Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

The Eyes of Laura Mars is a 1978 US thriller that tries, with moderate success, to be something just that little bit more than a standard thriller.

Faye Dunaway is Laura Mars, a very successful but controversial fashion photographer. The photos used in the film were in fact by Helmut Newton, who was at that time a very successful but controversial fashion photographer. Laura Mars has attracted criticism for her photos of eroticised violence and S&M imagery, and the exhibition of her work that is about to open is going to stir up a media feeding frenzy about art encouraging violence and general depravity.

Recently Laura has developed a disturbing habit. She sees images of violet crimes, and then those crimes actually happen even more disturbingly, the victims are people close to her. The police are not inclined to take her visions all that seriously, but hunky detective John Neville (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is sympathetic. He takes a close interest in Laura, an the interest seems to be developing into some kind of romantic attachment, an attachment that Laura shares.

There are plenty of potential suspects. There’s Laura’s ex-husband, played by Raul Julia, who is really little more than a high-class gigolo. There’s Laura’s driver, played by Brad Dourif, a twitchy ex-con. There’s her very gay agent, who seems somewhat jealous of anyone Laura takes an interest in. There are also two very attractive lesbian models (played by two of New York’s top fashion models of the time) who aren’t very likely suspects that they add an extra aura of decadence.

The corpses start piling up in a rather distressing manner, and Laura is convinced that it’s only a matter of tim before she becomes a victim herself. The resolution of any thriller always involves a certain degree of contrivance, but this one is handled fairy competently.

The film was scripted by John Carpenter, who was not yet a big enough name to land the director’s assignment (this was just before his breakthrough with Halloween). It’s a pity because it would have been interesting to see how Carpenter would have handled the project. His script underwent several changes before being finally filmed, so a Carpenter-directed version might have been quite different. As it is, Irvin Kershner does a solid enough job, although I can’t help feeling an Italian director would have brought a bit more flair to the proceedings. It definitely needed more visual flamboyance.

Kershner does keep the gore to an absolute minimum, and this is a wise choice. It’s important that Laura’s photos should have as much impact as possible, and that impact would have been weakened had the actual murders been done with too much gore.

The psychic elements in the plot have become all too common in the intervening years, but in 1978 thriller with paranormal overtones was still a reasonably original idea, and it’s done fairly well.

The fashion/art/photography background is the most interesting aspect to the movie, and gives it something of the flavour of an Italian giallo. Especially in a scene where two of the murderer’s victims are left in a pose that looks exactly like the kind of pose Laura Mars would have chosen for a photo shoot. There’s a nicely decadent atmosphere of conspicuous consumption, sexual kinkiness and general excess.

The moral dilemmas raised by the movie aren’t really pursued, and as the movie progresses it unfortunately becomes more and more a standard thriller, albeit a well-made one.

Faye Dunaway is great in the early part of the movie where the focus is on her and her photography. As the plot develops she slips into a fairly standard victim mode and screams a lot. Oddly enough the role was originally intended for Barbra Streisand! The acting is uniformly extremely good, as you’d expect from what is after all a fairly distinguished cast for a thriller. Columbia clearly saw this movie as much more than drive-in fodder and the cast and the production values are glossy and big-budget. The glossiness works well in the context of the subject matter.

The Australian DVD release surprisingly includes actual extras, even running to a featurette and a commentary track by the director.

My impression from the commentary track is that Kershner was so convinced that fashion photography is an evil conspiracy against women that he didn’t really think he needed to prove his case. I think that’s a definite weakness to the movie, and it’s why the movie starts to lose focus towards the end. Laura’s photos are the key to the movie, and he needed to keep the emphasis on that element.

It’s still an entertaining and interesting movie, even more so if you appreciate late 70 excess and decadence.

1 comment:

The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent write-up. My older brother and I used to watch this one every time it popped up on Saturday Late Night Thrillers or sometimes Sunday Afternoon movie of the week. I would love to go back and watch it now that I know so much more about the genre and the actors involved--I don't even remember Brad Dourif's role, though now I count him as one of the greatest actors still working.