1/7/10

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978): You Wont Believe It's Not Italian

Beautiful Ladies of Genre is back, and I wanted to pick one of my favorite actresses from the ‘70’s to kick off the New Year. From Bonnie and Clyde and Network to Chinatown and Barfly, Faye Dunaway starred in so many of my favorite films. One of her movies that I didn’t know a thing about was The Eyes of Laura Mars, but after reading over the cast and looking into the film a bit, I knew I had to see it. Coming off her best actress win for Network, Dunaway landed this part when the films original lead, Barbara Streisand, dropped out of the role due to the racy nature of the story. It is a little racy, a little bloody, and even a little supernatural around the edges, but the most important thing that The Eyes of Laura Mars might be is a fantastic example of an American giallo.

Titular character Laura Mars (Dunaway) is a famous and controversial photographer who is often criticized for the images of violence and death in her work. On the night of her big gallery opening, the editor of Laura’s book of photographs is brutally killed, and Laura had dreamed the killing just as it happened. Police detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) notices the similarities between Laura’s pictures and a string of unsolved murders spanning two years. The cops soon clear Laura of any wrongdoing, but they begin to delve into her life examining the men in her life including her manager Donald Phelps (Rene Auberjonois), her driver Tommy (Brad Dorif), and her ex-husband Michael (Raul Julia). As the bodies continue to pile up, Laura’s visions of the murders become more intense, and the killer must be stopped before he makes Laura his final target.

If I read you that plot, without the famous Hollywood names thrown in, it would sound an awful lot like it came through the lens of Dario Argento. While it did not come directly from him, it surely is a film that is reflected though a prism of many Italian genre filmmakers’ work. The original kernel of the idea for The Eyes of Laura Mars comes from a spec script called Eyes by John Carpenter. His film Halloween, also released in 1978, would owe something of a debt to a similar kind of “spaghetti nightmare”. The script was bought by producer Jon Peters as a vehicle for his girlfriend, the aforementioned Streisand, and he brought on David Zelag Goodman, writer of Logan’s Run and Straw Dogs, to put a polish on the script. There’s no way to tell what is Goodman and what was Carpenter, but the heavy feeling of paranoia, the obvious nods to the Italian giallo film, and the sudden violence feels like Carpenter’s work.

Peters brought in director Irvin Kerhner, a twenty year veteran of the business with a journeyman résumé. Kerhner gave the film a dreamlike quality, but without the dark, moodiness that giallo films typically have. (In a way, I wonder if the bright, modern feeling of The Eyes of Laura Mars influenced Argento when he returned to the genre 1982 with the brightly lit Tenebre.) Kerhner did crib from the Italian film playbook with the fetishistic amount of footage dedicated to eyes, but the difference is in an Italian film, you’d get to see more of the victims get their eyes stabbed out than the implied violence shown in the film. The cinematic tone of the film is dead on and Kerhner and director of photography Victor Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon, The Jerk, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) use the camera to build tension quite effectively. The Eyes of Laura Mars also captures the gritty, grimy look of late ’70’s New York, and that added a lot of flavor to the film. While the movie was only a moderate financial success, an early screening of the film convinced George Lucas to hire Kerhner to direct The Empire Strikes Back, and changed his career considerably.

Of course all of this would have been for nothing if the lead role had been played by Barbara Streisand. I can’t see Babs being able to give the same wounded, paranoid performance as Faye Dunaway. She gives Lara Mars intensity without ever going over the top (for that performance see Mommy Dearest). It’s really a different kind of role than I normally expect from her. When you look at characters like Bonnie Parker or Diane Christianson in Network, you see a strong character. Even her role in the classic Chinatown is not without strength. Laura Mars is a woman caught in an insulated spiral of violence. After all, your friends getting killed is bad, but having to helplessly watch it would drive most people crazy. Her weakness and vulnerability serves to heighten the suspense, and Miss Dunaway definitely gives the standout performance in this film.

That’s not to say that the supporting cast is not without people who should be mentioned. One of the reasons I chose to check this flick out was the sheer amount of performers in it. Tommy Lee Jones’s cop is a seventies guy all the way and from his glorious mane of hair to his bellbottomed jeans, and he is very entertaining to watch though I do think he was much, much better in his next film 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter. The Eyes of Laura Mars also garners supporting roles from Rene Auberjonois as Laura’s fey manager, Raul Julia as her slimy, abusive ex-husband, and Brad Dorif as her ex-con driver. All three are great to watch and if there’s another film that has Odo from Deep Space Nine, Gomez from the Addams Family, and Chuckie in it then I would love to know what it is.

Fans of giallo film and seventies cinema should definitely be checking this one out. It doesn’t have all of the charm of contemporary Italian fare, but its got tons of style and a pretty fascinating storyline to boot. The thing it does best is play with misdirection. It kept me guessing who the culprit was right up until the end, and the finale of the film was far from what I expected. In fact, this film was pretty far from what I expected. I came across The Eyes of Laura Mars while browsing the “Watch It Now” portion of Netflix, and I’m certainly glad I gave it a shot. It’s a slice of ‘70’s cinema that definitely deserves to have more eyes on it.

Bugg Rating

8 comments:

  1. I reviewed this a few weeks ago and loved it. Although I wouldn't say Faye didn't go over the top, as there a few questionable moments of a future Mommie Dearest performance lurking.

    However the thing I loved the most hands down--Tommy Lee Jones' hair....YES!

    Great review, love the Giallo aspect

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  2. I've always heard about this film but never gotten the opportunity to sit down and watch it. Definitely sounds like a really cool flick. What a cast too! I'll watch it on Netflix, thanks to your great review!

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  3. so bad it's good. the music and costumes are faboo!

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  4. Ive really been looking forward to this one as well, once Fred returns his copy to netflix Ill be sure to convince the wife to watch it with me =D

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  5. How damned embarrassing is it that the only thing I know of this film is the theme song by Barbra Streisand. Ouch. I have passed it sooooooo many times in the DVD store. Me=fail.

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  6. In the 10 years between "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Eyes of Laura Mars" Faye Dunaways looks deteriorated surprisingly badly (she was so gorgeous back in `67).

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  7. Glad this got a good response. This is one I've seen the cover for many times, but I thought it was some kind of art film and passed it by. glad I gave it a shot, and I hope some of you folks do too.

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  8. I've just added this one to my rental queue!

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