When Sea of Love was released in 1989 Al Pacino hadn’t been in a film for four years – the longest gap in his career to date. His last film, Revolution, had also been a box-office bomb, meaning the American public hadn’t seen him in a prestigious role since Scarface in 1983. That makes Sea of Love the start of the second phase in Pacino’s career – what might be called his late work – which culminated with his full-blown renaissance in the late 1990s. You wouldn’t necessarily guess he’d scale those heights again from Sea of Love though – not because his performance isn’t great, but because he’s cast as a has-been, a washed-up detective who’s on the cusp of retiring when one last serial killer comes knocking at his door.
Pacino plays Frank Keller, a disillusioned New York homicide detective who’s reached twenty years on the force when a serial killer starts to target men using singles ads. The film opens with the first of these murders – a bizarre tableau in which an unseen figure makes a man hump an empty bed while pointing a gun at his head. We see this man’s bare backside, which exudes a terrible indignity and invulnerability, before the killer blows him away, and leaves the apartment, after placing an old 45 of Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” on the record player. This opening sequence alternates between an aggressively 80s soundscape and stylistic register, and the mid-century melancholy of Phillips’ hit, leaving the audience somewhere in between.
Perhaps that’s why Sea of Love often feels more like a 70s film than a late 80s film. Certainly, Becker allows the investigation to unfold with a spaciousness, and a room to breathe, that recalls the stately pacing of New Hollywood, even if it is frequently twisted around a more 80s sense of neurosis as well. In a kind of crime procedural counterpart to Fatal Attraction, Becker and screenwriter Richard Price invert the typical serial killer narrative, focusing on the vulnerability of men alone at night in the city. As more men start to turn up dead, Frank speculates that the murders happen on a first date, after sex, when the man has fallen asleep.
These aborted first dates open up a mid-century loneliness and a more historicised sense of the wee small hours of the morning. It emerges that the killer favours men who write hokey aphorisms in the single columns – phrases like “Silver moons, old rock tunes” or “4am, the longest hour” – while Frank reels in his first pool of potential suspects by placing a fifty-year old poem in the columns himself. Since Frank is single, he has a special connection and communion with these single men – he actually falls asleep in the first victim’s apartment – and the film as a whole is peculiarly attuned to the particular melancholy of the bachelor pad.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a good deal of macho camaraderie in this police procedural – it just feels compensatory or unconvincing in the face of this mid-century masculine melancholy that settles on every surface. Like many fictional cops, Frank has a difficult relationship to his ex-wife, but unlike most cops he can’t discuss it with his partner Gruber, played by Richard Jenkins, since he’s now married to her. In time, he gets a new partner, Sherman Touhey, played by John Goodman, who’s more amenable and relatable. Even so, his first outing with Touhey also reiterates his own singledom – a lavish Long Island wedding where he sits alone at a table as “Another One Bites the Dust” segues back into “Sea of Love.”
This failure of cop camaraderie is one of the real hallmarks of Sea of Love, and is epitomised in the central scene of the film. Late one night, the detectives all gather at Frank’s father’s place to write poems or aphorisms that might draw in the killer. The jokes, predictably, get bluer, until one of the men improvises a couplet about the size of his junk. No sooner does this happen, however, than Frank’s father volunteers a haunting poem about his wife, now dead. The men leave as quickly as they arrive, and Frank agrees to stay the night with his father. We’re left with two men, several generations apart, each buried in their own particular loneliness, as once again a late-night, mid-century, Sinatra-and-Riddle atmosphere emerges.
The film seems to attribute this loneliness to the rise of the single column (and more distantly, the first inchoate hints of online dating), along with the challenge this poses to the way men conduct themselves in public space. We learn that one of the victims placed thirty singles ads in a single week, while Frank has to pose as a lonelyhearts to get a real foothold on the case, and go on a series of dates with women while the rest of his team surveil their conversations. In the process, Sea of Love becomes a kind of spiritual sequel to Cruising, as Becker apprehends a new queer potential to the unattached man moving through the urban jungle.
