (1980)

Today we reminisce about

Cruising (1980)

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Directed by William Friedkin

Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen

* Published specifically for The All About Al Pacino Blogathon hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer *

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This article contains content and images that are of an adult nature so please exercise caution if you are subject sensitive or easily offended. In addition, there are many spoilers lying within so if you have not seen the film, I would highly suggest that you refrain from reading my words so that you can experience every plot twist and turn for yourself.

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Synopsis

It is the summer of 1979 in New York and a series of violent murders involving gay men have been plaguing the city. The police believe that the same person may be responsible for a half a dozen other unsolved homicides from which only random body parts have been retrieved from the Hudson River. Despite making some connections and pinpointing other trends, the police have no solid leads on a suspect.

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Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino), under pressure from his superiors in the face of an upcoming political election, decides to recruit a cop to go undercover so to help nab the murderer. He chooses Steve Burns (Al Pacino), a police officer usually assigned to standard patrol work, largely because he shares a physical resemblance to a number of the victims. Burns is sceptical of taking the assignment mostly because it would require him to pose as a gay man and actively pursue suspects by being willing to engage in homosexual activity. Having a serious live-in girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen), with whom he hopes to build a future also weighs on Burns but he ultimately decides to accept the assignment in the hopes of being promoted to detective status. He is not allowed to divulge any information about his work to Nancy or even to see her during the time that he will be undercover, which could be for many months.

 

Burns takes the alias John Forbes and moves into a West Village apartment in a part of the town frequented by the gay community. The person who rented the place before him happened to have been into BDSM, the exact subculture that Burns intends to explore. He befriends his gay neighbour, Ted Bailey, a struggling writer who shares and apartment with his boyfriend, a professional dancer on Broadway. Together they talk about the recent murders and about life in general. Immediately after settling in, Burns starts frequenting a variety of different homosexual bars/club in order to scope out the scene. On one particular evening he is refused entry in an establishment because it is (ironically) police night there and he is not dressed for the event. He is followed out by a young man named Skip Lee who is aggressively suggestive about wanting sex but Burns rebuffs him, only agreeing to meet up with Skip after more murders occur. Skip’s temperamental profile is enough to interest the police to bring him in for questioning in regards to the murders so Burns works with the team to set-up a sting operation. The subsequent interrogation is brutal and completely against the books, humiliating an innocent Skip and disgusting Burns.

The assignment starts to break Burns’ spirit and destroy his relationship with Nancy, who he has been secretly seeing all this time. He attempts to quit the job but is persuaded to stay by Edelson, giving Burns the fire to continue his search for the real murderer. When looking over several pages of images given to him from a Columbia University yearbook, it does not take Burns long to come across a familiar face – Stuart Richards, a Columbia graduate student and former student of a murdered gay professor who he has seen on numerous occasions in gay bars. Burns relentlessly stakes out Richards’ whereabouts and eventually enters his apartment where he discovers evidence that could help pin him to the crimes. It is after this incident that Richards discovers that he is being followed but has no idea that Burns is a police officer. Richards, a schizophrenic who suffers from hallucinations and other anxiety, decides that he must stop Burns and the two have a silent agreement to meet late one night in Morningside Park. From there, we discover if Richards is indeed the guilty suspect though, at the same time, are disillusioned by yet another grisly murder and a very cryptic ending to the film.

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Forethoughts

Cruising is a cinematic timepiece and captures a moment in history when free love still reigned, particularly in the gay community. Only one year after the film’s release, the world was forever changed when the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially publicly identified and acknowledged the existence of AIDS. This deadly condition was incurable and in its early identifiable existence claimed many beloved figures and icons as its victims. The arrival of AIDS did not eliminate the occurrence of casual sex but the general population in the Western World was gradually educated to use protection in order to prevent the spread of disease. While even today not everyone follows the practise, the transmission of AIDS has greatly decreased in developed nations. Going back to the film, Cruising gives us a blind’s eye view of what the pre-AIDS gay scene was like in New York City, at a time when  general crime was rampant and the Big Apple was a very tough town.

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The frustration felt by Paul Sorvino’s Captain Edelson perfectly reflects the dark and unsure ambiance of the film. Despite him being a seasoned professional, the sight of a heavily wounded body still makes Edelson queasy. With no solid leads, he and his team become more desperate to make any suspect crack under pressure by using brutal, unethical tactics that shock even Burns. Edelson wants to go slow and catch the right guy but his higher ups want a suspect to take the blame to satisfy public outcry and, more importantly, their political ambitions. This pressure trickles down to Burns who, already on the verge of quitting the case, turns into a wolf on a manhunt when he tracks down Richards who he believes to the serial killer. As a spectator, you are attuned to the stress felt by the characters and it is hard to feel comfortable when watching the film. Granted the foundation of the story if not pleasant; after all it involves violence and extremely taboo subjects.

