At the center of Eyes of Laura Mars lie a pair of vexing, pallid portals into terror and gender power dynamics. They are two objects staring on at the crossroads after selling their soul to the devil. They are the titular objects of the film – eyes – and they engage in the everyday dialectic of stunted privilege and latent oppression in their daily ritual of photographing women who are as likely to be clad in gilded chic as bloody crimson terror. The eyes adorn the face of Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway, fresh off her Oscar win for Network), a fashion photographer in the glitzy Disco era of the late ’70s, who has taken to coiling together sex and death in garish photographs of women stricken bloodless by murderous killers. Or women otherwise strewn about, dead, on the carpet. The women are not actually dead – they are models in staged photoshoots – but they might soon be. An unseen killer stalks them, and he or she seems to have it ought for the eyes of Laura Mars by transforming her art into reality, torturing her eyes and implicating her in the violence by turning her eyes into inadvertent weapons of sorts. If she continues to shoot, he will kill the object of her lens.
More than that, by some unexplained and inexplicable supernatural force, Laura Mars is made both victim and agent by the film’s narrative and its mise en scene; whenever the murderous prowler strikes again, Laura’s eyes becomes portals into real death, rather than simply staged death. She is sent into a transfixing bewilderment, not quite frenzy and not nearly fugue state, but she can only temporarily see what the killer sees as he or she stalks their prey and moves in for the kill. Not only is the hazy, implicating visual act an experiential means of sickening the audience with their fixation on lurid death – ie Peeping Tom – but it is a way of scabrously and unapologetically begging questions about Laura’s tenuous relationship to the gender dynamics she at once unshackles and reifies. Laura is made part of the penetrative, phallic, masculine act of killing the women by gaining the eyes of the murderer in the act.
As a woman – and as a woman played by the ever-assertive Faye Dunaway at that – Laura struggles to find her place in the male dominated world of fashion photography. Traditionally, the objects of the frame – the female models sexualized and done violence to – are the females, and the male gaze frames the photographer’s lens. Laura bucks the trend by sticking up for her fellow women, at one point implying that they are worth more than a man of ostensibly higher social import. On top of this, the film retains a domineering female focus, only rarely eschewing Laura’s perspective and seldom moving away from her presence. On one hand then, the film’s script questions the latent conservatism of ostensibly radical films like Peeping Tom by breaking from their still prevalent masculine focus, asking why those films – for all their combative contrarianism and autocritique of the male gaze – never afford women any agency nor any perspective.
Certainly, this is writer John Carpenter’s (yes that John Caprenter, co-authoring with David Zelag Goodman) ostensible question to the Italian giallo films he suckled as a wee film school student. The same questions – of the leering male gaze, of female agency – prowl around his directorial debut, released in the same year as Laura Mars – Halloween. But Laura Mars is not content to locate Laura’s agency. Her brashly oppressive, dominant black outfits assert her as the preeminent master of the pastel-infused men of the film, but also of the other women she controls in her daily life. She is set atop the film, centered in frames with prominently cluttered z-axis movement, but her stagnancy undercuts the power she has in her daily life. She is often a still figure in the framing, observing the world as it happens around her, and her color-sapping outfits consistently serve as a nexus point of empty nothingness contrasted against the booming life around her.
Which is to say that for all her eyes afford her an agency over others – a social capital clarified in the ritualistic fashion shoots she controls– she is also made victim by that agency, forced into an uneasy bind wherein her agency necessitates the lack of agency of the women she commandeers, sequestering her from the other women in the process. She can force them to move, but she must remain still, bound by her need to control other women in order to assure her position above them. She exists as a distinct object from the other women in the film; she is denied oneness with them visually and narratively.
Furthermore, the killer denies her agency when his vision becomes hers; she loses control of her eyes, feverishly floating around with no sense of sight in a vulnerable stupor. Her first such affliction occurs while she is in the middle of a particularly gaudy photoshoot, with her camera lens visually framed as the vehicle by which she arrives at the sight of the killer. The metaphor is obvious but no less terrorizing – in dolling up women in violence and gilded gloss, she is no less an oppressor than the men who would nominally deny her entrance into the realm of male privilege. She is, essentially, a female opting to explore the male gaze, but in doing so she cannot but entertain that gaze and possibly become one with it.
