10. Spartacus (1960)
Runtime: 3 hr. 17 min.
Press Release: : Sword-and-sandals epic follows the story of Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), a slave who leads a rebellion against the masters and government of ancient Rome. During his rebellion, he finds love (Jean Simmons), friendship (Tony Curtis), and odds seemingly impossible to overcome. All he wants is freedom, but Crassus (Laurence Olivier) wants him dead. There is bloodshed. There are stunts. There are Brooklyn accents. There is Spartacus!
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Tony Curtis
Score: Composer Alex North never won an Academy Award. Though his work on Spartacus garnered him a nomination, he didn’t win and honestly didn’t deserve to. The score is a pastiche of the Hollywood epics that came before it. Horns and strings overcompensate for a lack of human drama by a cast doing its absolute damndest. That North lifts all too frequently from Hugo Friedhofer’s The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t do his main theme any favors, either. The AFI loves it. A lot of people love it. Whatever. A few years later, North would find greater swords-and-sandals success in another epic tale featuring Julius Caesar: 1963’s Cleopatra.
North had not walked with Kubrick before Spartacus, but he would work with the director one more time nearly a decade later. We’ll go into greater detail on that information later in this feature. In the meantime, I’d be remiss to not mention the fact that North composed the music to one of the greatest songs of all time: “Unchained Melody”. God speed your love to me!
Trumbo Trumbophant: You film buffs out there are no doubt familiar with last year’s Trumbo. The great Bryan “Walter White” Cranston portrayed the blacklisted screenwriter to critical acclaim, earning him an Oscar nomination. Trumbo’s return to glory was through his work on Spartacus and that same year’s Exodus, marking the first time in years that he was given official credit for a screenplay. The symbolism in the film is overwhelming. The heroes are handcuffed and cannot be free as long as the clean men in power puff their chests. Protests from the American Legion for its communist “leanings,” violence, and suggested homosexuality (see below) led to cuts, but we can all enjoy the restored version today. That’s the real victory!
Apples and Oranges. Snails and …Oysters?: My above labeling of Spartacus featuring “suggested homosexuality” is a bit unfair. It’s overt. The relationship between Olivier’s Crassus and best friend Grabbus (played by an overmatched Dahl, so good in Rope) is full of tension in lines like the former thinking of ways for the latter to “repay” him after a military appointment. From the mean streets of Brooklyn, New York (apparently), Crassus acquires Antoninus (Curtis), who proceeds to wash him down in a lengthy bathing sequence. The seduction is on, and at one point the master says to his slave, “My taste includes both snails and oysters.” Long story short, Crassus was down to clown with anybody.
Thee Moment: The most memorable moment from the film almost didn’t happen. Spartacus’ army has been defeated. A Roman soldier promises that the lives of the surviving soldiers will be spared if they identify Spartacus. Just as the man himself is about to rise, Antoninus jumps him and declares, “I am Spartacus!” Dozens follow, and Kubrick gives nearly everyone their own shot as they do so. Douglas musters up a tear. Triumphant music appears. For some reason, the movie goes on for another half hour. It’ s a great big “movie” moment in an era full of them. As for why it almost didn’t happen?
The Master at Work: There’s a great entry in Douglas’ I am Spartacus: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist. Douglas was the person who wanted the scene re-written to include the “I am Spartacus” bit, and he wrote Kubrick about it. He didn’t hear back. The next time they saw each other on set, Douglas asked Kubrick about it, and Kubrick responded, “It’s a stupid idea.” Then this happened…
That was the wrong thing to say. I pushed the horse right up against him. She nosed him back against the wall, pinning him there.
“Listen, you little prick,” I said. “I’ve gone along with you on everything and you’ve been right about most of it. You were right about cutting out almost all of my dialogue at the beginning of the movie. You were right about the scene between Varinia and Spartacus just touching hands — it’s much better the way you shot it. You’ve been right about making the battle scenes more realistic. It’s cost us a helluva lot of time and money, but I’ve supported you every step of the way.” “Kirk…” he began. “Shut up. This may be a stupid idea, but we’re going to try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll cut it out, but we’re going to shoot it.” ROFL.
Kubrickian Scale: 1 out of 10. The reason is simple: Kubrick was a hired gun. Producer/star Douglas was very passionate about his work. He was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the time production commenced on Spartacus, and having a producer credit only made him that much more of a perfectionist. On a film with over 10,000 extras and a budget of $12 million ($100 million today), he butted heads with original director Anthony Mann and fired him a week into shooting.
