Psycho Thriller

Cruising looks back at the doomed ecstasy of the gay playgrounds in late-1970s Manhattan

Cruising isn't really a gay movie, but it was snuffed at birth in February 1980 by a gay boycott whose leaders objected to the film's unsanitized portrait of the leather demimonde. Much of the film was shot in the meatpacking district on Manhattan's Lower West Side, and it is hard not to be aware of the signs hanging on all the buildings -- "primal cuts," "cow cuts," "Har-Ted Beef" -- as undercover cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) pursues a wolfish serial killer through a sheep's fold of human flesh pierced, buffed, leather-swaddled, tanked up and ready to go home with somebody.

The rough milieu, which caused all the hoo-ha 15 years ago, still tastes of menace. In Cruising it is almost always night, the summer air humid and shadowy in the feeble yellow glare of streetlamps -- a lovely hunting ground for a psycho marauder. He makes his presence known in slow stages. A severed arm turns up in the Hudson, not long after a torso. A handful of gay leathermen are knifed to death after having sex. The tabloids shriek about the "homo killer," and the police, under pressure to clear up the matter before the opening of a major political convention, settle on young Officer Burns, who has the Mediterranean look attractive to the killer, to go undercover as bait.

Pacino's Burns is supposed to be the star of the show, but his most striking physical trait is a set of bloodshot eyes (late nights? dope? contact lenses? the cigarette haze that hangs over the entire film?). His general impassivity suggests nothing in particular: terror, loathing, fascination, indifference. Or nothing at all.

William Friedkin, who wrote and directed the movie, is careful to make sure Burns enjoys regular sexual congress with his girlfriend, Nancy Gates, but as a heterosexual performer he is increasingly distracted and preoccupied. Quietly they break up -- not because Burns is having sex with leathermen, because he isn't (although there is one close call with a boyish, volatile suspect named Skip, who has Burns ass-up on the bed, hog-tied and naked, when the police burst in to make the arrest -- and save Burns' cherry). Pacino's Burns is a prickteasing cipher. He does what he is told, because he hopes to make detective.

The real star of the show is its unblinking candor about how a group of men lived in New York City in the late 1970s. These gay men kiss -- not tidy little Philadelphia pecks, but searchingly, mouths open, near-naked bodies pressed together. They're snorting poppers while dancing around in jockstraps. They're going down on each other in dark corners. They're out trolling for tricks in the alleys and in the Ramble of Central Park. And, in a particularly astonishing scene, there's a guy in a sling getting fistfucked by another guy who so elaborately greases up his muscly forearm before working it in that the odor of Crisco nearly wafts into the theater.

A lot of Cruising is like a porn film without the porn, and it is electrifying stuff. It's a glimpse back to the time before the plague, when the only real limit to sensuality was imagination. And it offers testament to the power of people to spin webs of community despite the anonymity of the city and its anarchic promise of sex. The leathermen cruise each other with little more than a muttered word or two (or none at all) and their desire registers as glowering hostility, but they look out for one another. They know their neighbors down the hall, and they talk to them. It is this network of ordinary social intimacy that helps Pacino trace a route to his killer.

The killer is the movie's greatest disappointment. It is clear from the first killing, which fills the screen with savage explicitness, that the villain is a twisted queen, a singer of lullabies as he goes about his butchery. The murders make no emotional or psychological sense, and they follow no social or economic or racial pattern.

The only real clue is the killer's taste for swarthy men in their late twenties. But while this suggestive detail is enough to justify Pacino's undercover role, in the end it reveals nothing about the killer, who turns out to be as empty a vessel as Officer Burns.

There are portentous references to the murderer's strained relationship with his long-dead father (who makes an awkward appearance as a ghost on a park bench), and there is a stack of unsent letters from the murderer to the father. But Friedkin leaves these pistols of revelation vexingly unfired. The central ingredient of the film's psychological recipe -- the killer's motivation -- is all but missing, and in the end the narrative collapses like a soufflŽ in an open oven, a confection of shape and texture with nothing at its core.

Yet if Cruising sputters as a cop-gets-killer movie, its shape and texture also make it unforgettable. The film twitches from beginning to end with an eerie premonitory dread. Pacino's foe is not the only stealthy killer moving among these men, tying the bloody knot between sex and death. I sat there watching scene after scene of doomed ecstasy in the gay playgrounds of late-1970s Manhattan and thought, Well, they're all dead now. The psycho killer got a few, and the virus got the rest.

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