Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) Retrospective

SUMMARY
Laura Mars is a successful New York fashion photographer celebrating the publication of her book “The Eyes of Mars.” Laura dreams that a killer leafs through her book, cuts out the photograph of her editor, Doris Spenser, and stabs Doris in the eye with an ice pick. Laura awakens and calls Doris, but there is no answer. The next evening, Laura’s limo driver, Tommy, drops her off at Elaine Cassell’s gallery exhibition celebrating Laura’s book. Laura’s agent, Donald Phelps, and her models, Lulu and Michelle, are among the guests. Laura’s violent photos of the beautiful models are controversial. One man who does not recognize Laura tells her it is tragic this kind of “junk” passes for art. Everyone is shocked when police arrive with news of Doris Spenser’s murder.

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The next day, Laura’s photo shoot centers on a fiery car accident staged behind models pretending to fight. Laura captures it with her camera, but is stopped momentarily by a disturbing “vision” of someone following Elaine Cassell. After the photo shoot, Laura rushes to Elaine’s place but is stopped by another vision as the killer stabs Elaine’s eye with an ice pick. The police are already at Elaine’s building when Laura pushes her way through the crowd. Laura blurts out that she saw Elaine’s murder, but has to admit she was blocks away. Laura tries to leave but the cops take her in for questioning. Everyone from the photo shoot is also brought to the police station, including Tommy, who has a police record. Detective John Neville questions Laura and she recognizes him as the man from her gallery showing. Neville is not sure what to think about her “visions” and shows her classified police photographs of several unsolved murders. Photos from Laura’s book are almost exact duplicates of these crimes. Laura is disturbed that the police photographs were taken at the same time she started to use violent images in her work. Neville takes her to Elaine’s apartment where Laura learns that her own alcoholic, ex-husband, Michael, has been living with Elaine and is now on the run.

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When Laura returns home, Michael is waiting. He claims to be innocent and says he still loves Laura. They argue until Laura gives him money and he leaves. The next morning, Tommy drives Laura and Donald to her waterfront studio for another photo shoot. Things become tense when Donald urges Laura not to talk about her psychic visions, and Tommy confesses he has a prison record. At the warehouse studio, Laura is upstairs alone when she has another vision from the killer’s point of view as he comes up the stairs behind her. She runs blindly across the warehouse, unable to see what is in front of her. All she can see is what the killer sees as he chases her. The vision ends when Donald reaches her on the stairway. They call the police but Donald talks Laura into proceeding with the photo shoot.

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Laura tries to photograph the high fashion “murder scene,” but is so upset she cannot continue. Neville arrives as the shoot is cancelled. They do not realize Michael watches them from another building while Neville questions Laura about her visions. Next, Neville questions Lulu and Michelle at the police station about any crazy fan letters they might have received. Laura works in her darkroom that night when she has a vision of Lulu and Michelle being murdered, each with an ice pick in the eye. Laura frantically calls, but they are dead. After the models’ funeral, Neville offers to drive Laura home. Laura is upset and does not want to rush back to the city, so they take a walk in the woods. They finally admit to their strong mutual attraction and end up making love at her studio. Before he returns to work, Neville gives Laura a gun for protection.

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That night, Tommy drives Laura to Donald’s birthday party, and she asks him to return in an hour to pick her up. Laura receives a call from Michael during the party. He is drunk and needs her help. Donald is worried that Michael will kill Laura but she insists he is not a murderer. She does not want to lead the police to Michael, so Donald impersonates Laura, and strolls out of his building. The police follow him as Laura drives off in Donald’s car. As she drives, Laura “sees” through the eyes of the killer who follows Donald back into the building, gets on the elevator and stabs an ice pick into Donald’s eye. Laura crashes the car into a building as she screams for Donald. Neville brings Laura home from the hospital and promises to take her away once the killer is found. They are interrupted by news of a break in the case. One of Tommy’s playing cards was found under Donald’s body, so the police head to Tommy’s apartment. Tommy calls and will only talk to Neville. The other cops leave and Tommy shows up, claiming he is innocent. When Neville asks him about any lapses in memory, Tommy thinks the cops are trying to put him in Bellevue, and he takes off running. The police give chase, and, before Neville can stop it, Tommy is shot. Neville calls Laura to tell her it is over and now they can go away together. The security detail is dismissed and Laura starts to pack. She comes across the gun in a drawer and places it on the dressing table. Neville arrives at her building and when the elevator door opens, Michael is inside.

