‘Eyes of Laura Mars’ (1978): Stylish but cold – there’s a movie in here somewhere

Chilled, stylish Americanized giallo thriller, with just acceptable TV-level suspense, a glamorously grungy New York City production design, a solid lead performance from wide-eyed Faye Dunaway…and a seriously dopey message about “women” and “fashion” and “violence” and “photography” that not one person involved with this movie could believably hawk to you…even with a gun at their head.

By Paul Mavis

Those darlings at Mill Creek Entertainment have released a nifty Blu-ray transfer of Eyes of Laura Mars, the 1978 shocker directed by Irvin Kershner, produced by Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser, not written by director John Carpenter, and starring Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Rene Auberjonois, Raul Julia, Frank Adonis, Lisa Taylor, Darlanne Fluegel, and Rose Gregorio. Highly promoted at the time (oy vey the shilling for that Barbra Streisand theme…), there were heightened expectations on the Columbia Pictures lot that Eyes of Laura Mars would be a big popular hit, particularly since this was Faye Dunaway’s first movie after winning the Best Actress Oscar for 1976’s Network (those kinds of things were felt to matter back then…).

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Originally scheduled for a fall 1978 release (where this wintry psychic horror thriller would have fit better), Eyes of Laura Mars was instead dumped wide into late summer theaters, where it was largely lost in the crush of huge popcorn movies like Grease, Jaws II, Heaven Can Wait, Foul Play, Revenge of the Pink Panther, Hooper, and Animal House. Later, it would play seemingly endlessly on subscription and basic cable, a fact that convinces a few writers that it’s now some kind of “cult” title (it ain’t). Seen today, it’s tolerably entertaining for the legions of Frank Adonis and Rene Auberjonois fans (and I suppose also for the few people who have heard of Dunaway and Jones…), while devotees of late 70s thrillers will appreciate it…along with Mill Creek’s spiffy Blu-ray transfer (but not so much the added bonus director’s commentary track from Kershner).

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1977: the Hell that is Jimmy Carter’s America. In the rotting, stinking cesspool that the rest of the country calls “New Yawk City,” life is pretty damn good for high-fashion photographer and sensitive artiste, Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway). In addition to a fabulous skyscraper apartment (lots of earth tones=good taste), she has an entire East River 2-story pier that serves as her studio and lab and pied-a-terre. Helping to pay for all that overhead is an expensive coffee table book coming out, The Eyes of Laura Mars, chronicling a new, exciting direction in Laura’s challenging personal aesthetic: hot chicks in lingerie gettin’ killt.

RELATED | Read more 1970s film reviews

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Laura also has something else: visions. Visions, as seen through an unknown killer’s point-of-view, that block her own sight until she experiences second-hand these violent, gruesome ice pick stabbings of her sizable stable of hangers-on. First on the block: book editor Doris Spenser (Meg Mundy), who gets it right in the eyes. This inconvenience really puts a damper on Laura’s book launch party at friend Elaine Cassel’s (Rose Gregorio) gallery; however, Laura perks up a bit when she meets intriguingly scuzzy, uni-browed NYPD Homicide Detective Lieutenant John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones).

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Laura really loses it when Elaine’s the next victim picked (both figuratively and literally). Laura’s explanation that she psychically “saw” the murder gets a big hoot from Detective Sal Volope (Frank Adonis), but Lt. Neville curiously keeps an open mind (…to banging Miss Mars). For Neville, the suspect pool from Laura’s extended professional family—ex-husband and failed writer Michael Riesler (Raul Julia), right-hand man and effete bully Donald Phelps (Rene Aubergonois), ex-con driver and professional skeezebag Tommy Ludlow (Brad Dourif), and p.o.a. models Michelle and Lulu (Lisa Taylor and Darlanne Fluegel)—gets smaller and smaller as they’re bumped off one by one. So…who could the killer be?

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Ah…the moviegoing summer of ’78. I remember it well—but I don’t remember going to see Eyes of Laura Mars. I plunked down quarters for just about everything else out in the theaters (“R”-rated ones, too—just pay for a Disney and then sneak in when the ushers weren’t looking), including the above-mentioned blockbusters, as well as fun titles like The Medusa Touch, Dawn of the Dead, Warlords of Atlantis, The End, Harper Valley P.T.A., High-Ballin’, Corvette Summer (which had its world premiere in my hometown! yawn…), Damien: Omen II, The Cat from Outer Space, The Driver (at 13, I knew it was a masterpiece), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (at 13, I knew it was a piece of sh*t), The Cheap Detective, Convoy, The Wild Geese, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, Hot Lead and Cold Feet, and The Swarm (at 13, I knew it was over between me and Irwin Allen).

