Is 'Eyes Wide Shut' the Movie Stanley Kubrick Wanted Us to See?

When it was released in the summer of 1999, Eyes Wide Shut was easily the most anticipated film of the year. Starring the biggest movie star in the world and his wife, it was the first film in 12 years for Stanley Kubrick, who had not given an interview since 1987, on the occasion of the release of Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick, who was known to famously change his work even after its release, was rumored to be still working on the film when he died, to the point where what was released was not the film he intended. He also couldn't supervise the marketing campaign, which sold the movie as a sexy romp, but just ended up freaking people out. Now, 15 years later, with the movie back in the public consciousness, is it time for a reappraisal, and to ask whether the Eyes Wide Shut we saw was what Kubrick intended? I dunno. Let's see!

Down to the Wire

Stanley Kubrick, probably more than any other director, was known for his almost compulsive attention to detail. A veteran chess player and strategist, Kubrick personally devised complex filing systems to solve the problems he encountered during filmmaking, and left archives that were staggering in volume and breadth.

He was also known for making changes to his films up to, and after, their theatrical release. After 2001: A Space Odyssey tested poorly with audiences:

Kubrick -- decided to tighten the film, cutting 19 minutes of film, explaining, "It does take a few runnings to decide finally how long things should be, especially scenes which do not have narrative advancement as their guideline."

The film was released on April 2, 1968, but edits were made "between April 5 and 9, 1969 and detailed instructions were sent to theater owners already showing the film, in order that they might put the trims into effect." 17 of the 19 minutes of footage were recovered in 2010, and show that he added some titles to orient the audience, and cut things like, "an entire sequence of several shots in which Dave Bowman searches for the replacement antenna part in storage."

Crucially, though, he excised a prologue featuring eminent scientists, discussing the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. The text of this segment is reproduced in the book, The Making of Kubrick's 2001, portions of which can be seen here.  Had this remained in the film, it would have changed the tone of the film utterly, wrecking, in effect, what people love about the movie so much, i.e., its mystery. Kubrick chose to hold back, and his pragmatic choice not to bore a "restless" audience ended up connecting with the youth who turned the film into a pop culture phenomenon.

It's also kind of well-known that The Shining, perhaps the most obsessed-over Kubrick work (sorry, guys) has a deleted scene. An epilogue of sorts was shot, cut, and put into the release prints, then hastily removed. In the scene, we see Danny and Wendy, safe and in the hospital, where they are visited by the hotel manager Ullman. The scene would have occurred between the shot of Jack, dead in the maze, and the shot of Jack, alive in the hotel's past. It would also have been followed by a card that related how The Overlook overcame the tragedy and still remains open during its regular season. Luckily, this amazing Shining site, run by Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich, has the script for that scene. Here's the first page:

Kubrick used his unprecedented creative control to enact costly surgery on his film, and because it took several days for all the prints to have the scene excised, there are people who saw the original version in the theater. It's also worth noting that in the official IMDb credits there are listings for a Nurse and a Policeman, showing just how late in the game this edit was made. Of the edit, Kubrick said:

After several screenings in London the day before the film opened in New York and Los Angeles, when I was able to see for the first time the fantastic pitch of excitement which the audience reached during the climax of the film, I decided the scene was unnecessary. It had not been possible to change all of the New York and Los Angeles prints before opening.

A Modest Proposal

So what, you say? What does this have to do with the price of an extra large popcorn with butter and a jumbo Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper? To which I would reply, nothing, but it does have a lot to do with Eyes Wide Shut, its reception, and some of the mysteries that have surrounded the film since 1999. It's well-known that Kubrick was an extremely controlling director, and demanding of his actors and capable, in Eyes Wide Shut, of staging a production that is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest continuous production, a total of 400 days. He also reconstructed Greenwich Village in England and routinely shot over 90 takes of actions as banal as Tom Cruise walking through a door. But for all that, he was still willing to trim his film based on audience reception and the opinions of others. For a control freak, that's fairly laid-back.

And what did those changes achieve? In both 2001 and The Shining, the key cuts added a mystery to the film. In both instances, Kubrick elected to remove explanation, for whatever reason (the scene in the hospital adds another layer of ambiguity, with Ullman throwing the ball to Danny). Perhaps Kubrick felt that was one layer too many, and diluted the power of the cut from frozen Jack to "frozen" Jack, trapped in Time.

