Leading up to Cruising’s 1980 release, it became the subject of numerous protests from gay-rights activists operating under the assumption that this film would defame their culture and set the burgeoning gay rights movement back decades. Despite the film’s opening disclaimer about it merely depicting a small subculture within the gay community, the activists were both right and wrong. Its world never takes the opportunity to portray homosexuals in any sort of positive way, and it quietly condemns the “leather bar” subculture. At the same time, the underlying message seems to be that hate crimes against the gay community only occur as a result of deep self-hatred of closeted homosexuals. It’s the sort of jeering knife-twisting that deplorable gay-bashers deserve. I just wish it had been the central theme of a better movie.

Al Pacino stars as Steve Burns, a New York City beat cop who takes the opportunity to advance his career by working undercover. A serial killer is on loose at various S&M clubs, and the victims all have a physical description similar to Burns’s. Because he’s the only one in the precinct who comes close to matching it, they send him undercover despite his inexperience. Burns checks in to a queer flophouse, befriends a few gay men living there to pump them (so to speak) for information, and goes to leather bars to observe the community in action, waiting to be picked up by the potential killer.

For awhile, I thought the film would turn into a great black comedy. Heterosexual Burns cannot abide what he sees in these clubs. He sits in the shadows, looking on with disgust, and grunting, “Not tonight” at any man who tries to pick him up. I thought this neighborhood of gay men would start assuming he’s the killer, because of his obvious disdain, his ignorance of the culture, and his unwillingness to participate. In other words, he’s a terrible undercover cop with zero training who botches the mission and loses the trust of the people he’s supposed to get close to, and he has a bunch of well-muscled gay men targeting him as the serial killer in their midst.

Boy, I wish that’s how the film had actually played out. Instead, it splits its time between a straightforward investigative procedural, a leering depiction of homoerotic depravity, and Burns’s increasing angst about thrusting himself (so to speak) into the gay underworld. See, he’s married (to Karen Allen!), so the feelings this assignment stirs up in his brain, heart, and loins make him extremely uncomfortable. After spending hours in clubs, he frequently defies his orders and goes home to have eerie, aggressive sex with his wife, followed by adopting a thousand-yard stare while ruminating on the confusing feelings. Of course, he can’t say too much, because not even she can know his undercover assignment — and besides, who wants to tell his wife that he might be secretly gay? All of this builds to a deranged ending that does fit the story writer/director William Friedkin has laid out, but it’s still sort of infuriating.

Although Cruising isn’t quite as bad as its reputation, it’s still awfully difficult to sit through. Friedkin relies on tawdry shock moments (including a bizarre, never-explained police interrogation in which detectives bring in a burly African-American man in nothing but a G-string and a Stetson to beat on the suspects) and the comically stereotypical behavior of the gay characters. It’s not as insensitive as the activists probably thought it would be, but come on — the prime suspect is a musical theatre major, for crying out loud. I don’t think it was Friedkin’s intention, but the portrayal of homosexuality really does come across like a disgusting world of depraved, self-loathing, mentally ill men who have no desires beyond sex and violence. Maybe that’s how your average straight man would react to spending a few hours in a leather bar, but it’s a film without any shades of gray. Do any of these men have lives outside the clubs? If so, do these lives involve anything beyond cheap flophouses with water-damaged ceilings and semen-damaged bedsheets?

Pacino plays Burns as a man plagued with chronic gay panic. He spends much of the movie quiet and bug-eyed, overreacts to passes from other men, and tries desperately but ineptly to find the killer, more to get out of the underworld than to stop the murders or further his career. It’s not an unreasonable way to play the role, but it certainly does nothing to help the film to portray homosexuality with any sort of nuance. Like the generic portrayal of numerous anonymous S&M fetishists, Burns’s fear that he might secretly be gay or — even worse — may have been turned gay simply by being near large groups of them presents a black-and-white world of cheap sex and color-coded bandannas.

In other words, Cruising wants to expose (so to speak) the unseemly side of a subculture many people already think is inherently unseemly. It wallows in its own depravity and cynicism. Friedkin shares the wealth of relentless negativity, spreading it to straight men and women as much as gay men, but it’s the sort of movie that will ultimately make anybody watching it feel sort of ill, regardless of sexual orientation or their personal feelings about homosexuality. It’s just that kind of movie.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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