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I saw ‘em all…but Eyes of Laura Mars had to wait till next year on Showtime (hello 10 repeat viewings for the nudity). Hard to say after so many years why I avoided it that August (probably just couldn’t summon up the courage to say at the ticket counter, “Give me one for Dunaway’s latest,”). But something tells me it was all the pre-release hype, followed by the less-than-stellar reviews and box office, that likely put Eyes of Laura Mars way down on my list of “got-to-go-tos.”

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A few sources I looked up mention the movie was a “hit” at the box office, but that’s a highly relative term. With profitability for a studio back then being about 3 : 1, and with Eyes of Laura Mars grossing only $20 million, that’s about $10 million in rentals returned to Columbia…on a $14 million dollar outlay ($7 million reported budget—they always lowball to the media—and a $7 million ad campaign). Hell—an anonymous little sleeper like Harper Valley P.T.A. made over $25 million that summer, on a minuscule budget with no promotion. Now that’s a “hit.”

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Critics back then were mixed-to-negative on Eyes of Laura Mars, and it’s not hard to see why today: there’s a really interesting movie in there somewhere…but what comes out, is merely passable TV. Perhaps when Eyes of Laura Mars went from being a small indie to a multi-million dollar vanity project for Miss Babs, is where the movie went wrong?

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After his short student film, Dark Star, was expanded and released in 1974, director John Carpenter sold a 10-page spec treatment called “Eyes,” to Dark Star producer Jack H. Harris (of The Blob and 4D Man fame). Harris had an idea of producing “Eyes” himself, with The Big Doll House’s Roberta Collins in the lead. Harris, eventually choosing to turn a quick profit instead, took an “Executive Producer” credit on any future movie made from the “Eyes” treatment, and sold the idea to his friend, Jon Peters, the pint-sized hairdresser Svengali boyfriend of insufferable diva Barbra Streisand.

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Peters worked with Carpenter on a script, but when Streisand pulled out of starring in it (she thought the movie’s violence would be off-putting to her fans), Peters—ever anxious to prove that he didn’t just tease Babs’ locks—set out to make “Eyes” as his first movie without his meal ticket girlfriend attached. With more and more pre-production money going into the project (many uncredited writers and “script doctors” were employed after Carpenter was politely told to am-scra, including Mart Crowley, Joan Tewkesbury, and Julian Barry), Peters upped the ante by netting big star Faye Dunaway (for a cool million). She and Peters then approved, for some unknown reason, Irvin Kershner (A Fine Madness, Up the Sandbox) as director, and one-time soap actor Tommy Lee Jones as her male co-star (no big male “name” was going to upstage our Faye on this one, no sir…).

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Eyes of Laura Mars is one of those genre movies with aspirations above its station, that will tick you off if you don’t immediately check your brain at the door. Even the slightest critical thinking on the viewer’s part will bring forth a torrent of unanswered questions and head-scratchings, and before you know it, the nudity and the violence count for nothing anymore.

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On Mill Creek’s bonus commentary track with the late Irvin Kershner, the director goes on at some length about how he only took Eyes of Laura Mars because he wanted “to say something” that was culturally relevant (I’m sure the paycheck had nothing to do with it). Uh oh. Big red flag. Like Sam Goldwyn, I like my messages via Western Union. And if they do come in a movie, they better not be the kind of fuzzy, vague, generalized cliches that get thrown out there and then dropped…like in Eyes of Laura Mars. Kershner states that the movie is about how the fashion industry forces violence—yes, violence—on women and men, because it makes women think unnatural ultra-beauty is the norm. Uh…right. Sure. It forces them to buy those fashion magazines and clothes. They have no free will, nor critical thinking skills of their own (i.e.: they can distinguish between the fantasy sold to them by the industry, and the reality of their lives). Those poor women are powerless under the spell of Maybelline and Spanx. It’s violence done unto them. And for men, too…somehow. Yes. Got it.

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As patently ludicrous as that notion is, what’s truly nauseating about a phony self-important “artist with something to say” like Kershner, is that he can say such things after delivering a movie that’s nothing more than a jerk-off session featuring pretty girls, pretty clothes, pretty scenery, pretty nudity, and pretty violence. No better puncturing of his specious intellectual pretensions comes than from himself, in the most amusing moment in Kershner’s commentary track. Right in the middle of his umpteenth assurance that he’s not exploiting women in Eyes of Laura Mars, he stops dead in his mental tracks and exclaims, “Whoops! This is too interesting…” as a topless model walks into frame. You can’t make up priceless moments like that.

