Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) is a photographer noted for shooting glamorous scenes of stylized violence of her work, which some viewers find disturbing and degrading. Hey, she’s working in New York City in the 1970s, so what do you expect—sunshine and lollipops? Things take a turn for the weird when she begins experiencing a particularly unpleasant sort of second sight—she has visions of her friends and colleagues being murdered, despite not being in a physical location that would have allowed her to directly observe what she’s “seeing.”
The first time it happens, her book editor is the victim. She goes to the police, who are not impressed by her explanation of how she witnessed a murder taking place indoors despite her being outdoors at the time and several blocks away. Laura’s efforts to be a good citizen brings her into contact with Lieutenant John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) of the NYPD, and before you know it they’re falling in love (perhaps the least believable aspect of a somewhat contrived plot, putting second sight to the side). The killings continue, as do Laura’s visions, and several suspects emerge, including Laura’s ex-con driver Tommy (Brad Dourif, a.k.a. the voice of Chucky), her slimy ex Michael (Raul Julia), and her very gay manager Donald (Rene Auberjonois).
The plot of The Eyes of Laura Mars has the form of a whodunnit, but it’s not hard to figure out who’s the guilty party. Normally, that would be a bad thing, and quite unforgiveable in a conventional Hollywood film, but it would be a mistake to judge this film by those standards (many people made the same mistake with Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 Black Swan). The Eyes of Laura Mars is often referred to as an “American giallo,” and that’s a fair description of the emphasis placed on creating audience response through strong visuals. Mostly, the story acts as a framework on which to hang some superlative acting, cinematography, and set design, while manipulating the audience in a way that makes an impact even today. Above all, it provides a portrait of New York City before Disney arrived, when grit and glamour rubbed shoulders and the mix was part of what gave the city its special flavor.
The Eyes of Laura Mars is an absolute must-see if you care about cinematography and visual storytelling, and one of the most remarkable things about it, from a 21st century point of view, is that this disturbing, edgy masterpiece was actually a studio film (thank you, Columbia Pictures, for taking a risk). The crew features top of the line talent, starting with director Irvin Kershner, whose long and distinguished resume stretches from small dramas like Hoodlum Priest (1961; set in and shot in St. Louis) to blockbusters like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983). John Carpenter of Halloween fame co-wrote the screenplay (his first time writing for a studio film) with David Zelag Goodman, the photos in Laura Mars portfolio were shot by revolutionary fashion photographer Helmut Newton, and Victor J. Kemper, recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award, served as the cinematographer. Finally, Barbra Streisand sung the featured song, “Prisoner” (her recording of it went to number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100), and jazz pianist and composer Artie Kane did the soundtrack. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Eyes of Laura Mars is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. This release is billed as a “Special Edition” and lives up to that description with a package of extras including an enlightening audio commentary by director Irvin Kershner (he has a lot to say about technical decisions whose effects you see on screen), a making-of featurette (7:26) from the film’s original release, a short documentary about the development process for the film, a selection of TV and radio spots, and the trailer for this and 7 other films.