As for 2001, the film worked its magic on the counterculture, something Kubrick had no intention of doing, by being visual in the extreme, and refusing any sort of explanation; the astonishing images are enough to convey his point. Though voiceover was used effectively in many of his films, a sequence meant to establish verisimilitude and plausibility would have ruined the mystery of the film, and also undercut the way the few lines of dialogue left play up humanity's seeming evolution away from language. So he elected, in both instances, to let the images speak for themselves, and in both cases, this probably saved, or at least greatly helped, the films.

The fact that he left these scenes in for so long speaks to Kubrick's obsession with language; in Kubrick Land, language is not a means of communication, but of alienation; it's an ironic distancing voiceover, a hollow gesture, a banal pleasantry or hypocrisy with a smile. It's been noted, for instance, that Tom Cruise's first line in Eyes Wide Shut is a lie. Nicole Kidman asks him how she looks and he responds, "Perfect," when he's not even looking at her. As noted by Michael Ciment:

The banality of the dialogue between the Harfords and the Zieglers at the beginning of the film evokes the trivial conversation between the Russian cosmonauts and American cosmonauts in 2001 -- As always in Kubrick, the superficiality of the dialogue conceals the horrors ahead."

EWS scehe

Near the end of Eyes Wide Shut, there's a scene between Tom Cruise, Sydney Pollack, and a billiard table that is both exceptionally long and, for many viewers, mystifying. To recap the plot: Tom Cruise, or Dr. Bill Harford, enraged by his wife Alice's confession of imagined infidelity, goes off on a dreamlike odyssey through New York, where his marriage is put to the test by the constant stream of strangers throwing themselves at Dr. Bill, whose face during the majority of the film is an impassive mask.

Obtaining an actual mask, he sneaks into an orgy at a mansion, is discovered, and then spends the rest of the film retracing his steps. Though it is never explicitly stated, the first half of the film is certainly dreamlike. For instance, Dr. Bill produces a wallet numerous times, and it never fails to produce cash, leading some to a reading of the film as capitalist allegory, with Tom Cruise as a social climber who is put back in his place when his rented costume and taxi give him away at the orgy. Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollock) summons Cruise to let him know that though he might be invited to nice parties, he is just the help, the doctor called in to clean up Ziegler's messes.

The scene has confounded viewers since the film's release. At 13 minutes long, it contains a lot of subtextual niceties. (Cruise refuses some expensive scotch and Ziegler laughs because, really, that's the gesture of an equal, to whom a case of scotch means nothing; Cruise is seen drinking beer, and Pollack laughs at his osteopath's pretensions.) And the story he tells Cruise about the dead woman is obviously a lie, or is it? We never find out, but lots of people spent a lot of time analyzing the movement of the billiard balls, which probably wasn't the point.

Is Ziegler telling the truth? Does it matter? I'm not suggesting that Kubrick would have excised the scene had he lived, but I strongly suspect that he would have cut it far shorter and that, as released, the film feels incomplete. Perhaps the film would work better without Pollack's glossing things over, then spelling out that there were super powerful people gettin' freaky last night and you shouldn't have seen that. But perhaps I should shut up. And while I would never presume, I think it's not outside the realm of possibility to say that, just as the presence of the mask on the pillow is never explained.

EWS mask

The orgy, one of the strangest sequences in Kubrick's filmography, might have been better left unexplained, with Ziegler's participation hinted at; like the deleted scene in The Shining, I'm inclined to think that in its present form it sort of lets the air out of what came before. Though, maybe that's the point. But Dr. Bill is, it is suggested, dreaming, and the orgy is a dreamlike affair, the fantasy, it could be argued, of what men like Ziegler do behind closed doors. In this interpretation, Ziegler's admission that yup, that's how we do, seems kind of silly.

We'll never know, and either way, people will be unhappy. The fun is in speculating, and celebrating the work of a great filmmaker. Conspiracy theories tend to draw jeers, and confessions of ignorance tend to draw sighs of exasperation. But don't sigh just yet! Also, if you YouTube this movie, you will learn that the obvious symbolism in the orgy scene is of the occult, meant to point you subtly to the film's ties to the illuminati, or something.