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Laura suddenly has a vision of the killer in the elevator. He stands over a man clutching his bloody eyes but Laura cannot tell who has been killed. Laura races to bolt her door. The killer bangs furiously against the door, then stops. A moment later, Neville smashes a chair through her balcony door and rushes in to protect her. She tells him about her vision but he assures her that he just got off the elevator and no one was there. Everything is okay now because Tommy is dead. Laura doesn’t understand why Tommy would kill everyone. Neville says Tommy hated Laura and thought her work was glorifying violence. As Neville explains Tommy’s background, Laura realizes he is not talking about Tommy at all. Neville has a split personality and his violent half is the killer. That personality is now dominant and Laura is blinded by another vision in which Neville follows her into the bedroom and aims an ice pick at her eye. Laura suddenly hugs him and professes her love. Neville pushes her out of the way and jams the ice pick into the mirror. Laura brushes against the dressing table and grabs the gun. Neville begs her to shoot him. She can’t and points the gun away. He puts his hand over hers, brings the gun back to himself, and cocks it. Neville tells Laura he loves her just before she shoots. Laura calls the police to report Neville’s death and her image freezes in a close-up photograph of the eyes of Laura Mars

DEVELOPMENT/PRE-PRODUCTION
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.

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In my version Laura Mars was a crime photographer. Also, I think Irvin Kerschner failed at making the visual style of the visions compelling. Finally, if you could see through someone else’s eyes you would be essentially blind to your own surroundings. You’d experience vertigo, lose your balance, etc. – John Carpenter

Even though it was a treatment by Carpenter that had secured Peters the Eyes deal, Jon Peters claimed in Variety that he had written the treatment himself. Carpenter wrote four drafts of the screenplay, all of which left Peters dissatisfied. He wanted more eroticism and glamour. Finally, he fired Carpenter—who went on to make a name for himself as a horror film director. Carpenter described his experience working with the producer as one he would not want to repeat. “Jon can’t take any criticism of any kind because of his massive insecurity,” Carpenter told a reporter. “He was brutally critical if he didn’t agree with me, but he couldn’t take it if I’d come back and say an idea of his wasn’t going to work.”

“I’m not a producer who comes up with a concept and lets somebody make it their way whether I agree or not,” Jon retorted. “I have definite ideas, and it’s my money. I’d rather get it done my way than be loved.”

Jon Peters
Jon Peters

In subsequent rewrites by Joan Tewkesbury, Mart Crowley, David Zelag Goodman, and Julian Barry, Dunaway’s character was made more provocative, walking on the dark side with her sadomaschostic photographs. The screenplay was not finished when shooting began in the fall of 1977.

The film would be the first in Jon Peters’ three-picture deal with Columbia Pictures. The project was budgeted at approximately $3 million with a planned February start. This was Peters’ first time producing by himself. He had previously shared producing responsibilities with his then girlfriend, Barbra Streisand, on A Star Is Born, which would have been extremely difficult for any novice producer, let alone someone whose background was in hairdressing. And now Peters was working with another strong-willed actress. Faye Dunaway would receive $1 million for starring in the film. Dunaway would decide on her leading man, but he would not be another famous actor since this was a starring vehicle.

