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Cruising (1980, Al Pacino, Karen Allen)

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‘There are not enough Xs in the world to rate this thing!’ said the American censor, but two decades after its initial release, this accomplished thriller is worthy of reappraisal as one of Friedkin and Pacino’s most challenging works. After a series of murders in an area of New York frequented by gay men, patrolman Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is offered the chance of promotion if he goes undercover to find the killer.

Ignoring the complaints of his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen), Burns agrees, and moves into the area. Making friends with his neighbour, Ted Bailey (Don Scardino), Burns gradually learns the rituals and protocols of promiscuity, and singles out potential suspects as the slayings continue. The attempted seduction of one possible killer, Skip Lee, proves to be fruitless, although the young cop is lucky to escape alive. Seeing his relationship with Nancy disintegrate, Burns tries to leave his assignment. But a routine check on the victims’ backgrounds provides strong links between them and a man now familiar to the police, and Burns decides to set aside his own problems and confront the only man who can help him return to his previous life…

Slaughter is the keyword on and off screen when referring to Cruising , which appears to have suffered the kind of vilification its characters would recognise. To appease the irate censor, the studio hired a New York psychiatrist (who had worked on The Exorcist ) to recut and resubmit the film. ‘It was butchery on a scale comparable to The Magnificent Ambersons ,’ said Friedkin, who estimates 40 minutes of material were sacrificed.

It also set the pace for controversy that Basic Instinct and Silence of the Lambs would revisit, as gay groups boycotted the picture amid claims of acute homophobia. Yet Friedkin portrays each murder with a real sense of repulsion, and the character of Ted Bailey, who befriends Burns, has a clear-cut morality which is years ahead of its time (perhaps another Pacino co-star, Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon , is the only other to have been portrayed so positively).

Burns’ sexuality crisis is depicted with intelligence and candour, and Friedkin’s roving camera underscores a sense of restlessness that infects the city, its residents and the eager killer, and sticks in the memory long after the closing credits have rolled.

production details
USA | 102 minutes | 1980

Director and Writer: William Friedkin (from the book by Gerald Walker)

cast
Mike Starr as Patrolman Desher
Paul Sorvino as Capt. Edelson
Joe Spinell as Patrolman DiSimone
Jay Acovone as Skip Lee
Al Pacino as Steve Burns
Karen Allen as Nancy Gates
Richard Cox as Stuart Richards
Don Scardino as Ted Bailey
Randy Jurgensen as Det. Lefransky
Barton Heyman as Dr. Rifkin
Kirsten Baker as Jogger
Ed O’Neill as Det. Schreiber
James Remar as Gregory
Powers Boothe as Hankie Salesman
Gene Davis as DaVinci

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