Eyes Wide Shut is two hours and 59 minutes long, and at the screening held a few days before he died, he apparently told the head of Warner Bros., Terry Semel, that the final cut would be two hours and thirty-nine minutes long. And, as this respected Kubrick site points out:

Kubrick's film was in a weird position. His contract forbids anyone from cutting his film. He alone had final cut. So while his sound editor could lay down tracks and put in music, per his guidelines, they could not actually edit the footage. Usually music and imagery is edited in tandem, not so in Eyes Wide Shut.

And don't take my word for it. According to Eagle Scout and noted filmmaker David Lynch:

I really love Eyes Wide Shut. I just wonder if Stanley Kubrick really did finish it the way he wanted to before he died.

EWS tom mask

Just as they had before, critics got Eyes Wide Shut totally wrong. Inevitably, perhaps, it was read as an allegory for Tom and Nicole's marriage, and key elements of the plot were misinterpreted. Because they were the stars of the film, it was assumed that the audience was supposed to like Dr. Bill and Alice. But what if they are shallow consumerists, and the supposedly tender last line is evidence of their vapidity, shallow view of marital relations, and relief at being done with the whole business, which business included, you know, dead escorts? We'll never know.

Marketed as a big summer erotic thriller, the film about sexual anxiety and death and whatever else was savaged by critics, with former supporter Andrew Sarris writing that the film was "Ridiculously though intellectually overhyped for the very marginal entertainment, edification and titillation it provides over its somewhat turgid 159-minute running time."

But let's let a real authority have the last word. In the introduction to Kubrick: The Definitive Collection, Martin Scorsese writes:

If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones) you'll see that his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.

In the end, we have the movie we have. And it's a weird movie. And a flawed movie. And a great movie, in its way. It's wholly original, and like any great work of art, sticks with you. And, as the final film of one of the century's master filmmakers, this movie with so much to give, shunted aside at the time by a gleeful tabloid media, deserves a critical reappraisal. In the end, Eyes Wide Shut is almost certainly not the film Kubrick would have been happy with in the end, but we should be happy we have it.

I'm not offering any interpretations here, I just like talking about movies.  And I'm not in the Illuminati. And neither was Kubrick.


Your Comment


As much as I love Pollack he was wrong for that role (original actor Kietel who was fired would have been better) and that scene where he plays pool and explains everything is too long and too to the point. Very unlike Kubrick. It needed to be shortened, if anything. I always felt that it stopped the film for me. Kubrick was more subtle more obtuse, never so clear cut. Its the only scene in the movie I hate to re watch ( and maybe also Nicole Kidman badly acting high). Maybe it was Kubricks slipping but that scene just does not work.

July 27, 2014 at 7:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Just wanted to correct a little mistake:

''one of the centuries’ master filmmakers''...

Kubrick is one of the greatest filmmaker in the HISTORY of cinema... if not THE greatest of all time, period.

Otherwise, amazing article!

July 27, 2014 at 7:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Kind of hard to argue that there is a better filmmaker from the 1800s, when cinema was barely anything more than clips of the world.
Meanwhile, in this century, there's really no new masters really pulling themselves out of the mud.
But, I agree. Kubrick was definitely one of (if not the) greatest filmmakers in history.

August 15, 2014 at 3:29PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Point Of Order

I believe it's Brian Aldiss who first mentioned that EWS was made in agreement with Warner Brothers that they would fiance A.I so long as Kubrick made a film with Tom Cruse before hand.

July 27, 2014 at 8:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Agreed, great article.

July 27, 2014 at 8:53AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Obviously Kubrick was exposing too much and showing people how the rich and most powerful people spend some nights. The symbolism is obvious and undeniable and the way he presented all these questions and interpretations is just masterful and artistic. Kubrick wasn't IN the Illuminati if there even is a such thing but i'm sure being as successful as he was he has seen quite a bit and felt people don't really know what's going on. And this became proof that even critics misunderstood the movie as most viewers did and didn't grasp the underlying concepts and theme. It is quite odd how he died all of a sudden right when this movie was pretty much being finished and ended up not getting final cut and putting the movie out how he intended. It's quite coincidental and works out for the studio to make the adjustments to the film and make it longer then Kubrick intended. But at the end of the day, this guy is a true artist and a great source of inspiration.