91PcXRntX-L._AC_SL1500_“That was the first bad boy I played. He wasn’t really wicked he was just an ex-con, he was actually a sympathetic character. We spent two weeks rewriting it, it never really quite got rewritten right. There was a lot of tension on the set. I enjoyed Dunaway a lot. I also enjoyed working with Tommy Lee Jones. I don’t think the two of them enjoyed working with each other though. It was just very unsure, nobody was really quite sure of the material and they were right, the material had problems. Those of us who weren’t involved in all of the bad stuff were having a great time actually. You know it’s great to be in New York. I was young. I was surrounded by really gorgeous women. I stayed at Hotel Navarro which was kind of really wild hotel and by then I knew a lot of people in rock and roll and people used to come to my hotel suite and play all night. I had a real party going.” – Brad Dourif

Roman Polanski was Jon’s dream director for Eyes—but he was in exile in France. (Polanski had fled the country to avoid sentencing after pleading guilty to unlawful intercourse with a minor.) Peters hired and fired Michael Miller before settling on Irvin Kershner, who had directed Streisand in Up the Sandbox (1972). Dunaway, who had just won an Academy Award for her brilliant portrayal of a ruthless television executive in Network (1976), wasn’t Jon’s first choice either, but Streisand had turned him down, saying that she hated thrillers.

Dunaway & Kershner
Dunaway & Kershner

Peters concerned himself with the film’s hip, New York fashion world look. He was closely involved in recruiting the top models who appear in the film, Lisa Taylor and Darlanne Fluegel. He personally streaked Dunaway’s hair and chose an old industrial building on the Hudson River as the location for the photographer’s lush studio. He commissioned Helmut Newton, then the reigning prince of whips-and-leather photography, to provide Eyes with images to stand in for the protagonist’s work.

Dunaway was 40 pounds overweight when she was cast and still heavy as principal photography approached. A former Columbia executive recalls asking then-studio chief Dan Melnick, “What are you, paying her by the pound?” In one of her first scenes Dunaway was scheduled to wear a Theoni V. Aldredge ball gown with ruffles at the neck. “They locked her up for the last few weeks to lose weight,” says the same source.

PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Filming began in New York on 17 Oct 1977, Dunaway, high-strung in the best of times, was even more insecure than usual. She wasn’t looking her sleekest and was in the process of breaking up with her husband, Peter Wolf. She battled with Jon over the unfinished screenplay-she found herself inventing much of her own dialogue—and later spoke of “the agony of writing as you go.”

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Peters wanted to keep “the provocative visuals, unusual photographic tricks and twist-plot” a surprise. He also insisted on secrecy so that TV networks or low budget producers could not copy the story and rush out inexpensive versions. Indoor sets were closed, but outdoor shooting was not so private, therefore those scenes were set up so that observers would not necessarily understand exactly what was happening. For example, according to production notes from the AMPAS library, a sequence filmed over four days at Columbus Circle in New York City involved a moment where Faye Dunaway seemed unable to finish the scene. Bystanders did not fully understand she was playing a pivotal scene in the movie. Production notes also reported that, unbeknownst to pedestrians, hidden cameras filmed a chase sequence featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Dourif in New York’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” The photography studio was filmed by the Hudson River in a deserted passenger terminal that had plenty of room for the various set requirements, including an overhead walkway, a glassed atrium and an indoor pool. Filming of the “Soho art gallery” exhibition actually took place at the Jersey City Armory. The movie also filmed at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. An item in the 11 Jan 1978 Var reported the film shot entirely in New York and New Jersey, and the 56 day shoot ended with a car crash filmed on East 106th Street.

 

Jack H Harris
Jack H Harris

How did you get involved on Columbia’s Eyes of Laura Mars?
Jack H. Harris: That was an idea that John Carpenter came to me with: I was able to get it turned into a picture.

Were you happy with the finished film?
Jack H. Harris: I was… fairly happy with it, not ecstatic. Even though Faye Dunaway had just come away with the Academy Award and it was a coup to have her, I felt she didn’t get her face dirty enough, she wore high heels when she should have been wearing sneakers and she didn’t look as vulnerable as the gal should have. Eyes of Laura Mars was too glossy and too chic, and I think it lost heart by doing that.

 

The secrecy continued throughout the editing process, and Peters allowed only the projectionist and editor, Michael Kahn, in the editing room. Columbia had moved the film’s release from September to July, and editing was due to be finalized in mid-April.