This brings in the second major character in Sea of Love – Helen Cruger, a shoe saleswoman, played by Ellen Barker. On the face of it, Helen is the most threatening character Frank meets, since she’s frank in both her sexual liberation and her disinterest in him: “Nothing personal, you’re just not my type.” Frank’s early encounters with Helen are the clearest indication in the whole film that Pacino’s star power has waned, and yet Helen becomes fascinated with Frank’s own fascination with the diminished image of himself that she paints. Within the film’s logic, this (initially) makes Helen the most likely candidate for the killer, and so Frank’s desire to overcome his loneliness, and Pacino’s need to rehabilitate his star image, converge on her.
Of course, Frank isn’t equipped for the new world of the singles column, especially because, in the film’s paranoid formulation, the singles scene has replaced the physical world in ways that now feel proto-digital. Singles columns are emasculating here because they displace bars as pickup sites, which in turn suffuse the film with a boozy overflow from the old sea of love – the alcohol-centred spaces where men once felt invulnerable approaching women. All the drunken momentum Frank once used to pick up women now has nowhere to go, so it pools and intensifies until the entire film seems somewhat tipsy. For most of his relationship with Helen he poses as a printer – ostensibly because he’s undercover, but really to express his inchoate desire to somehow control or curate this shift from in-person to printed flirtation.
This displacement of old male watering-holes creates a new edginess to public space generally – a new possibility for cruisiness. Glimpsing a latent digital singles scene means that sex in public becomes possible in a new way, as Becker makes viscerally clear in a neo-noir update of the supermarket scene from Double Indemnity. Meeting Helen in a local supermarket, a space that was once as feminised as the police bars were masculinised, Frank engages in frottage amongst the produce, before confessing that “I can’t even sleep in my bed any more unless you’re in it – I need you to be down with me or I’m going to walk the streets all night.”
As the film proceeds, Frank’s colleagues start to question whether he is attracted to Helen precisely because she might be a serial killer. Certainly, this is a part of it, but the serial killer only operates here as an embodiment of this new sense of masculine precarity anyway. By embracing Helen, and the possibility of her being a murderer, Frank turns his new vulnerability in public space, and in this new dating scene, into a masochistic fetish. Helen plays the top here, dominating him in the bedroom (she’s much bigger than him), while looming over him outside as well. It doesn’t hurt that Pacino can’t really do sex scenes convincingly, while Barkin is much more fluid and confident with her naked body. Again, the masochistic intensity to Pacino’s presence recalls Cruising – he has a stifled quality, like’s he disciplining himself painfully in key scenes so he (and the audience) can enjoy more later on.
The final note of Sea of Love is thus one of masochistic melancholy – a sense that public pickups have declined as a shared masculine experience, and as a way for men to perform their manhood to other men, even as the male body has become more vulnerable and precarious in public space as well. For that reason, I initially assumed that the killer was definitely a man, probably a cop, and possibly Goodman’s character, Touhey, since his warm rapport with Frank doesn’t seem sustainable in the film’s world. Yet Becker and Price go a slightly different way, using the second act to distance Frank from Touhey, who’s reduced to comic relief, and lighting upon another cop, and another of Frank’s colleagues, as the killer.
Brilliantly, the killer is the same cop who made the joke about the size of his junk when Frank and his colleagues were trying to come up with aphorisms earlier in the film. This was the bluest moment in the script, and the closest the cops came to a real macho camaraderie, but it was dissipated almost immediately by the poem recited by Frank’s father, and the shared loneliness of Frank’s night with his father. Now even the residual camaraderie is deflated, as the same cop who made the joke turns out to be the very embodiment of male vulnerability. In a final twist, we learn that he is Helen’s ex-husband, and that his jealousy has driven him to track down every man she meets in the singles columns, and emasculate and murder them.
The emasculation is as much a part of his modus operandi as the murder – or the two are the same thing, since this is emasculation-as-murder, right down to the submissive position the cop forces his victims to adopt before killing them, not unlike the bottom role that Frank now plays with his ex-wife. For that reason, Frank’s final reunion with Helen feels like a fantasy sequence, epitomised by the improbable Tom Waits cover of “Sea of Love” that rolls over the closing credits. By this stage, Waits had several experimental albums behind him, but this track splits the difference between albums like Rain Dogs and his late-night croonfests of the 70s. Like those Waits albums, Sea of Love is adrift in a loneliness that has no name yet – a proto-digital loneliness perhaps – requiring recourse to a past that doesn’t quite do justice to the present; the perfect film to kickstart Pacino’s halting, hesitant, stop-and-start comeback.