VIDEO ARCHIVES WEEK: The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the October 11, 2022 episode of the Video Archives podcast and can be found on their site here.

Never say never, but I think this will be the only movie we ever feature on this site that has a love theme by Barbara Streisand in it. I could be wrong, but I just get the feeling that there aren’t going to be many more crossovers quite like this one.

Eyes of Laura Mars was adapted from a spec script titled Eyes, written by John Carpenter; making this Carpenter’s first major studio film. Producer Jon Peters, the beau of Barbra Streisand in this era, bought the screenplay as a vehicle for her, but Babs felt that it was too “kinky” and passed. However, she felt that “Prisoner,” the song that she lent to the film, would be a great single. She wasn’t wrong — it peaked at #21 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Instead of Ms. Streisand, we get Faye Dunaway, who had just won an Oscar for Network and had not yet become Mommie Dearest. She plays Laura Mars, a fashion photographer whose Chris Von Wangenheim by way of Helmut Newton-style photos (Newton and Rebecca Blake supplied the actual photos for the film) glamorize violence. As she’s due to release the first coffee table collection of her work, she begins seeing the murders of her friends and co-workers through the eyes of the killer. I love how until now, she’s only been detached and seen things through the eye of a camera.

John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) is the cop in charge. After she rushes to a murder scene exclaiming that she saw who did it blocks away, the cops keep her in custody, showing her numerous unpublished crime scene photos that match her new fashion photos perfectly. Throughout the film, Larua and Neville fall in love as her visions — and the murders — increase in intensity and violence.

This is a great example of an American giallo filled with the twists, turns and red herrings of the genre. It’s done with a much higher budget and way better locations than you’re used to. And it gets closer to the psychosexual elements, but as great a director as Irvin Kershner is, he isn’t a maniac like Argento and his ilk. It’s also packed with talent, like Raul Julia, Battle Beyond the Stars Darlanne Fluegel, Rene Auberjonois and Chucky himself, Brad Dourif.

The Eyes of Laura Mars would be parodied as The Eyes of Lurid Mess in MAD Magazine #206, with art by Angelo Torres. As was often the case with R rated movies when I was six years old, I first experienced this movie through the black and white ink lens of MAD.

When seen through the lens of the giallo form, The Eyes of Laura Mars reminds me of post-Deep Red era Argento — taking the basics of the detective form and grafting on one supernatural element. Here, it’s the fact that Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), a high glam fashion photographer, can see the violent deaths of people as she takes photos. The images that they inspire lead her to great success and controversy, creating an intriguing narrative of the violent and at times bloody battle of inspiration for artists. I’m also struck by how detached Mars is from the art and fashion world in which she lives, until she’s in the midst of shooting. Then, she finally opens not just herself up, but her posture. She spreads low to the ground, sexualizing herself when she’s often covered by clothing throughout the film that hides her body from the world.

Going from an independent picture produced by Jack H. Harris to big studio affair by Jon Peters (who dreamed of then-girlfriend Barbara Streisand in the lead), The Eyes of Laura Mars struggled with a new writer being brought in to adjust John Carpenter’s script (the auteur said “The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon.”) and the production lasted 7 long months, including a 4 day shoot in the middle of New York City to capture a major fashion shoot with models, wrecked cars and fire everywhere.

It has assured direction by Irvin Kershner, which led to him being hired for The Empire Strikes Back. After watching so much giallo, I’ve noticed that the America versions of the form are very much like Laura Mars herself: detached, cold and not all that interested in the murder as art that native Italian creators like the aforementioned Argento immerse themselves in. This film is made in hues of black and white when their world is neon and always the most red possible.

Upon a new view of this film, I was also struck by just how great the cast is. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast, with his final speech near-perfect. In truth, he wrote that ending monologue, but credited it to Tommy Lee Jones actually wrote his own monologue, crediting it to Kershner, unbeknownst to the Writers’ Guild. Brad Dourif is routinely amazing in movies and his small role here is still a stand-out, as is the acting of Rene Auberjonois and Raul Julia.

This movie also features one of my favorite settings: New York City at the end of the 1970’s, which I feel is the closest place to Hell on Earth that has ever existed. As a child, I watched WOR Channel 9 news from the safety of being a few hundred miles away in Pittsburgh and wondered who would ever want to live in this city. You can almost smell the garbage and desperation in the air here, which is in sharp contrast to the cold, metallic and not so real world of fashion and art.

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