Douglas previously worked with Kubrick on 1956’s Paths of Glory and called upon his old colleague to help him out. It’s a competently made film, but you can tell it’s lacking a Kubrick stamp from any era before or after. Its legacy? Kubrick disowned the film after he had final cut taken away from him. In a 2016 interview with Variety, Douglas spoke of the director: “Difficult? [Kubrick] invented the word. But he was talented. So, we had lots of fights, but I always appreciated his talent.”
Analysis: Spartacus is Douglas flexing. The modern-day equivalent is when those guys vroom-vroom past you on the street in their souped-up trucks, only Douglas had a reason to exist on the planet. It’s big and bold. It’s got the required sand, sandals, and swords. It isn’t that the film is missing something; it’s that it’s not missing enough. The love story between Spartacus and Varinia isn’t really felt until the 3 hr. 14 min. mark of the film. It clumsily jumps back and forth between senate hearings and slave uprisings, introducing major actors in limited roles and not finding enough time for them.
One person who does stand out is the genius that was Peter Ustinov. His portrayal of slave owner Batiatus is equal parts flustered and blustered. He’s a character too weak in character to be a true threat in the long run yet will outlive even his greatest enemies. Ustinov’s performance is from another planet here, injecting lines and circumstance with his own haughty flair. It no doubt got him cast in Disney’s animated Robin Hood 13 years later. His Best Suporting Actor Oscar for Spartacus is well-deserved.
There’s a lot of dated elements that plague the film in ways that don’t even touch earlier Kubrick films like The Killing or Paths of Glory. The severe miscasting of the heavily accented Curtis as a singer who doesn’t actually sing looks bad. The romantic sequences? Paging your grandmother’s favorite soap operas! Having said all that, the scope of the piece is rather incredible to look at. That we’re recommending Kubrick’s fourth worst film says a lot about the man’s storied career. Swords and sandals always optional. –Justin Gerber
09. The Killing (1956)
Runtime: 1 hr. 25 min.
Press Release: A veteran thief plans his big final score, assembling an eclectic team of degenerates with special skills to rob a horse track of $2 million during a big race. But when one of the participants lets slip to his cheating wife that he’s in on the big score, a web of deceptions and double-crosses leads to violence, tragedy, and everybody getting exactly what they deserve.
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook Jr., Ted de Corsia, Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey, Vince Edwards, Joe Sawyer, and Kola Kwariani
Score: Working once again with Gerald Fried, as he did on Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick goes for a sound more in keeping with the heist movies of the time, all frantic high notes and blaring, nervous horns. The arrangements are simple but effective, heightening the tension of the central con while highlighting how doomed it is long before the first betrayal-fueled gunshots ring out.
Kubrick vs. Film Criticism: The Killing offers some of the first notable evidence of Kubrick’s films being underappreciated at the time of their release; in 1956, what’s now considered one of the great noir works of that decade was regarded by The New York Times as “a fairly diverting melodrama.” His work has often been overlooked or dismissed until later appraisal; even some of our favorites on this list encountered backlash upon initial viewing. Some of the criticism centers around Kubrick’s non-linear approach to a heist movie timeline, but this is arguably one of The Killing’s greatest strengths.
Ebert on Kubrick: The late, great film critic added a majority of Kubrick’s films to his “Great Movies” volumes over the years, including The Killing. In his must-read essay, Ebert draws an intriguing through-line between the exacting precision of Johnny’s central hustle in the film and Kubrick’s own chess-like precision. Rather than attempt to condense the prose of one of film criticism’s best-ever writers, we’ll let Ebert speak for himself:
“In his films, he had the plan in his mind. He knew where everyone should be and what they should do. Such a perfectionist was Kubrick that he knew every theater his films were opening in, and the daily grosses. It’s said that a projectionist in Kansas City received a phone call from Kubrick in England, informing him that the picture was out of focus. Is that story apocryphal? I’ve never thought so.”
Thee Moment: For our money (heh), it’s the fatalistic ending on the tarmac, in which Johnny and Fay see their dreams of a dramatic airline escape thwarted when the cheap briefcase holding the score is dropped on the tarmac, sending all of their riches scattering out into the night. It’s the first evidence of the director’s forthcoming penchant for nihilistic finales, his characters accepting the non-existence of salvation and accepting their fates, however brutal they might be. It’s not the modern apocalypse of A Clockwork Orange, but Johnny’s wan declaration “What’s the difference?” is its own kind of resigned letdown. For a guy like Johnny, prison was the only end he was ever going to know.