Directed by Irvin Kershner – who would acquire The Empire Strikes Back after George Lucas witnessed a rough cut of Eyes of Laura Mars – the film is never quite so simple. Laura is never less than a sympathetic character, and the film balances the tightrope of Laura the agent relative to other females and Laura the victim relative to the men who still control various facets of her life. Kershner and Carpenter don’t blame her for taking part in the misogynist fashion industry; they simply acknowledge a male-dominated system in which women are pitted against other women to ensure their own relative success by operating the phallic male lens – the camera – against other women.
Besides, the director and writer are also in the business of undercutting male roles. A subplot featuring a freakishly young Tommy Lee Jones as detective John Neville subtly denies his own agency throughout. Until nearly the end, Neville is a passing, passive, arbitrary figure, almost a parody of a typical detective and the need for films of this sort to shoehorn in “male” roles to attract audiences afraid of female centric films (a neat reversal of the popular “just a girlfriend” role in so many ’70s dramas).
The film’s bravura opening shot – a giallo-referencing point-of-view sequence where a killer stalks a women – hints at the artful terror to come. Right as the knife is about to impact flesh, we cut to a copy of Laura’s book, which itself features her eyes shrouded in self-serving blackness, being fractured with a knife jab. Combine this with the luminous decision to open the film on a stormy, melancholic Barbara Streisand number and then undercut this most ’70s of pop-fantasias by dissecting it with a lurid European horror theme right out of Goblin’s demonic rock ‘n’ roll cauldron. Together, you have a film that is from its very origins in the primordial ooze already toying and tinkering with ’70s chic culture in often delirious ways, stopping to glance damningly at the intersectionalities of structured, systemic violence in the process.
How fitting that the most overtly giallo of American ’70s thrillers (it is even more outré in some ways than your average ’70s Brian De Palma film, if you can believe it) both closes off the giallo – insofar as it slightly dilutes the giallo for American audiences – and opens it up by exploring and subverting some of its more ghoulishly misogynistic tendencies. Victor J. Kemper’s nervous, vertiginous cinematography and Michael Kahn’s twitchy editing keep us just on the wrong side of sanity, but they also play with character positioning in exciting, transgressive ways with regard to character agency (the opening is probably the shining example on both fronts, combining queasy camerawork with a jarring smash-cut to both assert Laura the predator onto us unexpectedly and also foreshadow her nature as prey to the phallic knife).
Most surprising of all, however, is Kershner, whose reputation today is almost solely limited to the wonderful, but not wonderfully directed The Empire Strikes Back, and a pair of welterweight sequels to other belabored franchises (Never Say Never Again, which Kershner attempted to bring a laconic mood to but confronted an entirely divested screenplay in doing so, and Robocop 2, by which point Kershner had totally given up after having been forced down the rabbit hole of Hollywood hackwork). If I may indulge my inner heretic, Eyes of Laura Mars is the surest and most singular display of his talent in any film. In Empire, a terrific film in its own right, one does not sense the same dogged commitment to perfecting the character framing and blocking, dissecting the people and reconnecting them to break or mend their tenuous interpersonal relationships and sanities depending upon the needs of the moment.
That Empire is one of the most loved films in all of cinematic history, while Laura Mars is a mostly forgotten slice of carnal genre “trash” to those who do remember it, is nothing short of a cinematic travesty. The same comparison could be made of Laura Mars and Dunaway’s prior star vehicle Network – one of the de facto canonical films about the entertainment industry – but a film that seems trite and artistically sedate compared to the venomously roving Laura Mars. It isn’t perfect – a trashy must certainly lingers about it, probably foreclosing the film off from truly probing the more complicated caverns of the material. But craft doesn’t lie, and Eyes of Laura Mars remains a vividly toxic dissent into the dripping maw of the ancient tomb known as the late ’70s.