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Al Pacino & discussion of his character

Unless you have been living under a rock chances are that you know of Al Pacino in some form, whether it is from having watched his films or having appreciated him as a contemporary pop culture icon. In my case, I have generally been more familiar with Pacino’s public persona than I have been with his body of cinematic work. One of my first introductions to him was seeing the effect that he had on the character Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, who had a poster of Pacino’s film Serpico hanging in his bedroom. Manero was fascinated with being physically compared to Pacino, especially since the thought made ladies fall weak at the knees. Other than that, I had seen parodies of The Godfather and had not understood the references because, truth be told, I have never been able to muster enough interest to watch the film saga. As the years have gone by, I have not seen a great many other Pacino projects although I will say that I really enjoyed both of his films that were released in 1999, The Insider and Any Given Sunday. As a Penn State alumna, I am also interested to see his performance in 2018’s Paterno, a film that no doubt was as a real challenge for everyone involved.

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Pacino was cast as Steve Burns at a time right before he would go through the first notable downturn of his career. After he rose to fame from 1972’s The Godfather, the rest of the 1970’s would be as successful for him despite there being two and three years between making movies. The 1980’s would be his toughest decade yet as he made only five films and took a four year sabbatical from the screen between 1985’s Revolution and 1989’s Sea of Love. It has been noted that Pacino was not comfortable with the material and had a hard time grasping the material during filming; something that director Friedkin readily acknowledges is visible in his performance. Also, the literary Burns character was supposed to be an early twenty-something while Pacino was 39 during filming. Even though a few years could be shaved off without suspending disbelief, it was clear that Pacino was too old to accurately incarnate Steve Burns. It is perfectly plausible that Burns could have gotten a later start in life in terms of employment and the personal situation with his girlfriend (serious, but not yet engaged or married) but something just does not add up with that mindset.

Steve Burns is a fish out of water in his new environment and it shows in his body language and facial expressions. He goes into his first gay club with the ambition of a trained officer but lacking the authenticity of a curious young man looking to discover the scene and possibly hook-up with a lover. It is obvious that he is scoping out the scene but it is hard to be convinced that he is voluntarily willing to frequent these kinds of establishments. No love connections are initiated by him although he is propositioned several times over. In this sense, Burns remains oddly ambiguous when he should blend into the crowd a little better. A possibility is that Burns is passing Forbes off as a hesitant homosexual who is scared to dabble in this lifestyle. However, because so little back story – not to mention insight into his thoughts – is given about Burns, it is easier to take things for their face value even if there is much more to them beneath the surface.

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The question about his sexuality and “how far” he actually goes is very obscure. Burns is obviously sexually attracted to women as he is in a serious, long-standing relationship with Nancy and they are seen both during and after coitus. There is a point in time when he is unable to perform sexually with Nancy, causing her much grief because she feels as if she revolts him. It is also a great source of frustration for Burns but again, he neither gives an explanation to Nancy due to the secretive nature of his undercover work nor is there a moment where any of Burns’ private feelings are revealed to the viewer. If one takes the story for simply what we see on-screen, the closest that Burns gets to actually going through with a homosexual act is when he is with Skip Lee, the young man who is later roughly interrogated by the police. They are interrupted just as Skip is hogtying a scantily clad Burns. Looking between the lines, there is likely more than meets the eye. One night in the park while cruising under the tunnel in Morningside Park, Burns follows another man with the obvious intention of engaging in sexual activity. The man in question is none other than on-screen victim number 2, a link which adds even more complexity to correctly identifying the killer. (Victim number 2 conveniently enough also plays the killer of victim number 1, an identification that is unmistakable from watching the film and even moreso from looking at stills from the film.)

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A shot taken from the film. No faces are shown.
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A still showing the men who are clearly identifiable from their other scenes in the film. The man on the right is killer #1, later to be on-screen victim #2.

Upon reading other reviews and personal takes on Cruising, the most common remark concerns the film’s ending. In essence, we as spectators are compelled to believe that Burns could be a cold-blooded killer who is responsible for Ted’s murder. Since Richards is in custody, he could not be guilty. Oddly enough, Burns did take one of Richards’ clubbing outfits (a police hat, leather jacket and aviator style sunglasses) and bring them back with him to Nancy’s apartment. My theory about this is that he took these items as a souvenir which represents his emotional attachment to his undercover work. It could be that Burns discovered that he had homosexual tendencies and kept the items to use for himself. Also possible is that these items were kept as a trophy of sorts and will help him in explaining the specifics of his assignment to Nancy. After all, he was vocal about the strenuous psychological effects he experienced while on the job. In my opinion, Burns was completely innocent of any wrongdoing because it was not in his nature and the feelings he had for Ted were genuine and non-romantic that friends harbour for one another.