The Master at Work: As legend has it, the studio was vehemently opposed to Kubrick telling the story out of order, to the point where the film was initially recut in sequential order. It didn’t work, leading to the overarching, almost documentary-style narration throughout, which Kubrick equally disliked. This is why some of the information offered by the narrator is slightly inaccurate, maintaining the disorienting sense of mystery and confusion that hangs over the entire film.
Kubrickian Scale: It’s a 6, one for each member of the heist crew. There’s a seediness that permeates through almost every corner of The Killing; nobody is a straight shooter, many of the players have their own agenda, and by the time it all goes to soil, it’s highly unlikely that life would’ve turned out well for them even if the best-laid plan had been followed. Kubrick’s dual interests in perversion (seen here through Windsor’s cuckolding moll) and punishment manifest in notable ways, and after the mandated happy ending of Killer’s Kiss, The Killing instead ends in the only honest way it can: with nobody learning or gaining anything, all undone by Johnny’s hubris.
Analysis: The leap from Kubrick’s early features to this still-modest but far more confident outing is noticeable from the early minutes, in which The Killing manipulates classical storytelling to fit its winding saga of small players chasing a big score. Hayden is the most assured leading man Kubrick had cast up to this point, and his presence goes a long way toward establishing Johnny as the kind of grifter you can’t help but cheer on. But even as he sets the table, it’s clear that Johnny and Fay aren’t going to elope as planned, and watching the dominoes fall is the source of so much of the film’s visceral exhilaration.
The racetrack sequence is a thrilling setpiece, and if the film is built on little more than the anticipation of a collapsing house of cards, it’s a ruthlessly efficient piece of storytelling. Kubrick’s eye for minute details is already sharpened here, and even some of its shaggier, low-budget trappings (a visible studio wall can be seen over the top of one set at one point) only add to the small-time feel of its doomed criminals. It’s just as ambitious as the director’s staggering later epics, in its own modest and viscerally intimate way. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
08. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Runtime: 1 hr. 56 min.
Press Release: Stanley Kubrick returns from a seven-year directorial absence with a story every bit as terrifying as his previous film, 1980’s horror game-changer The Shining. Follow Private J.T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) from his green beginnings in marine boot camp at Parris Island to his first heavy action in “the shit” as his platoon humps through the burning, dilapidated wreckage of a decimated Huế in Vietnam. It’s a harrowing personal journey in the face of realities every bit as cold, callous, and indifferent as a full metal jacket howling through the warm night air in search of a fleshy home.
Cast: Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Adam Baldwin, and Arliss Howard
Score: Kubrick’s daughter Vivian (under the alias “Abigail Mead”) actually wrote the film’s score on synth and Synclavier, used to chilling effect during the two pivotal Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) nighttime scenes in the barracks. For popular music, Kubrick pulled from chart-toppers of the time, such as “Surfin’ Bird” and “I Like It Like That”. The use of period hits not only bolsters the realism of young men trying to maintain a connection to home and some semblance of normalcy while fighting overseas but also makes Vietnam seem all the more remote and foreign; for instance, “These Boots Are Made for Walking” plays over negotiations with a local prostitute in broad daylight, and “Wooly Bully” spins at a “birthday party” thrown by the Lusthog Squad for a North Vietnamese corpse. Not exactly the scenes you’d expect these swinging oldies to soundtrack. Maybe strangest of all is that Vivian Kubrick and Nigel Goulding actually turned foulmouthed Sgt. Hartman’s (R. Lee Ermey) call-and-response cadences into a No. 2 hit single on the UK charts. Jesus H. Christ!
Page to Screen: Kubrick, Michael Herr (author of Vietnam memoir Dispatches), and Gustav Hasford adapted Full Metal Jacket (the name pulled by Kubrick from a gun catalog) from Hasford’s 1979 novel, The Short-Timers. The film accurately adapts the first part of the three-part novel (the training scenes and Pyle’s breakdown) and fleshes out its second half by pulling from the book’s second and third parts. Perhaps the most significant difference between book and film is that the novel has Joker performing the mercy killing on Cowboy, not on a female sniper. As a final shooting script rounded into shape, Hasford took umbrage with the lack of writing credit he received and at one point even snuck onto the set dressed as an extra with two friends to presumably confront Kubrick. Maybe he thought he was John Wayne?
