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Eyes Of Laura Mars

Eyes Of Laura Mars(1978)

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When John Carpenter's first feature film, the sci-fi satire Dark Star (1974), failed as a calling card to Hollywood for the USC-trained filmmaker, he fell back on his secondary career as a writer-for-hire. Of the several spec scripts Carpenter had on the back burner (one of which eventually saw the light of day as Escape from New York [1981], starring Kurt Russell), the first to attract industry attention was Eyes, a psychological thriller set against the backdrop of New York's high fashion demimonde. Seeing Eyes as a vehicle for his then-girlfriend, recording artist and Academy Award-winning actress Barbra Streisand, hairdresser turned independent producer Jon Peters persuaded executives at Columbia Pictures in 1975 to pay out $20,000 for the rights to Carpenter's screenplay... only to have Streisand demur, due to the violent nature of the material. Taking her place was Faye Dunaway, then riding high on the wave of her own Oscar win for Sidney Lumet's Network (1976), who assumed the role of a troubled fashionista photographer whose trademark tableaux of staged murder scenes are drawn from increasingly vivid visions that may be glimpses of actual serial murder. Though John Carpenter was himself without a production deal, his original screenplay was given the full court press by Columbia and set in motion with a budget of $7 million.

Principal photography for Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) began in New York on October 17, 1977, under the direction of Irvin Kershner. (Though Kershner had directed Barbra Streisand in Up the Sandbox [1972], he was not Jon Peters' first choice; British director Lindsay Anderson passed on the project, feeling the script beneath him, and original director, Roger Corman protg Michael Miller, was dismissed during preproduction for "artistic differences.") Carpenter's spec script had been given several rewrites on the road to shooting, courtesy of a diverse group of writers, among them Joan Tewkesbury, Mart Crowley (The Boys in the Band [1970]), playwright Julian Barry (husband of associate producer Laura Ziskin), and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) collaborator David Zelag Goodman (who retained sole screenplay credit). To people Eyes of Laura Mars' kill list of beautiful people in ugly situations, Peters culled actors from the New York stage, among them Raul Julia, Rene Auberjonois, and Rose Gregorio (a recent Tony award nominee for her role in Michael Cristofer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway drama The Shadow Box), and intense film actors Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Dourif (Oscar-nominated for his tragic turn in Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [1975]). Though missing onscreen, Streisand did contribute the film's closing vocal, which charted at No. 21 on Billboard's Top 100.

Photographed by Victor Kemper (a veteran cinematographer whose diverse curriculum vitae spans Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon [1975] and Tim Burton's Pee-wee's Big Adventure [1985]) in cold tones accented by warm keylights and vivid splotches of blood, Eyes of Laura Mars echoed the Italian psychothrillers of the late 60s and 70s known collectively as gialli (from the Italian word for yellow, giallo, after the color-coded pulp and mystery novels sold at news kiosks). Though many Italian gialli had enjoyed American runs (albeit dubbed into English, and dumped into the grindhouse and drive-in circuits), the subgenre had not yet attained much of a purchase at the American movie house, leaving the majority of American critics at a loss to categorize the film, much less appreciate it. Though The New York Times' Janet Maslin credited its "cleverness... superlative casting, drily controlled directing from Irvin Kershner, and spectacular settings that turn New York into the kind of eerie, lavish dreamland that could exist only in the idle noodlings of the very, very hip," Roger Ebert sloughed off Eyes of Laura Mars in The Chicago Sun Times as a bog standard "Woman in Trouble" picture. The recipient of mixed reviews, the film turned only a modest profit of $20,000,000 - not much of a return, considering that Columbia's advertising campaign added an additional $7,000,000 to the overhead.

Though Faye Dunaway's career would swiftly decline into caricature in such outr offerings as Mommie Dearest (1981) and Supergirl (1984), many of Eyes of Laura Mars cast and crew were poised for greatness. Michael Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) elevated Tommy Lee Jones to the A-list (where the actor has remained, more or less, for over thirty years) while Raul Julia too would prove a reliable Hollywood leading man up until his death by cancer in 1994. Next up for Irvin Kershner was The Empire Strikes Back (1980), second film in the Star Wars (1977) franchise, and eighth billed Darlanne Fluegel would enjoy choice (if not starring) roles in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA (1985). Though he disowned Eyes of Laura Mars as a botched adaptation of his original screenplay, John Carpenter scarcely had time to look back. Rushed into production as Eyes of Laura Mars was being prepped for a summer 1978 release, Carpenter's $325,000 body count thriller Halloween (1978) would reap a worldwide gross of over $600 million and be regarded as an instant classic as Eyes of Laura Mars was quietly remaindered to the downgraded status of genre footnote.

By Richard Harland Smith

Sources:John Carpenter by Michelle Le Blank and Colin Odell (Kamera Books, 2013)The Films of Tommy Lee Jones by Alvin H. Marill (Citadel Press, 1998)Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Gruber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters (Simon and Schuster, 1997)

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