The Underrated: The Eyes of Laura Mars
Well, this film was unexpected. I put it on the list as it was initially released on August 2nd 1978, which I deemed close enough to my actual date of birth to include it in the birthday series. Since then it’s been superseded by another film, but, regardless, I was intrigued about the premise enough to give it a watch. Probably because it sounds a lot like Blink with Madeleine Stowe and I really like that film. Nevertheless, though, The Eyes of Laura Mars was a pleasant surprise.
The Eyes of Laura Mars has a hugely impressive pedigree. Originally it started life as a John Carpenter script (yes, that John Carpenter) and you can still see his marks all over it. The script passed around the studio for a while, before being picked up by Jon Peters’ as a starring vehicle for his then girlfriend Barbara Streisand. It was slightly rejigged (the ending) and eventually Irvin Kershner (yes, that Irvin Kershner) signed up to direct it. As a completely random aside, IMDB tells me that this is the film that inspired Lucas to hire Kershner for Empire Strikes Back, which is a left field choice, but does show that on his day Darth Gizzard was a good judge of other people’s talent. Not his own, obviously, just to be entirely clear on that.
Streisand passed on the script due to the amount of violence and nudity in the film, but did still deign to supply the theme song. Nevertheless, the lure was enough to attract Faye Dunaway (fresh from her Oscar win for Network) to play the title role. It also drew Tommy Lee Jones, Raul Julia, Rene Auberjons, and a young Brad Dourif to play various parts. This does beg the question as to why? What was it about this little Giallo that attracted this calibre of talent?
The Eyes of Laura Mars is one of the only American attempts at an Argento style Giallo. Now, before you laugh and disregard it as being rubbish, bear with me while I explain. The story is astonishingly simple: Laura is a high-class fashion photographer. She starts having visions of her friends and co-workers being killed, which she sees from the killers’s point of view. What we have here is basically a supernatural whodunnit with a twist- and a pretty interesting and exciting one to boot (even if it is incredibly obvious who the killer is).
Dunaway, not someone I usually think of as a scream queen, is excellent here. She’s got a powerful set of lungs when required, but most of the time she’s forced to actually act. Just as well she’s on fine form, really. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, is having a whale of a time (inexplicable hair and monobrow combination aside). He plays the film with a big shit-eating grin on his face, and fair play to him. Raul Julia is magnificently sleazy playing Laura’s alcoholic ex-husband, and Brad Dourif is all twitches and unpleasant ticks as Laura’s ex-con driver. This is a well acted piece.
The writing, on the other hand, isn’t actually up to too much. I would actually like to know who the original killer was in Carpenter’s script, because the twist ending here is highly predictable from a very early point. Nevertheless, to a certain extent this is a message film. Carpenter jammed the script full of links between the fashion industry’s glamourisation of violence and the actual horror of murder. Laura made her name taking “art” shots of models holding guns and the like, and her big set pieces in the film are a post-apocalyptic New York motif and a tableau with a murdered model in a pool. It’s a touch unsubtle (and the film repeats it in dialogue, just in case we missed it) but nevertheless at least they made the attempt to elevate what would otherwise be a pretty standard slasher/ giallo with a supernatural twist.
Where the film scores hugely, though, is in the design and the direction. Helmut Newton (who I’d never heard of before this review) was apparently a hugely important and influential 70’s fashion photographer. So, it’s a clever move to have him construct the actual fashion shoots in the film. Secondly, Kershner handles almost all of the scenes with some aplomb, and as this is surprisingly fundamentally dialogue driven, he handles both the pacing and the character scenes with some style. Aside from this, though, he’s clearly aware what a sleazy film this is at heart and as such allows the nudity and violence to go to town when required, and scores the whole film with the disco music of the time. This reeks of sex and sleaze and it is to his immense credit that he manages to balance the more exploitative aspects with the message in the film.
I described this above as a giallo, and it obviously is. The film reeks of the Italian directors of the time, notable Argento in the serial killer visions, and Fulci in the repeated focus on the characters eyes. Not that I would recommend Fulci as a model for anything other than how not to make a film (I still haven’t forgiven the cocksucker for The Black Cat). Nevertheless, in a film essentially about observation, it’s somewhat appropriate to see so many close-ups of eyes etc- it does make the point neatly. This is an intensely stylish film, and much like the industry it is studying, the style is a huge part of the appeal, if not all of it.
Is it flawless? No. The writing, as mentioned above is extremely patchy, occasionally didactic and dogmatic, and I honestly believe that it could have done with a rewrite (change the killer’s identity). Furthermore, there is a fundamental problem here that the film never bothers to address: why is Laura having these visions? She just has them, it’s accepted by everyone that she’s having them, but there’s no rhyme, reason, or purpose to the visions. Actually, the film is just as successful without her supernatural interludes, and it could quite easily have worked without them. This kind of paranormal nonsense needs resolution as the question “is she plagued with this forever” remains. As a result, the Eyes of Laura Mars is strangely unsatisfying.
Overall, I do recommend this film. However, I recommend it for the sleaze and style that oozes off the screen. What I’m more interested in, however, is why on earth has it disappeared? It’s a cast with multiple Oscar winners and a horror legend, directed by the man who made the greatest sequel in history and written by a future genre icon. It makes no sense at all to me that it has sunk without trace, and as such I do recommend that you search out a copy of it. There are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours.
Until next time,