Last Plane Out of Saigon: By the time Kubrick lost interest in a Holocaust project and set his sights on Vietnam in the early ’80s, the war had already been the focus of several acclaimed pictures. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter had shown the devastating effects of Nam on a group of small-town friends, and fellow auteur Francis Ford Coppola had reimagined the voyage up the Congo River found in author Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a framework for his own surreal take on Vietnam. However, far more threatening to Kubrick’s Vietnam project was Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon, which took home four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and featured a young Charlie Sheen facing similar internal struggles to Modine’s character. While Stone’s film collected more hardware and won the box office in a landslide, Full Metal Jacket, in most eyes, has gone on to become the more admired film.
Thee Moment: R. Lee Ermey’s soul-crushing and hilarious drill sergeant opening and broken Vietnamese prossy English like “Me love you long time” have become ubiquitous in pop culture, but the moment most identified with the film remains the shocking scene in which Leonard, a fresh Section 8, murders Hartman and turns his rifle, “Charlene,” on himself as a shaken Joker looks on. The spotless barracks head is bathed in blue moonlight, Vivian Kubrick’s score plinks like empty bullet casings striking bathroom tile, and a glazed-over, slobbering D’Onofrio eyeballs the heavens as Private Pyle readies for that big AWOL in the sky. No matter how many times you watch this scene, it never feels any less disturbing. This is what happens when you break down a man and fail to piece him together again.
The Master at Work: Kubrick, of course, studied footage, images, and stories of Nam for years before making Full Metal Jacket. He also rented a battalion of tanks and imported enough palm trees to make England look like southeast Asia. But as important as it was to make audiences believe they were experiencing Nam in the late ’60s, none of that would matter if those same moviegoers doubted Joker’s emotional authenticity as he stared into the eyes of the sniper who just killed his best friend, Cowboy. Kubrick was infamous for having his actors perform up to 50 takes of a scene — a practice that could alienate his performers to the point of emotional breakdowns — and one can only imagine how many takes the director may have subjected Modine to (1, 13, 37?) before the actor managed to make his silent intensity scream out as it does in the final cut. He may have been a pain in the ass, but Kubrick almost always got the most out of his actors.
Kubrickian Scale: 8. Though Full Metal Jacket doesn’t get thematically dissected as intensely as more obtuse Kubrick masterpieces, we see several quintessential elements of the director’s signature style: a dedication to gritty realism, a barrage of closeups, a focus on man’s internal struggle, and the willingness to latch on to good ideas wherever they might come from. For instance, about 50% of Sgt. Hartman’s infinitely quotable dialogue comes from Ermey’s improvised audition tapes. Those tapes and insults won Ermey the job, and his foulmouthed rants and put-downs in the film’s opening scene have become the stuff of pop-culture legend.
Analysis: Like war itself, Full Metal Jacket isn’t neat or tidy. It kills off its most entertaining characters in the first half and eschews traditional narrative techniques for a two-part structure that acts as a series of short stories or vignettes rather than adapting the more straightforward plots of most war films. It’s really not surprising that Platoon initially found more popularity with general audiences. Charlie Sheen’s Taylor can be seen as an agent of justice when he avenges Elias by killing Barnes, and we understand his character’s internal struggle and what he means by “the enemy was in us” as he’s being choppered off the battlefield. Nothing quite that simple can be derived from the final moments of Full Metal Jacket.
Unlike Taylor, we’re not sure about Joker. Is he the squad leader who tried to mentor Leonard Lawrence or the angry private who beat him harder than anyone during a moonlit assault? As he looks down at the girl sniper who killed Cowboy and unloads his weapon, does he become her executioner or angel? Can he somehow be both? Can he exist as both the smart-ass, peace symbol-wearing journalist and the rifle-carrying marine with the words “Born to Kill” inked on his helmet? Moments after Joker finishes off the sniper, we find him marching in formation through fiery rubble as his platoon playfully sings the lyrics to The Mickey Mouse Club theme song. He’s earned his 1,000-yard stare. Joker tells us how thankful he is just to be alive and insists that he’s not afraid, but it only raises more questions. Part of us wonders how such gratefulness can exist without fear. Another part suspects that Full Metal Jacket, or any war movie for that matter, might not really be about war when it comes down to it. Kubrick leaves so much open to debate, which is partially why we’re still talking about Full Metal Jacket 30 years later.
