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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about her work: Is photography itself a viable form of artistic expression or a sign that painting is hopelessly outdated?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

No. 9: “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

“Well, all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After awhile you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” ~~Ellis

There’s this thing that Joel and Ethan Coen, directors of “No Country for Old Men,” understand that so few filmmakers do: It’s the quiet films that pack the biggest punch. Not that “No Country” is a quiet film, exactly. There’s action aplenty, including several tense shootouts and a few point-blank assassinations; blood spillage is at a premium. But it’s the bone-dry dialogue, the sideways glances, the eerie periods of silence that make “No Country” so unsettling, so revealing. For these characters, silence means much more than words ever could and it’s thrilling and brilliant to watch.

And so “No Country for Old Men” begins quietly, with personable but jaded West Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (a first-rate Tommy Lee Jones) explaining how the things he’s seen have changed him, put his “soul at hazard.” Bell is a wise man who has seen everything but used his laconic wit to keep the danger from warping his soul. But he soon meets a bizarre crew of characters who aren’t quite so wise. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a struggling cowboy who, while hunting one afternoon, stumbles onto a drug deal gone awry. Nearly everyone is dead (even the dog) except for a dying man demanding water, and there’s an abandoned truck loaded down with Mexican brown. Moss finds a briefcase full of money under a shade tree and takes off. But his conscience wakes him up later that night, and he returns to the shootout scene with a jug of water.

This, of course, is a colossal mistake, and one that turns “No Country for Old Men” into an unflinching, unforgiving game of hide, seek, kill. Now Moss has placed himself squarely in the sights of Anton Chigurh (a chillingly blank Javier Bardem), a psychopathic killer who wants the drug money back at any cost. This foolish decision sets in motion a chain of events — “you can’t stop what’s coming,” Bell’s father Ellis (Barry Corbin) observes — that winds its way to a finale that offers up not the tiniest bit of closure.

“No Country for Old Men,” adapted by the Coen brothers from an even more bleak Cormac McCarthy novel, is relentless in its pacing. The film never, ever lets up. Every moment is packed with tension, and audience anxiety only grows as it becomes clear that no character, not even Sheriff Bell, can see what’s coming his way. Relentless, too, is the bracing black humor that pervades the Coen brothers’ deadpan script. There’s a scene where a leery Moss, who’s hiding out at a fleabag motel, agrees to have a beer with a woman he meets poolside. She assures him: “The only thing beer leads to is more beer.” What happens next is textbook Coen. Better still is the conversation between Chigurh and a cashier, which draws shudders when it becomes obvious the men are talking about more than a coin toss. Coen regular Roger Deakins amps up this tension with his expansive camera work; he creates a vivid landscape that moves and breathes.

Yet the dialogue would fall flat without the right performances, and every one of them is faultless. Jones hits a career-best as Bell, turning what could have been an “aw shucks” Barney Fife into a sad and vulnerable character. Brolin finds the right mix of bravado and fear in Moss. Kelly Macdonald makes the most of her role as Moss’s dim-witted but loving wife. As for Bardem, well, he’s so good at being scary scarier than “bubonic plague,” as one character observes, that it’s possible to forget his most unfortunate bob haircut. With a compressed-air cattle stun gun in hand, he just might be the nastiest, scariest villain ever to swagger onscreen. He’s a sneaky one.

Such is the way of “No Country for Old Men.” By Coen design the film sneaks up on you, burrows its way, chigger-like, under your skin like a chigger and stays there. You don’t feel the sting until it’s far, far too late to pull back.