Friday, March 24th, 2023

Al Pacino’s overage, undercover cop in the Mineshaft


Directed by William Friedkin

Written by William Friedkin and Gerald Walker

Released February 8, 1980
Drama (thriller)
102 min.


Review by Stephen O. Murray

January 19, 2012.

I watched both the movies set in gay milieux directed by William Friedkin (born in Chicago in 1935) back to back.

The 1970 screen incarnation of the Off-Broadway cast of Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band was daring, though not especially controversial at the time. It was practically a time capsule already in 1970 of self-loathing homosexuals and has been increasingly denigrated over the ensuing decades. Gay liberationist film historian Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet) criticized the play and movie for trafficking in “perfunctory, easily acceptable stereotypes” and “lots of zippy f-a-g humor that posed as philosophy” (as monologs pile up in the second half).

The screenplay for Cruising that Friedkin wrote, embellishing on New York Times crime reporter Gerald Walker’s novel about a serial killer in the Manhattan gay “heavy leather” (s&m) scene, led Russo and others to protest the film being made (with the cooperation of the NYC government). Noisy demonstrations aiming to disrupt shooting continued through shooting around Manhattan. The finished film was not as gay-demonizing as Russo et al. feared (though, as an NYPD captain, Paul Sorvino clucks about the “heavy leather scene,” and I am sure that “animalistic” is an adjective the lurid club scenes provoke some to think and declare).

The film was made with the cooperation of some clubs and gay leatherfolks who suspected puritanical political correctness on the part of those attempting to keep the movies from being made. Forty minutes were cut after the MPAA raters said that one X would not be sufficient. The deleted scenes have been lost, Friedkin reports in bonus features, so no one will ever know how insulting/demonizing the director’s cut was. His casual equation of fatal stabbings with sexual penetration in his commentary makes me dubious of his claim that he did not intend to vilify the subculture. And he mixed the two penetrations particularly in a peepshow murder sequence. Also, there is a distinct shortage of sane gay characters in a movie with a whole lot of gay characters; in contrast, the old-fashioned self-hatred in The Boys in the Band does not entirely engulf even the most vicious of the nine characters.

Undercover policeman (eager to become a detective) Steve Burns, purportedly in his 20s (played by Al Pacino, who was 40), goes to some West Greenwich Village bars and clubs. Sex is occurring in them, though there is no graphic sex in the movie. There are a lot of jockstraps, and at one point Al Pacino is nude and hogtied…

Friedkin and producer Jerry Weintraub claim in DVD bonus interviews that violence is suggested rather than shown (Friedkin invokes Psycho as model for this). In addition to graphic images of corpses, there are two murders that I consider very graphic—and the first one is also quite prolonged. I think the movie qualifies as a “slasher film.”

I recall from the time of the movie’s release that some viewers thought that Steve Burns had gone over to the dark side: not just in becoming involved in bondage and masochism and male-male eroticism but in becoming a murderer. I think this is nonsense. Prolonged, dangerous undercover has effects, and Burns is changed by his experience. But I don’t see that trying to think like the killer transforms him into being one.

The movie is unsatisfactory as a whodunit in that there seems to be more than one serial matacabro. One is “caught in the act,” but the viewer remains unsure whether that one is responsible for the murders shown in the movie (it is pretty certain that he was responsible for one occurring months earlier that is not shown in the movie). Burns receives no briefing about the world into which he is thrust and either has no backup or way too much. (Burns is forbidden to carry his police revolver and Pacino is not a big, burly guy…)

Though too old for the part, Pacino was good at alternating between determination and being overwhelmed. He looked uncomfortable even beyond the discomfort his character was supposed to be feeling. Paul Sorvino and Karen Allen were fine in parts that did not demand much from them. IMO the outstanding performances were delivered by actors playing serial-killer suspects: Jay Acovone and Richard Cox (respectively, 15 and 8 years younger than Pacino).

As it focuses on a prime suspect (actually, a succession of prime suspects), the movie gets to be pretty standard police procedural thriller and the setting becomes background rather than sensationalized foreground.

Friedkin is proud that no one in the movie editorialized (as if the message of complicity in murder needed to be said in addition to being shown, especially in going into a peepshow booth is an invitation to be murdered, and as if Sorvino’s character doesn’t…).

Both sound and image were remastered for the DVD (and a brief theatrical re-release preceding its issue). As, sadly, was not the case for the DVD release of The Boys in the Band, the actors in Cruising are alive to be interviewed (though Pacino is unwilling to talk about the experience of making the movie amidst heavy protests). Friedkin’s commentary track is primarily explaining the movie, with very little detail about the travails of its making. He is more interesting in the bonus features on the making of the movie and exorcising it (in which he shows an inability to understand why many thought his screenplay showed homosexuality as necessarily leading to psychopathic violence, even for our innocent, not-so-young policeman).

Friedkin praises Jack Nitzsche’s sound effects. (Nitzche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) died in 2000 so was not available to be interviewed in 2008.

Cinematographer James A. Contner (Heat) says he wanted to shoot the movie in black-and-white. The club scenes are practically in black (leather and jeans) and white (tank tops and a very pale Al Pacino).

first published by epinions, 19 January 2012
©2012, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.