M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e. –Matt Melis
07. Barry Lyndon (1975)
Runtime: 3 hr. 4 min.
Press Release: The name’s Barry. Redmond Barry. Well, it was Redmond Barry; now it’s Barry Lyndon. Much fancier. Real status in that new name. How do you do?
Barry Lyndon is the saga of one of history’s most notorious social climbers, an Irish lad by the name of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). Barry’s a cad. A liar. A bit of a loser, too. But he navigates through 18th century life in a way that begets great fortune, by weaseling through armies and marrying upward. And like all vainglorious men, Barry manages to squander it all because of his own stupid selfishness, enemy-making, and all-around apathy. Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1884 novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, here’s a comedy of manners for the ages. A flip on the big biopic. Because some “great” men just want enough money to coast and carouse. Barry Lyndon. What a guy.
Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Koerner, Gay Hamilton, and Michael Hordern, as the unreliable, roast-happy narrator
Score: Before you cry “stuffy!”, know that Barry Lyndon’s soundtrack only serves to make the film funnier with its pomp and circumstance. Kubrick, get this, was a lover of classical music – as if 2001 or Clockwork Orange didn’t give that away – and Lyndon afforded the opportunity to assemble a sort of all-star playlist. Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Schubert, and Paisello were among the featured composers, and George Frideric Handel’s “Sarabande” became the film’s calling-card composition. The harpsichords, flutes, timpani, and all-around dreary pacing only serve to give the film its cheeky atmosphere. Kubrick knew full well the sound was one of a party you’d feel really uncomfortable at. Nervously laugh through. And it all works wonders as Lyndon’s baroque, ironical music to drop monocles by, and it netted the film’s composer, Leonard Rosenman, a best score Oscar. Adapted and/or original song score, of course. Ha, the Academy in the ‘70s.
A Vanity Affair: A lot of this film’s moves evolved from Kubrick’s R&D on other failed projects. For one, Kubrick struggled through a bit of his career to get a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic produced. That project’s historical research helped with Lyndon after a Napoleon movie never came to fruition. (Which, would some angel buy this for me for my birthday?) Kubrick also was a big Thackeray fan and wanted to make a Vanity Fair adaptation, but dubbed it too hard to compress, which is ironic given Lyndon’s size. But hey, Mira Nair got that job in 2004, and, um, was it good? Missed that, sadly. Anyway, if not for those failed starts, we might not have gotten Barry and Kubrick’s itch to scratch a voluptuous period drama.
Marty Loves Stanley: This is just cute, but Lyndon is fellow master Martin Scorsese’s favorite Kubrick. Well, okay, it’s never been explicitly called Marty’s fave, but let’s clarify. There’s this great quote that keeps coming up in articles and essays (that’s damn hard to place the origin of — perhaps a book on writing) where Scorsese basically gushes over Lyndon, its reputation, growing esteem, and the fact that he keeps coming back to it.
“I’m not sure if I can say that I have a favorite Kubrick picture, but somehow I keep coming back to Barry Lyndon. I think that’s because it’s such a profoundly emotional experience. The emotion is conveyed through the movement of the camera, the slowness of the pace, the way the characters move in relation to their surroundings. People didn’t get it when it came out. Many still don’t. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you’re watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness — and it’s all a matter of simple, elemental survival.”
Those are the words of a man obsessed, and we dig it. For extra credit, please, do watch Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies documentary from 1995, and listen to his observations on Lyndon. Scorsese’s a true fan and a scholar, sir.
Thee Moment: DAMN. To pick a single shot for this film? Celluloid fetishists obsess over Barry Lyndon’s 70mm revelry. The film’s a gallery of 17th century painterly aesthetics, alluding to the likes of Hogarth and Gaines, while maintaining that gorgeously, crisply, curiously gritty ‘70s cinematography. Herm. One second, there’s a sumptuous candle-lit romance here. The next, it’s insanely choreographed telephoto lens marching into battle. Amusingly distant duels. Lacy, depressed bathtubs that are slowly zoomed out of. (Note to self: talk to Warner, sell Barry Lyndon postcards.)
Heugh. For our money, could there be a more perfect opening shot?
The Master at Work: You mean to tell me Kubrick sought out actual clothing from the period, shut out the press from covering this film, and actually insisted on special lenses and painstakingly natural lighting to maintain the period effect?
What a marvelous pain in the ass, that man.