July 27, 2014 at 2:46PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Brad Watts

Even if there isn't an official Illuminati, there are groups of extremely wealthy and influential individuals with a disproportionate level of global and national power, and these people do meet in private on a regular basis (some describe these meetings as the Grand Chessboard) to direct public policy. At a very small and select number of these get-togethers, elites do participate in celebrations of the ancient mystery school. With "Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick provided a gateway for the inquisitive to investigate this sort of thing for themselves.

I don't think the film would benefit from being more explicit. In fact, I think it would have been more effective it allowed the symbolism do more of the talking and Sidney Lumet's character doing less of it. The symbology and events in the film were powerful enough to communicate these points to the uninitiated.

July 28, 2014 at 8:17AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Marc B

That Pollack and Cruise scene was like something out of a Nolan film: too much exposition and treating the audiences as stupid popcorn munchers.

July 27, 2014 at 6:06PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Nice article. I am a bit confused why you're blushing while discussing the occult, freemasonry, or even, GASP, the Illuminati.

It is abundantly clear, from the druidic robes, secret sex ritual, and double headed eagle chair, that Kubrick was exploring the occult. So, own it, don't brush it off as some wacky underground interpretation--Kubrick didn't.

July 27, 2014 at 9:59PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


In the source material, A Dream Novel, in rough translation, Schnitzler's character, his Dr. Bill, if you will, also attends an event of similar import. I wasn't (in your words) blushing about the subject, it's quite clear that an occult ritual of some sort is what is taking place; one would have to be quite thick to miss that. My point was that I had been trying to find a straight clip from the film, but the only ones I could find (not that one, but others) put forward lots of theories that go farther than is necessary, i.e., they contain theories that Kubrick was making specific references to real-world events, even exposing the British Royal family. I don't think Kubrick was doing anything other than creating a scene in his film; the nature of the party is never confirmed, other than that we know it is a for very rich people to get their evil freak on. I think he was probably using an admixture of all sorts of symbolism; there's a great interview with his production designer in Michael Ciment's book, The Definitive Kubrick and she had a great deal to do, working with him in selecting the film's aesthetic, particularly the aesthetic of that sequence. But really, I was just saying, 'if i had a straight-up clip from the film I would use it, but all of them contain interpretations and commentary and so are unsuitable for the purposes of this article." That's what I should have said. But yeah, no I'm not shying away from any secret society, up to and including The Stonecutters.

July 28, 2014 at 2:09AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Justin Morrow

I'm glad you mentioned Dream Story. Schnitzler was a contemporary of Freud and his novella is very much rooted in psychoanalytical theory. Schnitzler's work and I think Kubrick's as well are more about exploring personal fears and anxieties than about exposing the global Illuminati conspiracy. But the point and the fun about analyzing any text is taking a theory and running with it. It doesn't surprise me that a lot of people have fun with the Illuminati interpretation.

July 28, 2014 at 3:47PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


P.S. Nice Simpson's reference!

July 28, 2014 at 3:49PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I read somewhere that Kubrick was actaully mocking those beliefs in a certain way.

July 29, 2014 at 7:30AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


One of the worst Kubrick movies. Utterly boring, empty and dull. It's so unintended comical you ask yourself if that was his intention - doing the first Kubrick comedy. It's still a mystery to me why he needed to make this bomb at the end of a long and breath taking career full of masterpieces...

July 28, 2014 at 1:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


"Lolita" and "Dr. Strangelove" were comedies.

July 28, 2014 at 6:57AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I don't wish to make negative comments but somehow to me this seems like a Kubrick project finished by others. I only catch glimpses of the master here. I may very well be mistaken but it doesn't feel like a Kubrick work.

July 30, 2017 at 12:11AM

Dale Haskell

This is the movie that Kubrick had been close to the cast and characters more than ever! It gets to the core of a relationship, the unspoken words and feelings. It takes a master to do such thing. One of his best!