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Eyes of Laura Mars drops these dopey “important” message-y ideas throughout its runtime—like fashion photography is a “hype;” the media is hostile to artists—but they’re all dumped in favor of Faye Dunaway groping around wild-eyed as she has another vision of murder. And when those cliches are expounded on, they’re sketchily thought-out and ham-fistedly inserted into the narrative. My favorite intellectual non-sequitur comes when Dunaway is being interviewed by a clearly disinterested Jones: one minute she’s talking about visions, before she has her hand on the office door to storm out…and the next, we jump cut to her still there, passionately—and nonsensically—explaining to him her aesthetic concerning “moral, spiritual, and emotional” murder (what the hell?).

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SPOILERS ALERT! Where Eyes of Laura Mars could have distinguished itself from other run-of-the-mill thrillers at that time—the psychic connection between Dunaway’s character and Jones’—is, ironically, the movie’s biggest hole. Not only does the script not explain their obvious linkage, it never even alludes to it. How, or why, did it come about that Dunaway somehow attained the power to experience Jones’ actions? Since he was posing victims to match the photos she had been taking for two years, he was clearly psychically connected with her, as well. Why? How? The movie’s not going to tell you, because it won’t even allow one of the characters to wonder out loud about that link. It’s absolutely crazy: Eyes of Laura Mars’s main narrative hook…is the one thing the movie won’t illustrate or explain or even talk about (that summer, I can tell you that Disney gave me a hell of a lot more information on telepathic feline Jake, in The Cat from Outer Space…).

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Unfortunately for the supporting cast, their 2-dimensional characters’ motivations are necessarily non-existent: they exist purely as red herrings, and that’s all. Rene Auberjonois does what he can with the thankless role of Dunaway’s major domo (that whole drag element in the third act is wholly unnecessary and embarrassing to him); he’s far more successful with his killer “Lloyd Bridges” impersonation. Raul Julia is suitably scummy as Dunaway’s wayward ex, but he’s dropped like a hot potato almost as soon as he’s introduced. Annoying Brad Dourif, one of the most overrated critical darlings from that period, is all ticks and shuffles and glaring eyes shtick—he’s sort of the hobo Anthony Hopkins—that’s never convincing in the slightest.

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At least they’re trying, though—Tommy Lee Jones, looking not at all like a NYPD homicide detective but rather a punk street hustler, acts as if he’s doing court-ordered community service here, not getting his big, big break as a co-star in an A-level project. Maybe it’s because he read the script. It’s a furtive, shifty-eyed turn (like so many of his…) that’s neither heroic nor romantic nor frightening.

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As for Faye Dunaway, she’s really striving for a solid performance in Eyes of Laura Mars. It’s almost as if she doesn’t realize she’s a Best Actress Oscar winner stuck in a junk slasher movie that’s been gussied up with glossy cinematography and expensive lamps. This dichotomy even takes physical form with the actress: in one scene, she can look incredibly good, her long, long legs highlighted to spectacular effect (getting out of the limo at the launch party, or shooting that kitschy Columbus Circle photo shoot, complete with exploding cars, dead bodies, and lingerie-and-fur-wearing models pulling each others’ hair)…and then later on, she looks positively frumpy and overweight (the hilariously stupid finale: dirty diapers=homicidal schizophrenia). The at-turns subtlety and intensity of her thesping—the best thing in the movie—is strangely at odds with Eyes of Laura Mars’ conflicted DNA.

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But that’s not her fault. The clash is indicative of the split intent behind the movie: misguided messaging in an exploitation number. People involved in the filming—and that would be Kershner and Peters and whatever writer finally threw something on the wall that stuck—thought they were “saying something,” when they should have been scaring the sh*t out of the audience, or turning them on, or both.

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Eyes of Laura Mars is supposed to be a modern, sexy, adult thriller, so…thrill me. Don’t serve up “giallo-Lite,” especially when you’ve been c-teasing us with ice pick kills throughout the movie. At least have the guts to be honest. This is exploitation by any other name. Give the genre its due, and honor its conventions. By the time half-naked models Taylor and Fluegel’s numbers are up, we’re primed and pumped to have the movie violence finally let go—we’re ready for cathartic release and vicarious jollies. Instead, we get another Hallmark card bloodless kill (with that stupid Vaseline on the lens to simulate…what?), and our chains are jerked yet again.

Eyes of Laura Mars - Showtime movie guide
Back cover of a 1979 Showtime movie guide. (Private collection/Paul Mavis)

In his commentary, Kershner states he wanted as little blood as possible on the screen (how brave and original). But does that have to translate into everything being neutered and muted? If Dunaway’s cold, elitist artist finally finds release and passion with creepy/crawly/cruddy Jones, couldn’t Kershner have at least given us something more than a 20-second FDS commercial where Dunaway looks like she’s getting food poisoning at the touch of half-asleep Jones? For an intellectually “sensitive” director like Kershner, “restraint” equals “art.” But who was looking for “art” in Eyes of Laura Mars?

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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