Cruising 1980 Movie Scene Al Pacino as Steve Burns flirting with a visitor of a gay leather club

Cruising is a Movie Offering a Raw Exploration of Sexuality and Masculinity

What, did you think that we’re not going to talk about another eighties movie? Well, I think that you know by now that I won’t rest until I go through every single masterpiece from this decade. So, strap on, because we’re about to dive into an often overlooked gem that is Cruising. Cruising is, at its heart, a serial killer movie. However, since the killer is targeting gays frequenting clubs in New York, it also explores not just homosexuality but male sexuality in general. And on top of all of that, we have Al Pacino going undercover to catch the killer. Something he already did several years earlier in the classic Serpico.

At first, I thought, I’m just going to recommend you this movie and that would be it. I did write a standard movie recommendation without much analysis you can find here. However, late last night, I had a moment. Actually, I felt that something was up with this movie right from the first moment. There was this not-so-much a conflict but a synergy between the raw and unflinching tone of the movie and the subject matter. Cruising is a movie that’s going to be in your face for most of the time. And since it features a lot of scenes involving gay men and everything they do, it might even get uncomfortable at times.

Some of the scenes feel intentionally over-the-top although that might be a ploy. A ploy to overwhelm you early on so you can fully commit yourself to the exploration of your deepest carnal desires. And the way our society works. So, let’s get to it.

The mysterious world of homosexuality in the early eighties

You don’t have to think too hard to come up with the vision of our society and its values in the early eighties. Boomers were still very much alive and healthy, actively prosecuting homosexuality. The same goes both for women and men. I mean, things are not peachy today but you can imagine how nasty they were some forty years ago. Just one year after the release of the movie Cruising, in 1981, the first case of AIDS appeared. And things went from bad to worse from that moment on. At the same time, gay people were finally asking for their rightful place in society.

They were willing to fight for it and openly express their personalities on the streets of all the major cities. Meanwhile, homosexuality was a subject seldom discussed in any rational manner. The whole thing was surrounded by a veil of mystery. Most men simply stopped themselves from further analyzing their thoughts about this topic immediately after the first uncomfortable thing popped into their heads. Moreover, there were no documentaries, websites, or anything else that would tell them more about these mysterious men.

How to approach this subject? How to illuminate it and start a discussion? Well, enter William Friedkin, a director with a couple of huge mainstream hits behind him. After The French Connection, a gritty thriller starring Gene Hackman, he directs the horror masterpiece The Exorcist. His next movie is one of my favorites, an ode to machismo, Sorcerer. So, he already established himself as a big mainstream director when he decided to make a movie focusing entirely on the New York gay scene. And thus enabling the Average Joe to peer into this forbidden, exciting, and esoteric world. 

The even more mysterious world of Gay Sadomasochism

Cruising is a movie that not only explores the gay community but it explores, more specifically, the Gay Sadomasochism (S&M) community. I take great pleasure in imagining the average homophobic viewer going to the theater and seeing this for the first time. Ahhh, it is fucking glorious. Just think how fucking audacious and controversial this movie was at the time it was released. This is why I think that the main subject of the movie Cruising is sexuality in a broader sense and not just homosexuality.

Friedkin didn’t use a brush, he used a fucking sword to carve out this movie. A fucking burning sword that pissed off both communities. The gay community did not like this exaggerated representation further enflamed by the whole S&M aspect. And the straight community did not like gays, to put it bluntly. So, you can say that Cruising is a perfect example of a controversial movie. A real controversial movie. To be honest, I found the in-your-face scenes in the gay clubs and in the park to be a bit over the top.

The realism of this murder mystery sort of disappeared in them. Still, as I already mentioned, I think this was a ruse to get you to think. And the general atmosphere along with stellar performances covered that up nicely. So, after the initial shock, you will settle in nicely and find yourself in this strange world. And once you’re there, you’re able to start thinking about what’s actually going on. You will start questioning how sexuality works, what it means to be gay, and how you feel about this range of issues.

