Horror Film Review: Eyes of Laura Mars (dir by Irvin Kershner)

The Eyes of Laura Mars opens with Barbra Streisand singing the theme song, letting us know that we’re about to see one of the most 70s films ever made.

Laura Mars (played by a super intense Faye Dunaway) is a fashion photographer who is known for the way that her work mixes sex with violence.  Some people say that she’s a genius and those people have arranged for the publication of a book of her work.  (The book, naturally, is called The Eyes of Laura Mars.)  Some people think that Laura’s work is going to lead to the downfall of civilization.  And then one person thinks that anyone associated with Laura should die.

And that’s exactly what starts to happen.

Laura has visions of her friends being murdered.  Some people believe that makes her a suspect.  Some people think that she’s just going crazy from the pressure.  John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones), the detective assigned to her case, thinks that Laura is a damaged soul, just like him.  Neville and Laura soon find themselves falling in love, which would be more believable if Dunaway and Jones had even the least amount of chemistry.  Watching them kiss is like watching two bricks being smashed together.

There’s plenty of suspects, each one of them more a 70s cliché than the other.  There’s Donald (Rene Auberjonois), Laura’s flamboyant friend.  There’s Michael (Raul Julia), Laura’s sleazy ex-husband who is having an affair with the gallery of the manager that’s showing Laura’s photographs.  And then there’s Laura’s shift-eyed driver, Tommy.  Tommy has a criminal record and carries a switchblade and he always seem to be hiding something but, to be honest, the main reason Tommy might be the murderer is because he’s played by Brad Dourif.

If there’s one huge flaw with the film, it’s that the film never explains why Laura is suddenly having visions.  Obviously, the film is trying to suggest that Laura and the murderer share some sort of psychic connection but why?  (I was hoping the film would reveal that Dunaway had an evil twin or something like that but no.)  The other huge problem that I had is that one of the more likable characters in the film is murdered while dressed as Laura, specifically as a way to distract the killer.  So, that kind of makes that murder all Laura’s fault but no one ever points that out.

Personally, I think this film missed a huge opportunity by not having Andy Warhol play one of the suspects.  I mean, how can you make a movie about a pretentious fashion photographer in the 70s without arranging for a cameo from Andy Warhol?

The other missed opportunity is that the script was written by John Carpenter but he wasn’t invited to direct the movie.  I suppose that makes sense when you consider that Carpenter actually sold his script before he was hired to direct Halloween.  (Both Halloween and The Eyes of Laura Mars came out in the same year, 1978.)  That said, Carpenter would have directed with more of a sense of humor.  Director Irvin Kershner takes a plodding and humorless approach to the material.  When you’ve got a film featuring Faye Dunaway flaring her nostrils and Tommy Lee Jones talking about how sad his childhood was, you need a director who is going to fully embrace the insanity of it all.

With the glamorous background and the unseen killer, The Eyes of Laura Mars was obviously meant to be an American giallo.  Occasionally, it succeeds but again, it’s hard not to feel that an Italian director would have had a bit more fun with the material.  In the end The Eyes of Laura Mars is an interesting misfire but a misfire nonetheless.

Embracing The Melodrama Part III #7: True Confessions (dir by Ulu Grosbard)

The 1981 film True Confessions tells many different stories.

It’s a story about Los Angeles.  It’s not necessarily a story about Los Angeles as it exists.  Instead, it’s a story about Los Angeles as we always imagine it.  It’s the late 40s and, having vanquished the Nazis in Europe, men are returning to California and looking for a new life.  Meanwhile, aspiring starlets from across the country flood into Hollywood, looking for stardom.  It’s a city where glitz and ruin exist right next to each other.  It’s the mean streets that were made famous by Raymond Chandler and, decades later, James Ellroy.

It’s a murder mystery, one that is based on one of the most notorious unsolved homicides of all time.  The bisected body of woman named Lois Fazenda has been found in a vacant lot.  When the newspapers discover that Lois was both a prostitute and a Catholic, she becomes known as “the Virgin Tramp.”  One need not have an encyclopedic knowledge of unsolved crimes to recognize that Lois Fazneda is meant to be a stand-in for Elizabeth Short, the tragic and infamous Black Dahlia.

It’s a story about corruption.  Crooked cops.  Rich perverts.  Greedy politicians.  Sinful clergy.  They’re all present and accounted for in True Confessions.  As quickly becomes apparent, Los Angeles is a city where you can do anything as long as you have the money to pay the right people off.

And finally, it’s a film about two brothers.  Tom and Des Spellacy grew up in a strong Irish Catholic family but, as they got older, their lives went in different directions.  Tom (Robert Duvall) became a detective, the type who is willing to cut corners but who, in the end, takes his job seriously.  Des (Robert De Niro) entered the priesthood and is now a monsignor in the Los Angeles diocese.  Des is ambitious and he has a powerful mentor, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack).

