Glamour, grit and bad plotting: Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)

Faye Dunaway is Laura Mars, a photographer who sees more than she should.

Despite being an ultimately unsatisfying film, Eyes of Laura Mars has a lot going for it. Laura Mars is a renowned fashion photographer, known for producing violent and sexual images, played by Faye Dunaway. She begins to have psychic experiences in which she can see through the eyes of a killer – a killer who seems to be getting ever closer to her. While Detective Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates, Laura is surrounded by suspects, including her ex-husband, Michael (Raul Julia), her ex-criminal chauffeur, Tommy (Brad Dourif), and her manager, Donald (Rene Auberjonois).

Though Dunaway shows some of the over-acting she’d become infamous for in Mommie Dearest, she makes Laura likeably compassionate and intelligent. The film takes concepts of objectification seriously and tries to explore them through Laura’s work. I don’t think it’s especially successful, but it’s still interesting to see Laura’s attempts to make people acknowledge violence by linking it with beauty and sex.

FASHION!

Laura Mars is a fascinating film to look at. It shows the grittiness of late 70s New York’s streets and waterfronts as well as the glamour of the city’s fashion industry. The photoshoots, accompanied by disco music, are full of energy. Laura’s photos were supplied by Helmut Lang, and having this fashion giant’s work in the film gives it added authenticity.

70s New York: not all pretty.

The costumes in Laura Mars are not only stylish, but have strong character touches. Laura often wears clothes that wrap around and conceal her (including an outfit that manages to combine two types of purple plaid), giving a sense of her introversion. (Though there’s plenty of shots of Dunaway’s legs, of course.) Donald dresses for drama, especially with the suit he‘s wearing at the beginning of the film. Tommy, meanwhile, clearly emulates some of his musical idols with his clothing and hair. He has a chauffeur’s uniform for special events, and that he would wear the cap with his regular clothes when he feels the need indicates how seriously he takes his job, and his wish to be respected.

Rene Auberjonois: fabulous when called for.

The best part of this film, I would say, is that it gives great character actors Auberjonois and Dourif substantial parts. Donald is camp and funny, but is also authoritative. Auberjonois makes him a good friend and manager for Laura, while still keeping him a suspect. Tommy is devoted to Laura, but has a mad-eyed desperation that marks him as a wild card. We know, in the present day, that Dourif is typecast as dangerous crazies – but given that this is an early role for him, should we make this assumption about Tommy? These two actors are always a pleasure to watch, and the charged dynamic they create between is other is on its own enough to make Laura Mars worthwhile.

Brad Dourif’s crazy eyes: character clue, red herring, or did he just sit on something?

On to the film’s downside. Its script, penned by John Carpenter, is badly in need of a few more rewrites. It’s far too dependent on a romance between Laura and Neville; I suspect this is in there to try to make the film more appealing to women, but it’s totally uninteresting. Jones’s performance is a bit of a dud, and his scenes with Dunaway lack believability.

Tommy Lee Jones: not very good in this.

The film’s resolution is where it falls apart. This concept has a clear and satisfying inbuilt way for Laura to deal with the murderer: if she’s holding a gun while he heads towards her, she would be able to see through his eyes and know where he was, and where to shoot. It would be a reversal of the other times in the film where her second sight makes her helpless, and a great way to end the story.

Unfortunately, Laura Mars whittles its suspects off until only one remains. Then it reveals information that the audience could not possibly have guessed, and that depends strongly on further suspension of disbelief. As well as being a stark contrast to the way the film carefully explained Laura’s abilities earlier in the story, it’s poorly paced and it’s unconvincing on an emotional level. This is only a bigger shame because Laura Mars, with its its intriguing concept, interesting characters, and great style, so clearly had the potential to be better than it is.

Auberjonois, Dourif, and their 70s hair are better than you. And this movie.
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