Who Were Those Masked Men?

Why the story makes no sense.
Aug. 11 1999 3:30 AM

Who Were Those Masked Men?

And other mysteries of Eyes Wide Shut and the rest of this summer's movies.

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"No," cries his helpful escort, dramatically reappearing on the balcony above them. "Take me! I am ready to redeem him!"

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She is hauled away, presumably to be killed. Why is she sacrificing her life? All they've asked him to do is remove his clothes at an orgy, which seems not unreasonable.

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H arford is allowed to leave, though he is given a stern warning: "If you make any further inquiries, there will be the most dire consequences for you and your family."

Harford makes further inquiries. He travels around the city, obtaining information by flashing his medical license to waitresses and hotel clerks. "I'm a doctor," he announces, as if people are required to speak to him under penalty of law. The "dire consequences" spoken of earlier amount to the following: a brusquely worded note, a rude stare from a stranger, and the apparent confiscation of Harford's carnival mask, which results in a $25 replacement fee.

Who is behind all this mischief? "If I told you their names," says Sydney Pollack, playing a mysterious magnate who befriends Harford, "I don't think you'd sleep so well."

OK, so they're really scary guys. They may even have actually killed the woman at the party, who Harford, flashing his doctor badge again, has discovered lying dead from an overdose in a mortuary drawer. But why would they go to such extreme lengths to cover up their romps in the first place? They don't appear to be doing anything particularly illegal, and with their liturgical solemnity they seem far less a threat to the Republic than, say, a Karen Finley performance piece or happy hour at Hooters. Wouldn't it make more sense just to offer Harford a membership to the haunted mansion club?

"You've been out of your depth the last 24 hours," Pollack's character says. Harford, resigned and weary, returns home, only to discover the missing mask on the bed next to his sleeping wife. Who put it there? That's the question that Kubrick no doubt intended us to ask each other late into the night, just as we once endlessly pondered the meaning of the black monolith in 2001. But 2001 was a mystery, and Eyes Wide Shut, for all its atmospheric high-mindedness, is just a muddle.

Stephen Harrigan's latest novel, Remember Ben Clayton, was published by Knopf in 2011 and recently issued in paperback by Vintage.

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