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From the Vaults: 'The Eyes of Laura Mars' (1978)

January 10, 2011 |  1:06 am

Lauraposter Like all right-thinking people, I cherish "The Empire Strikes Back," and was saddened by the death of director Irvin Kershner. But I didn't realize until reading his one of his obits that he also directed the acclaimed thriller "Eyes of Laura Mars." And I didn't realize, until sitting down to watch the film for the first time this week, that Tommy Lee Jones could be so exquisitely pretty. Yes, pretty. Forget Yoda and space slugs and Sensitive Han -- Jones' sensitive urban pout takes you to new worlds!

Actually, "Laura Mars" is pretty well grounded in our own world, specifically New York of 1978. It's glamorous yet gritty! Taxis honk their horns, men have big hair, people swear at each other in the street, and the culture is saturated with sex and violence.

Embodying the latter two is the photography of fashion guru Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), whose sought-after yet controversial work tends to feature beautiful women in violent situations. Feminists loathe her, but as she eventually explains, real-life violence against women really bugs her: "I can't stop it. But I can make people look."

Unfortunately for Laura, she's not the only person in New York concerned with violence: She's plagued by killer's-eye visions of vicious homicides that turn out to be real. Worse, they all involve the slaughter of people she knows. So the movie's question becomes not just who is the killer, but what's his connection to Laura?

Lauraduo The possible-killer array includes quite possibly the most fabulous cast ever: Rene Auberjonois (Dago from "MASH"!) as her large-haired agent, Donald; the always sublime Brad Dourif (who was amazing standing on the couch in "Blue Velvet," and was amazing as the sheriff in Rob Zombie's "Halloween II," and is amazing here) as bushy-bearded driver Tommy; and an impossibly sexy Raul Julia as Laura's creepy ex-husband Michael.

Did I mention the screenplay's by John Carpenter? With a powerhouse theme song performed by Barbra Streisand? Oh, and Helmut Newton worked on Laura's photos?

And helping Laura sort through the mess is Tommy Lee Jones, looking for all the world like James Franco as he pouts through his police department, tossing his scarf and prancing up to crime scenes in blue jeans and fitted coats, occasionally leaping through windows. I adore the way Kershner films their love scene in the forest, shooting from between branches like he's a voyeur himself, watching Dunaway and Jones pace up and down. "It's pretty un-goddamn-professional of me to be here in the woods with you," Jones rants. They wave their arms, interrupt each other and finally collapse together, as goofy and human and weirdly inevitable as Han and Leia.

Lauramars As the credits roll and Barbra starts back up with her theme song ("I'm your PRISONER!"), you realize the fabulous pieces of this film don't add up to a whole lot. I mean, what's this movie saying about violence in the arts? Can photography be an act of violence? Should we be opposed to vicious psychic killers or should we consider eloping with them? Is Laura's art really as kinky as everyone in the movie thinks it is?

Ah, who cares? Rather like with a Dario Argento film, the extravagantly blood-soaked journey is the point. Just enjoy the shoot! And, you know, if it's not your kind of thing, you can always pop in your copy of "Empire." It's a trap!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images, from top: Theatrical poster (see, it's not called "THE Eyes!"); Tommy and Faye argue over which of them is prettier; one of Laura's photo shoots