Whodunit

When it comes to indentifying the real killer, the analysis is more complex. For me, it is clear that there are multiple killers. Friedkin himself does not hide the fact that different actors were used for the first and second/third on-screen killings. What remains unclear is who is responsible for the off-screen murders and that of Ted Bailey. I cannot be sure of the initial killings but I am convinced that a minor character is responsible for Ted’s death. That is person is Officer DiSimone of the 6th precinct. As shown in the first scenes of the film, DiSimone has a hostile attitude and a ruthless attitude on the street. He abuses his power as an officer as well as the human integrity of transvestite prostitutes, forcing them to perform sex acts on him and his partner. The moment that convinced me of his involvement was seeing him at a gay bar, checking out Burns in one of his first visits.

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Officer DiSimone, making eyes with John Forbes while cruising at a bar.
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Ironically enough, Stuart Richards is the man seen just before DiSimone.

It is almost as if he was put there was an Easter egg because DiSimone’s face is only visible for a split second. I had to rewind and pause just to be sure of it, especially since I was rather shocked at my discovery. You see, I watched the film several times over to try and catch clues/details to better understand the story. My suspicion of DiSimone was very slow coming but now makes a lot of sense, at least to me. Now that this has been said, try watching when DiSimone is debriefing the details of the crime scene at Ted’s apartment to Capt. Edelson. That would make Edelson standing right next to a killer who is considered “one of his own” and whom he has already defended against accusations of sexual abuse reported by a transvestite prostitute who also works as a police informant.

Here’s something to really make you scratch your head: The shot of the first killer walking into the club is the exact same as the one shown at the end of the film hinting that Burns is a killer. Whether this is a result of bad editing or if was intentionally done to unsettle you is unclear but my guess is that Friedkin obviously wanted to make you question what exactly you were watching. Is it reality or just an illusion?

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Closing remarks

Owing to its controversial nature, Cruising was badly received by both audiences and critics while also outraging a good portion of the gay community with demonstrations occurring both during filming and after the film’s release. Director William Friedkin had to tone down numerous scenes and portions of the script to satisfy censors and to attain a decent rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Although Friedkin would have been satisfied with an “X” rating in order to tell the story as he intended, United Artists would not allow that and he was forced to edit the film until it attained a more appropriate “R” rating. The result is somewhat unsatisfying because there are many holes in the story and too many questions rattling around in your hear both while watching and afterwards. Giving Friedkin’s efforts the benefit of the doubt, I believe that he did what he could with the constraints forced upon him and that this film should be lauded for striving to show moviegoers something different.

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Burns emerges a changed man in many ways (note the sunglasses).

Having spent so much time revisiting this film in my head and studying the performances within, I am impressed with the quality of the acting and the seriousness given to the subject matter. I neither find Cruising to be derogatory or insulting, nor do I find the characters and lifestyles portrayed to be clichéd. It is not the kind of film that could be made today, especially with such rawness and lack of political correctness. This makes me want to further explore Al Pacino’s filmography to appreciate both his talent and the sheer effort of his method technique. He has earned my respect.

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7 thoughts on “Talking Al Pacino in ‘Cruising’ (1980)

  1. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this film, Erica. It’s clear that you’ve taken a lot of time and put in a lot of effort, which I really admire for, because, as you so rightly said, this is a very difficult film to be comfortable watching and to figure out. I think your theories about the killer are compelling. I have alternately believed that Burns is the killer and thought he was innocent. I still haven’t decided. As you said, Pacino gives a really good performance, and I think he should be commended for taking such a different part after the ones he played in the 70s. I also think he looks really handsome in this film. I’m so happy you want to watch more of his movies. Hopefully this Blogathon will give you some ideas! Thanks so much for contributing such a detailed, well researched article! 💖

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Gabriela! 😀
      I did indeed take some time on this and felt like I still could have gone into much more detail. LOL If only so many stones had not been left unturned, it would have brought more closure to certain questions. I’ve heard that the novel is slightly different from the film and in it, the killer(s) identity is revealed at the end. Being on the fence about the killer(s) is perfectly understandable because the ambiguity of it all is very well done. If you haven’t already, I suggest watching two behind-the-scenes features that are on the DVD but also available online.
      Pacino really impressed me with his performance and it’s very different from his usual tough guy routine. He’s actually quite soft spoken. His hold of method acting is very different from Dustin Hoffman’s, for example, and in my opinion is more efficient because it appears very natural. By looking at his filmography, it seems that Pacino was quite selective of his film choices and was quite level-headed in knowing when he needed to take a breather.
      Again, thanks for hosting this wonderful event! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello there! Thanks for taking the time to comment about CRUISING. This film really made an impression on me and you are absolutely right that it would never be made today. I hope Pacino is proud of his performance.

      Like

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