Kubrickian Scale: A 7, if only because while this film totally works off of Kubrick’s fascination with man’s selfishness and arousal over tight images, it’s not as quickly lauded, recognized, or made memetic like his other more commanding works. Perhaps – and this is a cheap but fair guess – the three-hour runtime scares potential viewers off. This writer saw it last in Kubrick’s filmography. What a mistake.
Analysis: If ever a film was the definition of droll.
Barry Lyndon is a tale of two takes: a furiously committed vision of technical super power and a truncated, deadly comical “hero” portrait that’s anything but heroic. But to Scorsese’s previously mentioned point, this movie was not rapturously received upon its initial release. Critically mixed, enough critics lauded the filigree and admired Kubrick’s calculation. Yet, there was (and probably still is) a strong contingent of viewers that cried “cold!” Nolan and Scott still catch that, too. The movie’s intensely rigid and founded around a man’s selfish pursuit to climb the social stratosphere. More colloquially, Barry’s an asshole and hardly the kind of great figure that gets a movie in this fashion. Cowardly, petty, and just plain sneaky, Kubrick’s ode to selfish delusions of grandeur naturally raises the question: why?
Because it’s damn funny, that’s why. By the mid-’70s, the likes of Gunga Din or Lawrence of Arabia were already passé. The big adventure films? The stately character works? That’s just not Kubrick. But a mocking, comically derisive take on those tropes? Now that’s Kubrick. Lyndon starts off with a petty death and ends in a callow buy-out, it’s the most handsomely staged work about a rotten shit ever made, and it’s almost like a big “eat me” to T.E. Lawrence. That four-hour film was about a truly great man and set a standard for these kinds of myths, and Kubrick makes light of the form by placing it on mediocrity. To slather Lyndon in mighty lensing and all the pomp and circumstance of Lean-like mega-films is like trolling of a higher order, but we love the light tricks and musket accuracy all the same. And Lyndon marries for money. He switches armies. He even helps men cheat at cards! History’s big men? Maybe they do not boldly trek, Lyndon seems to argue. Maybe they act solely in self-interest to save their own hides. They get revenge and act on jealousy. And Kubrick found this compelling, ratty saint in Barry Lyndon. Throw in the marvelously self-aware narration, the good looks but shallow interior of Ryan O’Neal’s performance, and a patient gaze that’s both hypnotic and at times hilarious, and well, you’ve got a low-key classic. An epic about the greatest two-timing sonuvabitch you ever did saw. –Blake Goble
06. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Runtime: 2 hr. 39 min.
Press Release: When Alice (Nicole Kidman) voices her deepest sexual fantasies to her husband, Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise), Bill is sent away from their privileged lives and onto a surreal odyssey into a dark, twisted night of the soul. Along the way, he attempts to broaden his own horizons, challenge his own barriers, and possibly find his salvation. Or destruction. It might all depend on whether or not he knows the second password.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, Vinessa Shaw, Todd Field, and all those people at the party
Score: The signature classical compositions are on hand as always, with Kubrick using Shostakovich’s “Waltz No. 2” over the opening, as well as compositions from Franz Liszt and György Ligeti throughout. One of composer Jocelyn Pook’s more interesting arrangements comes with “Masked Ball”, in which she plays a Romanian Orthodox chorus in reverse. But perhaps the film’s most memorable sound came about organically; left anxious by the prospect of the film’s many nude scenes, Kidman allegedly requested to have her own music on set to get into the right mood. One of those songs was Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”, which ended up being a crucial musical cue in both the film and in its trailer.
On Censorship in the Late ‘90s: As those who were around at the time might recall, Eyes Wide Shut was met with quite a bit of controversy in the run-up to its release. Warner Bros. had enthusiastically supported the film, as it had previously notched hits with so many of Kubrick’s other works, but in a summer overwhelmed with moral panic over everything from Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam to South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, the mid-blockbuster season release of Kubrick’s cerebral, button-pushing film drew no shortage of its own heat. The director had considered having some of the more debated sequences covered digitally before his passing, and the film’s famous orgy scene accordingly had some of the most explicit material obscured, either by additional actors or via computer-animated G-strings. (A later DVD/Blu-ray release saw the film restored to its original, unrated cut.)
