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Review: “Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978)

Susan Jane Gilman, in her book “Kiss My Tiara,” spends one chapter bemoaning the fates female protagonists face in motion pictures, and one of her sharpest observations applies well to Irvin Kershner’s hyper-stylish thriller “Eyes of Laura Mars.” The Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) of the title fits into the category of Women Who Fall for Psychotic Murderers Because Boy Are They Handsome. Dunaway has no choice but to play along, even though the part requires her to clutch her head and wail like a banshee. Oh, the harrowing drama of high fashion photography in the Big Apple.

Revealing Laura Mars’ type means pains must be taken not to give away the Twist Ending … which doesn’t amount to much surprise for anyone paying attention. So on the subject of plot I will tread gingerly: Laura Mars is an N.Y.C. photographer whose violent artwork has ignited a firestorm of controversy about the subject matter. She dresses her subjects in runway frocks and arranges them for shock value, using provocative poses and staged violence to express her vision. Critics, reporters and the public argue endlessly about her work: Is photography itself a viable form of artistic expression or a sign that painting is hopelessly outdated? Do Laura’s photos glorify violence or comment on it? Laura likes to think she draws attention to mankind’s savageness and her work has little effect beyond that. Her flamboyant assistant (Rene Auberjonois) could care less about perception as long as Laura keeps her schedule. Yet the photos may be the reason a murderer begins picking off people in Laura’s circle and posing the victims just as she does in her shoots.

“Eyes of Laura Mars” would be a garden-variety whodunnit save for one detail: Laura, through psychic or supernatural visions, can see the killer commit each crime. These visions come on suddenly and are never wrong, prompting cop John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones, in top form), who’s investigating the killings, to bring Laura in as a witness. Sure enough, she’s surrounded by potential murders. Both her alcoholic ex-husband Michael (Raul Julia) and her driver Tommy (Brad Dourif, bless his shifty eyes), an ex-con with a lengthy rap sheet and a nervous expression that indicate all’s not well in his mind, initially look good for the crimes. However, one of the film’s most glaring flaws is the setup of Michael, Tommy and others as suspects; immediately after meeting these men it becomes apparent they aren’t guilty. Is a little subtlety, a little intrigue too much to hope for in a psychological thriller? Must these characters be drawn in such thick magic marker strokes? Hence the transparency of the ending, at which point “Eyes of Laura Mars” devolves into an orgy of weeping and yelling and and more weeping — all of it done tolerably well by Dunaway. She may be prey, but there’s nary a shiny hair out of place.

This attention to style is where the movie accumulates points. The makeup and costuming are flawless and eye-catching, the epitome of high fashion, while nearly all the actors possess bone structure or some other feature so startling it’s a shame Michelangelo wasn’t around in the 1970s to paint them. In terms of visuals, “Eyes of Laura Mars” is a singular and striking film. Laura’s visions, too, are handled impressively — they resemble a peep through a dirty camera lens, and when Laura has them they inspire genuine unease. The visions, though, are never explained, and we’re left to wonder why. Perhaps this is a conscious choice the director makes to make them seem more “secretive,” or perhaps it’s an oversight caused by fashion overload.

Even more frustrating than these baffling visions is seeing Faye Dunaway relegated to a part so devoid of nuance (“Mommie Dearest” aside, she is capable of nuance). John Neville is a character of true mystery whose story we want to know. Laura Mars, though? Dunaway tries but she can’t create much intrigue for a character meant to fit the bill of Everyvictim. Maybe John Carpenter, who co-wrote the screenplay, learned an important lesson from this, a lesson he used in “Halloween”: A heroine’s not much of a heroine if she can’t think on her feet.

Grade: C