How this movie came about

New York Times reporter Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel Cruising was pitched to Friedkin sometime in the early seventies but he passed on the offer. Producer Philip D’Antoni then offered the movie to Steven Spielberg but couldn’t secure studio backing. Finally, after a string of real-life murders in the New York leather gay community, Friedkin decides to make this movie. The infamous Bag murders still remain unsolved to this day, with many theories spinning around. 

To make things even weirder, Paul Bateson, the guy who had a small role in The Exorcist (radiologic technologist), turned out to be a serial killer targeting gay people! The final piece of the puzzle was Randy Jurgensen, a real-life NYPD detective who went undercover several years ago in yet another string of unsolved gay murders. Richard Gere was Friedkin’s first choice for the lead role because of his physical appearance. However, I think that Pacino brought a certain sense of authenticity Gere could not pull off. 

Friedkin says that Pacino was genuinely “freaked out” by the world of Gay S&M bars like Mineshaft and Eagle’s Nest. And on top of that, there are all these protests by various gay groups all over the city. You should know that about 40 minutes was cut of “absolutely graphic sexuality…that material showed the most graphic homosexuality with Pacino watching, and with the intimation that he may have been participating.”

Is Cruising an offensive movie or just a realistic representation of the real world?

I noticed that everyone is trying to judge this movie according to their worldview. The gay community obviously doesn’t want the rest of the population to think that they’re all these muscular men who are into bondage. And the stereotypical, average community doesn’t want to think about gays at all. It sucks that this is how things were back than and to a certain degree still are. But that’s not this movie’s fault. In a sense, I think that Cruising is passively demistifying homosexuality in a much bigger sense than the gay community could ever imagine.

If you’re a rational and thinking individual, you will see Cruising as a movie about very specific things. You’ll know that not all gay men like to wear leather and be whipped. And if you’re not that individual, there’s no right approach to this subject. It’s not this movie’s obligation to make every gay character a saint to right the obvious wrongs. Actually, almost all the straight men here are assholes. Just look at those two police officers discussing their marriage using these awful terms.

They’re the perfect examples of toxic masculinity but what happens next turns the whole thing on its head. This is what I wanted to talk about all this time. The two cops are actually cruising in their police cruiser during the night shift when they spot two transvestites. After harassing them for a little while they proceed to make them give both of them a blowjob! Yes, these misogynistic cops who hate gay people have nothing against them sucking their shriveled little penises.

Police brutality, corruption, and laziness

I think that the cops had much more reason to hate the movie than the gays. Mostly because it showed them in a realistic and yet utterly unfavorable light. I mean, the movie opens with a scene where an NYPD detective simply dismisses a body part found floating in the Hudson River. The coroner tries to convince him to pursue the case but he refuses. He says that he’s “got too much on his plate right now” indicating an understaffing problem. The scene ends with a coroner saying that the only murders they prosecute are the ones where they have a confession.

I already mentioned the two corrupt cops but they’re nothing compared to the questioning that comes later in the movie. It’s a prime example of police brutality in the eighties and eerily reminiscent of the Central Park Five case. This scene also features one of the most surprising and bizarre tonal shifts I have ever seen. And I really mean that. I’m burning with the desire to tell you all about it but I’ll refrain myself. I want you to have the same what the fuck reaction I had.  

The synergy of masculinity and sexuality

I know I keep coming back to those two cops but their discussions are just so juicy I can’t resist mentioning them. After the wife of one of them leaves with the kids to Florida, he keeps saying “I’m gonna get her” with full support from his partner. The conversation continues in Taxi Driver style without that “someday a rain will come and wash…” part. While they’re getting a blowjob from two male prostitutes, we move inside an underground S&M gay club. The club is literally underground and this descent into a sweaty, crowded, and electric club feels like a descent into hell.