Though Tom and Des have gone their separate ways, they are still linked by Jack Amsterdam (Charles During).  To the public, Jack is a wealthy and respected businessman.  However, Tom and Des both know the truth.  When Tom first joined the department, he worked as a bagman for Jack and he knows that Jack made most of his money through a prostitution ring.  Des know that Jack donates to the Church as way to cover up his own corruption but Des looks the other way.  The Cardinal, after all, wants Jack’s money.

When Tom starts to investigate Lois’s death, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that Jack is probably the one responsible.  Meanwhile, Jack and his lawyer (Ed Flanders) start to pressure Des to convince his brother to let the case go.  Finding justice for Lois Fazneda could mean the end of both Tom and Des’s career.

Based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, which was adapted into a screenplay by Dunne and Joan Didion, True Confessions is an imperfect but intriguing film.  This is one of Robert Duvall’s best performances and he brings a manic edge to the role that keeps the audience off-balance.  In the role of Jack Amsterdam, Charles Durning is the epitome of casual corruption and Burgess Meredith does a good job as an aging priest.  On the other hand, Robert De Niro seems strangely uncomfortable in the role of Des and you never quite believe that he and Duvall are actually brothers.  Director Ulu Grosbard does a good job of creating a proper noir atmosphere but, at the same time, he denies the audience the dramatic climax to which the film appears to be building up to.

That said, for whatever flaws True Confessions may have, it’s an always watchable and thought-provoking film.

Embracing the Melodrama #23: The Swimmer (dir by Frank Perry)

The Swimmer

The 1968 film The Swimmer opens with Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerging from the woods that surround an affluent Connecticut suburb.  He’s a tanned, middle-aged man and, because he spends the entire film wearing only a bathing suit, we can tell that he’s still in good shape for a man in his 50s.  When Ned speaks, it’s with the nonstop optimism of a man who has found and claimed his part of the American Dream.  In short, Ned appears to be ideal American male, living in the ideal American community.

However, it gradually starts to become apparent that all is not well with Ned.  When he mysteriously shows up at a pool party being held by a group of his friends, they all seem to be shocked to see him, commenting that it’s been a while since Ned has been around.  Ned, however, acts as if there’s nothing wrong and instead talks about how beautiful the day is and says that he’s heading back to his home.  He’s figured out that all of his neighbor’s swimming pools form a “river” to his house and Ned’s plan is to swim home.

And that’s exactly what Ned proceeds to do, going from neighbor to neighbor and swimming through their pools.  As he does so, he meets and talk to his neighbors and it becomes more and more obvious that there are secrets hidden behind his constant smile and friendly manner.  As Ned gets closer and closer to his actual home, the neighbors are far less happy to see him.

At one house, he runs into Julie (Janet Landgard) who used to babysit for his daughter.  Julie agrees to swim with Ned and eventually confesses that she once had a crush on him.  When Ned reacts by promising to always protect  and love her, Julie gets scared and runs away.

At another house, Ned comes across another pool party.  A woman named Joan (played by a youngish Joan Rivers) talks to him before a friend of her warns her to stay away from Ned.

When Ned reaches the house of actress Shirley (Janice Rule), it becomes obvious that Shirley was once Ned’s mistress.  They discuss their relationship and it quickly becomes apparent that Ned’s memories are totally different from Shirley’s.

And, through it all, Ned keeps swimming.  Even when he’s offered a ride to his house, Ned replies that he has to swim home.

The Swimmer is a film that I had wanted to see ever since I first saw the trailer on the DVD for I Drink Your Blood.  (That’s an interesting combination, no?  I Drink Your Blood and The Swimmer.)  I finally saw the film when it showed up on TCM one night and, when I first watched it, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed.  Stylistically, the film itself is such a product of the 1960s that, even though suburban ennui and financial instability are still very relevant topics, The Swimmer felt rather dated.  I mean, I love a good zoom shot as much as anyone but, often times during the 60s, they seemed to be used more for the sake of technique than the sake of story telling.

However, the second time I sat through The Swimmer, I appreciated the film a bit more.  I was able to look past the stylistic flourishes of the direction and I could focus more on Burt Lancaster’s excellent lead performance.  Lancaster plays Ned as the epitome of the American ideal and, as a result, his eventual collapse also mirror the collapse of that same ideal.  The Swimmer is based on a short story by John Cheever and, quite honestly, the film’s story is a bit too much of a literary conceit to really work on film.  That said, The Swimmer — much like the character of Ned Merrill — is an interesting failure, which is certainly more than can be said of most failures.