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Cruising: Ambiguity and Meaning

By Duran Aziz

There isn’t a whole lot that’s resolved by the time the credits roll in William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980). We thought that undercover officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) brought the man responsible for murdering several gay men in the heavy leather scene to justice. However, we soon find out that Steve’s floormate Ted was also murdered, leading us to question if Burns found the actual killer, or if Burns himself may be responsible. The film ends with Burns staring directly into the camera, a slow fade to a wide shot of the New York Harbor, and a hard cut to credits.

Even when disregarding the massive public outcry from the gay community, the critical reception to Cruising was poor. Roger Ebert wrote in his review that “Pacino’s own involvement in the events of the plot is deliberately left unclear” and “since the movie is about his involvement – much more than it’s ‘about’ the challenge of solving the killings – what we’re left with is a movie without the courage to declare itself.” Many critics felt Cruising didn’t work either as a thriller, nor as an exploration of Pacino’s character, and therefore the film didn’t successfully say anything.

But as Ebert pointed out, the ambiguities throughout Cruising are deliberate. In the behind-the-scenes featurette “Exorcising Cruising” the film’s cinematographer James Contner talks about the film’s strange laundering of its killers and victims:

“In the first killing in the St. James Hotel, Larry Atlas is the killer and Arnaldo Santana is the victim. And then in the central park killing, you have Larry Atlas who is the killer in the St. James killing, and he’s being killed by Richard Cox [who plays the murderer Burns arrests at the end of the film]. So then you have in the peep-show, the guy who walks in the peep-show is Arnaldo Santana, who is the victim of the first killing, and the killer inside the peep-show is actually Richard Cox. And then on top of all of that you’ve got all the actors being dubbed by an actor who never appears on screen and that’s James Sutorius.”

This intentionally disorienting use of actors confuses the audience and heightens the film’s sense of ambiguity. Meaning becomes totally disconnected from the act of murder. Without knowing who the killer or the victim is, the only thing that remains is the act itself.

Pacino’s character goes through a transformation during his undercover stint, but his psychology is completely hidden from the audience. It’s likely that Burns himself doesn’t understand what he’s going through either. When he rendezvous with his superior Captain Edelson on a subway platform, he is visibly distraught. He says “I can’t do the job. I don’t think I can do the job, Captain. I don’t think I can handle it, that’s all. I don’t know. It’s just... It’s…Things happening to me, you know. I don’t know that I can handle it.” This scene is implying that Burns may be developing homoerotic feelings, or that his time in the leather scene is taking a toll on his psyche. But the audience never really gets keyed into what’s going on with him.

The movie implies that Burns’s journey into the leather scene affects his sexuality. We can track the changes in his sexuality by looking at his relationship with his girlfriend, Nancy. The first time Burns and Nancy are seen together is in bed cuddling. Burns gently takes her hand, brushes her hair, and tenderly grasps her arm. The next time we see them together they are having rough sex. In between these two encounters with Nancy, Burns dips his toes into the world of S&M leather. Seconds before this sex scene, we have the murder in central park. There is an inevitable correlation with the hardcore sex Burns witnesses in the gay bars, to the central park murder, to the rough sex he has with Nancy. Maybe Burns is expressing his sexual frustrations, the repression of his homosexual feelings, by engaging in this rougher heterosexual sex with Nancy. In a later scene, he is kicked out of a gay bar. He is approached by a man who propositions him for sex. Burns refuses, saying “not tonight” and as he is walking away the film cuts to another sex scene with him and Nancy. Nancy goes down on him and Burns stares at the ceiling, as if he’s thinking about something else, while what sounds like noises from the gay bars lightly play over the soundtrack. The next scene with them together, Burns and Nancy have a falling out. Nancy asks him if he’s “turned off” to her. He tries to get out of answering her question, but then says “what I’m doing is affecting me.” She suggests that they should take a break from each other, and Burns agrees without protest. Burns is no longer able to take out his homosexual urges on Nancy; they have become too strong for heterosexual sex to satisfy.

But there is never a moment in the film where Burns’s sexuality becomes clear. We never see Burns engaging in gay sex, though by the end of the film we see that he has mastered the rituals surrounding cruising, which implies that he has had many gay sexual experiences.

In the final scene, Nancy walks into Burns shaving in her apartment. After a brief conversation, it seems as if their relationship troubles have been swept under the rug. Nancy sees Burns’s leather gear he wore when he was undercover and puts it on. The leather scene and the questioning of his sexuality is now a permanent part of Burns, whether he welcomes it or not. His undercover experiences cruising transcends just being an act. Not only is a part of Burns, but it has also now become a part of Nancy; the visual metaphor of her putting on the leather cap, aviator sunglasses, and leather jacket make this clear. The scene then cuts to Burns looking at a mirror. His gaze shifts and he is now looking directly at the camera. His facial expression is both blank and contemplative. There is an impenetrable wall between the audience and his interiority. On this shot, William Friedkin offered this as an explanation: “When you look at someone, do you really know who they are?... And who are you?”


About the writer

In 2021, Duran received a Bachelor's of Arts from the University of Maryland in Cinema & Media Studies and English. He currently writes freelance with hopes of becoming a film studies academic. Follow his work at and contact him at

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Nov 23, 2023

I watched it when it premiered. I watched it again last night. I loved it both times. As a straight man, I had two different experiences reflecting my personal evolution and that of my society.

I never understood the backlash against the movie, except that it caused all viewers to take a formal stand about how everyone else should react, while possibly having a different personal reaction.

The movie goes out of its way to make gay culture as a whole and several characters sympathetic. The leather S&M scene is presented as a small subset of gay culture, just as gay culture is presented as a subset of human sexuality. You should also recognize the other cop in the mov…


Apr 02, 2023

Thank you SO much for writing this good sir,i just finished watching Cruising and needed some good processing.And i do believe you hit it right on the nail.All & all,i actually really enjoyed the film even as utterly ambiguous as it is.

Mar 22
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Thanks for reading!

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