A Husband and Wife Affair: Any understanding of Eyes Wide Shut is incomplete without some background on the bold pop-cultural maneuver Kubrick was making at the time; Cruise and Kidman were each A-list movie stars, and famously married, and surrendered their relationship to the demands of a filmmaker notorious for breaking his actors down to the point of reaching something truly organic. (Whether this was a good thing is a topic of much debate to this day.) According to a must-read Vanity Fair article about the production:
“Kubrick decided to find his story through psychoanalyzing his stars, prodding Cruise and Kidman to confess their fears about marriage and commitment to their director in conversations that the three vowed to keep secret. ‘Tom would hear things that he didn’t want to hear,’ admitted Kidman. ‘It wasn’t like therapy, because you didn’t have anyone to say, “And how do you feel about that?” It was honest, and brutally honest at times.’ The line between reality and fiction was deliberately blurred. The couple slept in their characters’ bedroom, chose the colors of the curtains, strewed their clothes on the floor, and even left pocket change on the bedside table just as Cruise did at home.”
Thee Moment: While there are a number of phenomenal setpieces to be found throughout the film, the most memorable (and Kubrickian) is certainly the famous orgy sequence. As Cruise’s foal is led astray into a place of unimaginable hedonism, the director ratchets up the unnerving hum of tension by the second, near-silently following Hartford through a den of absolute, unchecked indulgence. By the time he realizes that he’s found himself in the last place he should ever be, it’s far too late to go back. Like vengeful gods punishing him for his wandering eye, he’s dragged into a place of absolute vulnerability, in front of more of his peers than he could ever possibly know. The stillness and silence of the terror inherent in this scene makes for one of the filmmaker’s best-ever stagings.
The Master at Work: Let’s start with the part where Eyes Wide Shut was shot for 400 days and took what was, as of 1999, a Guinness World Record for lengthy film shoots. The director’s clinically precise approach to a couple’s relationship in turmoil included taking Cruise and Kidman’s real-life relationship to its limits, directing them individually while refusing to let either performer discuss notes with the other. Cruise’s pivotal conversation with Pollack in the pool room included about 200 takes by itself. In every way, this was a Kubrick production, with a distinct aura of mystery surrounding it; even the promotional materials suggested a film full of sexual intrigue featuring two of the moment’s biggest movie stars and little more.
(Also, that mask Cruise is wearing in the final confrontation with the lords of the orgy? It’s modeled after Ryan O’Neal, from Barry Lyndon. The film is full of other such allusions to Kubrick’s work as well.)
Kubrickian Scale: A strong 8. One of Kubrick’s most intimate, character-driven films is also one of his most immediately identifiable, from the anachronistic feel of New York City (by way of London) throughout Hartford’s quest to the haunting sense of dread and terror lurking around every dark corner. For what’s easily one of the most unabashedly erotic films of the ‘90s, the director paints even the film’s dirtiest episodes with a detachment that’s at first curiously artful and eerie long after that. It’s a long gaze at what makes people tick when they’re at their most stripped-down, vulnerable, and insecure, and virtually every one of the filmmaker’s works have touched on this concept to one degree or another. As final films go, it’s something of a master’s thesis, in which even after the central conflict is “resolved,” the film’s leads will be no more assured or safe than when they started. They’ll just go on to another day and then another prolonged night following it, telling their secrets to themselves and to one another.
Analysis: Eyes Wide Shut is nearly 20 years old as of this writing, and yet spirited arguments continue endlessly about what the film could mean, what it says of its director and its stars, and whether Kubrick’s final opus is a model of artistic over-indulgence or the sort of grandiose work that no lesser a visionary could make. It’s a deceptively simple film, using the melancholic aesthetics of the Christmas season to comment on a couple in turmoil as they face middle age and their own unrealized dreams and desires. Yet, it’s a film that can be read in virtually any way you like: as a parable for the terrors of sexual discovery, as an allegory for man’s basest instinct to prostrate and degrade himself, as a cautionary tale, or as an investigation of who people really are when the room is empty and nobody else is looking.
If anything, it’s a triumphant last gasp for the kind of bold, European-influenced filmmaking that studios had almost entirely abandoned by 1999 in favor of the guaranteed, name-brand properties that fill multiplexes today. A movie like Eyes Wide Shut would be almost unfathomable at the top-shelf studio level today, let alone as a major summer release with a substantial amount of buzz behind it. But such is the power of Kubrick: people didn’t know what the hell they were going to watch when they showed up, and many of them walked out even more confused than they were when they arrived. And they couldn’t stop talking about it … and still can’t. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer