Eyes of Laura Mars

(1978, R) Faye Dunaway (Laura Mars), Tommy Lee Jones (Lt. John Neville), Brad Dourif (Tommy Ludlow), René Auberjonois (Donald Phelps), Raul Julia (Michael Reisler, listed as R.J. in the opening credits), Frank Adonis (Sal Volpe), Bill Boggs (himself). Music: Roy Budd. Screenplay: John Carpenter and David Zelag Goodman (story by John Carpenter). Director: Irvin Kirshner. 103 minutes.

Tags: Mystery, Suspense, Psychic

Notable: John Carpenter after Halloween but before The Fog; title song, “Prisoner,” sung by Barbara Streisand; if you look quick, you can see UMP on a building in the apparently low-rent district!

Rating: ★★★★☆

Fashion and artistic photographer Laura Mars discovers that she has been seeing visions of violence and murder and, without knowing it, recreating authentic reproductions of crime scenes in her work. Police Lieutenant John Neville thinks that Laura may actually have committed the murders in a form of split-personality fugue state. Her claim is that she witnesses the crimes, not as an outside observer, but through the eyes of the killer. The killings become personal as her publisher, her publicist, and two of her models are hideously murdered. How many more must die before she can discover the gruesome secret behind the murderer’s connection to her?

This film has been lambasted for any number of reasons, most of which have to do with the idea that it plays like an extended, horrific rock video. That was, in fact, the most-cited reason why Irvin Kirshner was presumably such a poor choice to direct Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back. Considering the travesties that are the “first three” films of that series, I don’t think anyone should be pointing their fingers too quickly. Further, there is a very sensible reason for the film to look like a rock video: It’s central focus is a fashion photographer and her work. The disco-like songs (this was filmed at the peak of the discotheque era) are used as background to photo shoots as the plot begins to build. An intentional irony (specifically mentioned as a plot point, but I won’t say where) is that the glitz and glamour of the fashion world is juxtaposed with pictures of violence and death; Laura Mars’ eyes become the focal point of that juxtaposition, quite literally. To say more would be to invite spoilers.

It’s a good thing that John Carpenter didn’t direct this film, even though it’s his story. His bare-bones, focus-on-the-horror style of directing, at this point in his career, would have incurred even more derision than that heaped upon Kirshner’s. Since “glamour-glitz” is central to the plot, avoiding it too much would make it a parody of itself rather than self-created irony. Adding Kirshner and Goodman’s credits to the project appears to have allowed for a much bigger budget (after all, they got Streisand to belt out the theme song), and the result is a particularly satisfying “guilty pleasure,” made more so by listening to the alleged experts rather than letting the film be what it is. Taken at face value, allowing it to be a damn good “B” movie rather than a blockbuster, Eyes (that one word being Carpenter’s original title for the treatment of the movie) holds up just fine.

The chemistry between Dunaway and Jones is very slightly off from the beginning, and for a reason. It takes a little time for the love interest to blossom, so the rocky start makes sense. The rest of the cast is a combination of ingeniously selecterd character actors, and I so name them without the slightest intent of belittling them. This was the first time that I’d seen Brad Dourif (who featured well in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest three years prior, but which I didn’t see for another few years) and the first time that I’d really taken proper notice of René Auberjonois (who appeared as Father Mulcahy in the film of M*A*S*H eight years prior, and which I saw in the theater at the ripe age of 11). Here, I got to enjoy two particularly interesting performances that played well off each other. It’s in this film, by the way, that we get to see Auberjonois (later, Odo of Deep Space Nine) do his Lloyd Bridges imitation. It’s faintly creepy how good it is. And if you ever wondered if he’d look good in a dress… nope, not saying more about that.

There is one moment of the film that contains more gross-out than I care for; the rest, however, is done with implication and aftermath rather than actual depiction. When a murderer kills by driving something like an ice pick into the eyes of the victim, I’d really rather not see it (no jokes intended). The majority of the story’s suspense is based on Laura’s inability to see anything other than what the killer sees, during the performance of each murder; even when trying to get help, find a telephone, whatever, she cannot see what’s in front of her, seeing instead what the killer sees. Not only does this horrifying connection rob her of her sight, it also forces her to witness terrifying acts of brutal violence. That’s suspense enough for most of us, I’d say.

There are several nice touches in the film that we can talk about after you’ve seen it (you know, that whole “spoiler” thing). All in all, a worthy entry into an evening’s entertainment. Bonus points if you raise a glass in ironic homage to this movie by quoting Bogart’s improvised line from Casablanca. (Hint: He said it four times; you might get to say it more times than that during this film.)

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