Observation Deck

Why “Eyes Wide Shut” Is the Ultimate New York Movie

And a feel-good holiday film, too. Hear us out.

For years I’ve told anyone who’d listen—and plenty of people who wouldn’t—that Eyes Wide Shut is a Christmas movie that ought to be watched every year alongside It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and Die Hard. This is obvious for many reasons, not least of which is that it’s set during the holidays, with Christmas trees casting an alternately eerie and festive glow from the corners of most rooms. The movie’s final scene is even set in a toy store where the nice girls and boys of Manhattan are making their wish lists for Santa. I’m not alone in this reading: Here’s a YouTube video that recuts the movie as a holiday classic set to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

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Halls? Decked.

Also on YouTube, you’ll find countless videos dissecting Stanley Kubrick’s final film for its secret meaning, claiming it’s about the Masons, the Illuminati, CIA mind control, and George Soros. What the self-appointed Kubrologists behind these videos don’t seem to get is that, occult aristocratic orgy aside, Eyes Wide Shut is a family movie, and its message is as simple as something out of Frank Capra: Be grateful for your loved ones this and every holiday season.

As the years have passed, though, I’ve come to think of Eyes Wide Shut as more than a great Christmas movie, but perhaps one of the best New York movies ever made, up there with The Sweet Smell of Success, Manhattan, Taxi Driver, When Harry Met Sally…, and Do the Right Thing. It’s a cliché to say that in certain films, “New York is like another character,” yet in Eyes Wide Shut, the city, especially its seamier, more off-putting side, really is like a character. In fact, more than the Masons or Soros, New York is the villain of Eyes Wide Shut, pushing the protagonist, Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), nearly to ruin with its demands and, as befits its self-consciously godlike director, its icy indifference.

But the thing that really makes Eyes Wide Shut a New York movie is its depiction of the city as a series of spaces you must earn (or bluff) your way into.

It’s hard to imagine Eyes Wide Shut set anywhere other than in New York City, which is odd since it was shot entirely at Pinewood Studios in England. Its Manhattan exteriors were meticulously, if eccentrically, built by artisans using thousands of photos and measurements from location scouts Kubrick sent for extended research trips to NYC. Here’s but one example of how deep Kubrick and his team went: They spent months working with a reporter at the New York Post to get a single insert shot of the newspaper just right.

Kubrick got a lot right: The disorienting sensation of walking through West Village streets at night; the moments we cross into other people’s stories for a minute; strange encounters with service workers. Of course, some of the details are way off: No one in New York ever paid for a taxi at the driver’s window after the ride (a common practice in London), and as nerds on IMDb point out, the building numbering is all off in Kubrick’s Greenwich Village.

But the thing that really makes Eyes Wide Shut a New York movie is its depiction of the city as a series of spaces you must earn (or bluff) your way into. How many times does Harford talk his way into some place he shouldn’t be, often flashing his New York State medical license as if it’s a police badge? Once there, he often finds himself in the wrong place or one where he’s not welcome.

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There’s a metaphor in this shot somewhere—see if you can spot it.

That’s New York right there: Figuring out how to get into this week’s hot restaurant; calling in favors to get our kids into the right preschool; getting the hookup so you can land the rent-controlled apartment; even using whatever grit and wiles you possess to squeeze into a crowded subway car. This city is all about talking your way into or, if you’ve got the scratch, buying a spot. Of course, when you get there, it’s never what you’d hoped it would be. And there’s always someone who found a cozier, cushier perch just above or beyond yours. New York: It wins every time.

Back when he was the editor of Vanity Fair and one of New York’s preeminent status arbiters, Graydon Carter had a theory of “seven rooms.” This theory, recounted in Toby Young’s dreadful but fun How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, held that the city was a series of exclusive spaces, each more difficult to get into than the last. Your mission: Get to the seventh room. It’s the city as video game, each accomplishment a level full of challenges and potential setbacks. The reward for surmounting them is an invitation to the next level. The only problem? There’s always a next-next level.

Bill flirts with models, one of whom asks, “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?”—an open-ended New York come-on if ever there was one.

Eyes Wide Shut builds this game into its plot: Harford and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), have “made it” to the point that they can live in a classic six and keep a Range Rover in a garage. To most New Yorkers, they’re the epitome of privilege. And yet, they desire more, attending a party hosted by a wealthy patient named Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), where Alice is nearly seduced by a Hungarian smoothy named Sandor Szavost and Bill flirts with models, one of whom asks, “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?”—an open-ended New York come-on if ever there was one. After that (and a lot of other shaggy dog goings-on that involve a jazz club, a costume store, and one very long cab ride), Harford tries to crack the next room: a posh Long Island estate where masked partygoers participate in the least sexy orgies in film history. That room, he soon learns, is definitely not meant for the likes of him, with or without his New York state medical license.

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The happyish couple.

I don’t live in New York anymore and I’ve long since stopped trying to get into rooms where I don’t belong. Watching Harford try (and fail) to level up, New York–style, is as close as I want to get these days. When he’s informed that “there is no second password,” I always want to ask him, And if there were, who’d share it with you? Keep walking, pal.

Matt Haber is a contributing editor at What Should We Do. He also writes for free on Twitter. He probably can’t make this weekend’s screening of Eyes Wide Shut at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg but you totally should see it on the big screen! 

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