July 28, 2014 at 11:06AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Eyes Wide Shut is simply his life and career experience expressed through cinema. Pure and simple. He thought he was successful and intelligent like the Doctor. He thought he had an understanding of people, life, etc then had it all shattered by seeing too much or researching too much. A man with such attention to detail could not ignore the global elite conspiracy hence the title Eye Wide Shut. He miraculous convinced the studio to allow him final cut by using their greed against them selling it as an erotic deviant film with the worlds biggest stars at the time. Hence why he had no control over the marketing of the film. He knew the only way he would get the final cut, the funding, time etc to make it was to allow the studio to interpret and spin it as they wished. The studio bet on the audiences love of celebrity, sex, brand name (Kubrick) and their ignorance of the occult. It wasn't the financial success they thought it would become but they did accurately predict the audiences ignorance of the occult. But, when an man of his stature who's known for his attention to detail includes so much occult symbolism it simply cannot be ignored. He knew this. He knew no matter how it was marketed, perceived and simply brushed off as just entertainment it would haunt this world till the end of time.

July 28, 2014 at 12:36PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Nice to see all the negative comments that got deleted. Way to take criticism, guys !

July 28, 2014 at 2:10PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


For all those who imagine they have no time or have attention deficit disorder; Stanley Kubrick's boxes ca 40Min is an excellent documentation.

July 29, 2014 at 8:36AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Gul Ramani

But for all that, he was still willing to trim his film based on audience reception and the opinions of others. For a control freak, that’s fairly laid-back.

Surely that's just another case of perfectionism: his aim was always to get it exactly right for playing in theatres - not for how he imagined it might play. Once the evidence was in, he brought that to bear.

July 31, 2014 at 8:57AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Even though sex is widely accepted as a very powerful motivator, I think Kubrick was saying with this movie that you have no idea how big a motivator sex really is and that there are lots of pitfalls. The caste systems he unveils boils down to better sexual opportunity.
I think the use of red in this movie is symbolism pulled out of Alice in Wonderland from the line "Everyone knows that a red hot poker will burn you." Red is everywhere but most obviously on Nicole Kidman, the hooker with Aids, the car that brings Bill to the Illuminati house, Illuminati rug, Illuminati leader, etc.
Combine this theme with the reality of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's fake marriage and what you have is Kubrick making a mockery of the whole love game.

July 31, 2014 at 1:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The Comparison of Illuminati in A Clockwork Orange
In the title poster, there is a triangle and an eye in between. The character Alex also has his right eye painted comically like that of an owl. The triangle symbol of “A” symbolizes the pyramid of knowledge and eye represents the role of a watchdog. This is a symbolic representation of illuminati.
This metaphor is carried throughout the film. Bavarian illuminati, the secret society which was found during the medieval renaissance [5] period against the church and its atrocities was supposedly dismantled after church found its root members and killed them. But to the popular belief the members of this organization remained in secrecy to establish the so-called “new world order”.
Though Kubrick never discussed the existence of such organization but just compared to that of what happens with the storyline. The church during the medieval times imprisoned whoever questioned the religion, who questioned the bible and supported science and people who supported scientists establishing the papal rule throughout the continent. They rather imposed bible and biblical values. The people who wanted to discuss and grew against it started the secret society of illuminati. The droogs in this film was representation of illuminati, the group which went on to question the morality of the society. The authorities represented the church imposing morality into the captured prisoner Alex. When Alex just succumbs to their torture he was called cured though he had remnants of society’s hypocrisy in his mind.
Though they are all fully dressed but they enjoy others stripped and pornography. This is subtly conveyed though their dresses as throughout the film it is in futuristic London and these dresses are medieval in style.

August 5, 2014 at 2:53AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM



August 20, 2014 at 2:15AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


there's a serious error in this article: Eyes Wide Shut is 159 minutes, not 179 (two hours and 59 minutes) as you state. 159 minutes *is* 2 hours and 39 minutes.

November 10, 2015 at 1:10AM, Edited November 10, 1:10AM


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February 26, 2019 at 9:59AM, Edited February 26, 9:59AM


Brilliant post and smart discussion below the line. (I came here by chance.) I only wish Kubrick had tortured Cruise harder but now I have to go back and watch the film again. As a writer I can only say, one can never read enough Schnitzler.

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