While Jon called Kershner a “genius” in interviews, privately he told his staff that he felt the movie’s direction was weak. Nevertheless, he threw himself into the marketing campaign, which cost Columbia $7 million-as much as the film’s budget.

Peters & Dunaway
Peters & Dunaway

“It was a volatile, highly emotional set,” Peters admitted. “Fortunately, my nineteen years in the beauty shop served me well. I am used to dealing with temperament.” After praising Dunaway, he added, “My only concern now is that after all the problems on my first two pictures people will begin to think I must be some kind of crazy person.”

Eyes of Laura Mars Billboard -Sunset Strip- West Hollywood, CA August 1978
Eyes of Laura Mars Billboard -Sunset Strip- West Hollywood, CA August 1978

The working title was Eyes, but Jon Peters changed the title to The Eyes of Laura Mars as soon as filming wrapped. The final title is simply Eyes of Laura Mars. Though Eyes was destined to be a disappointment at the box office, grossing only $20 million, Jon and Dunaway sheathed the knives and plugged the movie like professionals. “He has great instincts,” Dunaway said, “and he’s totally unafraid to admit he’s wrong.”

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Eyes of Laura Mars Rebecca Blake Photographs
The end credits listing “Gallery Photographs by Helmut Newton,” “Special Photographic Consultant Rebecca Blake” and “Eyes of Mars Photographs by Rebecca Blake” were disputed by Rebecca Blake. Blake’s contention that just two of Newton’s photographs appeared in the opening scene at a gallery, and the rest of the photographs exhibited were Blake’s.

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Executive producer Jack Harris disagreed and said that approximately six of Newton’s photographs were used in that scene. Harris stated they were legally required to give a credit to Newton, so he received the gallery credit while Blake got the other two credits for her work. Harris also noted that an exhibit in New York of Blake’s photographs was financed as part of the film’s publicity. Blake’s 4 Sep 1978 letter to the editor of Village Voice acknowledged that her collection “Through the Eyes of Rebecca Blake,” which included photographs taken for Eyes of Laura Mars, was exhibited at the opening night party. She chose to pursue legal action, however, because the “misrepresentation of who did what caused her embarrassment both personally and professionally.” Blake’s lawsuit against producer Jon Peters and Columbia Pictures had been settled. Blake received financial compensation and acknowledgment that her work was not accurately credited in the film.

SCORE/SOUNDTRACK
Eyes Of Laura Mars (1978) Artie Kane

Barbra Streisand’s single, “The Theme from Laura Mars (Prisoner)” would be released before the movie opened because, Peters’ planned to create a hit song to help build advance interest in the film. Streisand’s music label, Columbia, was not affiliated with Columbia Pictures, which had its own recording label, Arista.

CAST/CREW
Directed
Irvin Kershner
Produced
Jack H. Harris
Jon Peters
Laura Ziskin
Screenplay
John Carpenter
David Zelag Goodman
Story by John Carpenter

Faye Dunaway as Laura Mars
Tommy Lee Jones as Lieutenant John Neville
Brad Dourif as Tommy Ludlow
René Auberjonois as Donald Phelps
Raúl Juliá as Michael Reisler
Frank Adonis as Sal Volpe
Lisa Taylor as Michelle
Darlanne Fluegel as Lulu
Rose Gregorio as Elaine Cassel

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Hit and Run Nancy Griffin, Kim Masters
Battleroyalewithcheese
AFI
Fangoria#53
Psychotronic Video#14

5 thoughts on “Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) Retrospective

      1. The stories about the “ideas” he had for the never made Tim Burton Superman film are proof that he should not be in movies. The man is a total idiot.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Hello TMC,
    Absolutely loved EoLM when it was released. Was the first time I’d seen Tommy Lee Jones in film. He came off as a smart character. From there on out, I was hooked on him, despite him playing Gary Mark Gilmore later. Was the first time seeing Darlanne Fluegel in film. She was great in Manhunter with William Petersen. Wonderful backstory to the film’s production.
    Great job, as usual.
    L. Alegra Lee

    Liked by 1 person

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