Provocative but unsavory. "Eyes of Laura Mars" is a would-be chic whodunit compromise by shameless plot twisting. It illustrates what can go haywire when outfoxing the audience about the identity of the killer becomes a mystery story's sole purpose.

Producer Jon Peters has been hogging the credit for this melodramatic pretzel, and it would behoove everyone else associated with it to let him boast his fill. "Eyes" is certainly the trashiest material director Irvin Kershner has struggled to finease in an underrated but admirable 20-year career. It would be a typical Hollywood irony if "Eyes" became a smash, belating establishing a box office reputation that eluded Kershner on such infinitely superior credits as "The Hoodlum Priest," "The Luck of Ginger Coffey," "The Flim Flam Man," "A Fine Madness." "Loving," S*P*Y*S*," "Up the Sandbox" and "Return of a Man Called Horse."

Faye Dunaway, in her first screen appearance since winning an Oscar for "Network," does a booby prize imitation of anxiety in the role of Laura Mars, a photographer who has become the toast of trendy New York by incorporating images of violence and death into her glossy high-fashion layouts. On the night of a publican party at a SoHo gallery for her book, entitled "The Eyes of Laura Mars," the heroine learns that her publisher, a close friend named Doris Spenser, has been murdered by an unknown assailant.

News of the murder confirms a premonitary flash in which Laura imagined Doris being stabbed. Soon the death of another woman friend duplicates this pattern. In the course of questioning Laura about her premonitions, the detective in charge of the cases reveals that classified police photo of two old unsolved murders bear an uncanny resemblance to poses in Laura's book.

Apparently some kind of psychic affinity exists between Laura and the murderer.In an intelligently devised thriller that affinity would be clarified along with the identity of the killer. (One of the peculiarly maddening things about thrillers is that you can't document their subterfuges in a review for fear of "giving away" the solution to the mystery. Brilliant or stupefying, one doesn't give it away. Moreover, many people ask no more of a whodunit than the shallow acts of deception this movie specializes in.)

But without commiting impermissible breaches of etiquette, one may point out that the people who fabricated "Eyes of Laura Mars" fail to account for that initially intriguing psychic link. And the killer's ultimate identity can be justified only as a fakeout for its own sake. It is in no way a persuasive or satisfying choice.

Among other unfortunate consequences, this fakeout makes Laura and the art-celebrity-commercial world she adorns off the hook for perhaps inciting violence without intending to. Consequently, the movie never develops the most interesting possibility in its premise: the dilemma of an artist who discovers that in some way her art may have horrifying effects: that self-expression can backfire on you, particularly in the context of contemporary mass culture and advertising.

Perhaps Jon Peters is too much a part of the celebrity set to entertain the idea that it might nurture or attract dangerous elements. But I can't believe that the idea failed to occur to a director as sensitive as Kershner; and its implications hover around the early reels, sustaining vain hopes that this thriller will discover its subtext in the course of unraveling a conventional murder-mystery plot.

From the look of things Kershner must have had his hands full (of his own hair maybe?) trying to prevent his gratuitously tricky scenario from self-destructing before the denouement. When the plot seems to contract a temporary romantic fever, you're not quite sure if you or the filmmakers have taken leave of their senses. There turns out to be method in the madness - it's a clue to the plot's eventual collapse - but at the time one can't help thinking that Peters must have ordered love scenes in order to recall the monier interludes of his and Streisand's renovation of "A Star Is Born."

"Eyes of Laura Mars" doesn't even look attractive or insinuating, a startling lapse in the work of Kershner, a former photographer and teacher of photography who helped launch such great cinematographers as Haskell Wexler and Gordon Willis. Instead "Eyes," photographed by Victor Kemper, has a sickly, grubby look. Surely the visual pattern should have been gloss and glamour on the surface with shadowry, frightening moods lurking just beneath the surface.

The photos supposedly composed by Laura are the work of Rebecca Blake, a fashion photographer noted for enhanced, hyperbolic color, and Helmut Newton, the fantasist behind the slickly repellent eroticism in the recent coffee-table volume "White Women." The failure to create a look for the film based on their work seems inexplicable, particularly in the case of Newton, whose images tend to suggest glossy invitations to molestation.

One's admiration for the actors who portray the principal men (and possible suspects) in Laura's life - Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Rene Auberjonois and Raul Julia - increases in retrospect, with the full realization of how much deception they had to make credible. Dourif and Auberjonois, cast as Laura's gofer and agent, respectively, are especially inventive and entertaining.

By contrast, Dunaway's hopelessly waxen and stilted performance seems to be crying out for deliverance in the form of a Carol Burnett take-off. One gradually abandons hope that "Eyes" will join the ranks of such obvious influences as "Laura," "Blow-Up" and "Klute."

It's conceivable that the film could generate a kitschy popularity on the basis of its most ludicrous feints and dodges. The denouement is the nuttiest thing of its kind since "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers." You have a strang feeling that Laura may have jumped from the frying pan into the hot seat. The plot has about three or four too many homicides, and the final one, though a life-saver in one respect, could be difficult to explain to suspicious policemen who might not have seen the movie themselves.

For this and other reasons you find yourself chewing over "Laura Mars" after the lights come up. Unfortunately, it's the kind of chew that leaves your jaw feeling tired and your mouth tasting sour.