There’s so much stuff going on that it will be hard to keep track of it all. Men are kissing and dancing together, some wearing just a jockstrap and some in full gimp suits. Funnily enough, during his research, Friedkin himself visited these clubs wearing only a jockstrap. However, there are also men giving blowjobs and doing other kinds of stuff. This is just the beginning of our adventure and as the movie progresses it will get more and more graphic. What I wanted to point out was the atmosphere.

It’s oozing with testosterone and pure, distilled masculinity despite all the homosexuality. I use the word despite here only in a sense that’s contrary to the general ties between heterosexuality and masculinity. Every person in this club is muscular, neatly trimmed, and immaculately dressed. As soon as the initial shock wears off, this powerful sexual energy hits you like a freight train. What makes the whole thing even more intense is the personalities. When asked why he’s there, one of the visitors answers: “Because I’m having ego problems, I need to be worshipped and adored”.

So, he’s even self-aware of what’s going on. It feels that the people you find in these S&M nightclubs are prime male specimens, especially when compared to the regular nightclubs of the eighties. Moreover, you get a sense that having sex with women and being straight is actually gay, if I may use that term in that sense. And that only real men fuck men, adding a physical power balance to the equation. In straight sexual intercourse, the male, because of his physical strength, is passively dominant over the female.

Here, both sexual partners are equally strong, bringing a sense of real danger to the situation. While all of this is happening it’s easy to forget the double standards when it comes to some girl-on-girl action. Straight men enjoy watching two girls having fun with each other and do not consider that gay. While the scenes of two men having fun with each other are considered repulsive. I also keep coming back to Friedkin’s style of directing, raw and voyeuristic. It evokes strong emotions, basically short-circuiting the preprogrammed responses and taking the viewer into unexpected avenues of thinking.

The Sexual Release of Energy

First of all, let’s define what the world cruising means. Cruising means walking or driving around looking for a sexual partner. Now, is there something that straight men would want more than to walk through the city and browse potential sexual partners? I fucking ask you is there something they would want more? There’s no dinner, no seduction or anything of that matter involved, just pure physical attraction. That physical attraction is followed by an unbridled sexual intercourse. During sex, we witness the release of not just sexual energy but all the pent-up emotions brought on by the simple act of living in our society.

And if you happen to be gay, you’ll have to face a lot more discrimination and hatred. Some of the straight men watching this movie were probably thinking why can’t we have some of this? The emotions and feelings of desire are so genuine that you can disregard sexual preferences and look at the whole thing from a conceptual angle. You could argue that swingers clubs offer the same level of debauchery along with those high-class Eyes Wide Shut parties. Both of these places are out of the average man’s reach.

Bonus: Forget about leather, it’s all about handkerchiefs

The history of handkerchiefs or bandanas is a long one. However, before we go any further I would like to remind you of their appearance in various movies before 1980. First, you had the pocket squares worn by Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, and Gary Cooper in the 1940s and 50s. Then came the Western movies, where the handkerchief was not just a fashion accessory but also a very practical item. However, handkerchiefs in the gay community, according to the movie Cruising, had a very different purpose.

Young Powers Booth, playing the role of a storeowner, explains this to Pacino’s character quite graphically: “A light-blue hanky in your left back pocket means you want a blow job. Right pocket means you give one. The green one left side says you’re a hustler, right side you’re a buyer. The yellow one left side means you give a golden shower, right side you receive.” It feels like a secret language that an ordinary passerby wouldn’t have a chance of figuring out. Although, the one with the yellow hanky is pretty obvious.

And then you have the act of holding, smelling, rubbing, and licking of the hankies in gay clubs. We see Detective Burns hook up with a random individual and then the two of them both bite the same hanky. His dance partner then proceeds to smell it, ecstatic with the results of that act. They probably wipe their sweat with it and rub it against certain body parts ramping up for what’s to come. A strange, creative, and, above all, highly effective way of getting aroused, you have to admit.