There is an old adage in showbiz, begging the inquiry “Is it commercial or is it ‘art’?” Question: can’t it be both? Personally, I would argue 'yes', though there have been far too many misfires to suggest otherwise, and, apparently not, as director, Richard Marquand demonstrates with Eye of the Needle (1981); a well-crafted, but otherwise unprepossessing WWII thriller, based on Welsh author, Ken Follett’ s exquisite runaway best seller, first published in 1979. As a novel, Eye of the Needle was a hair-raising page turner almost from its first sentence to its last; Follett’s ability to pen heart-pounding prose, immaculate attention to detail, period and the all-too-genuine foibles of flawed male/female sexuality wreaking havoc on the ‘best laid plans’ of a Nazi operative, working to undermine the D-Day invasion right under the noses of the British high command. I can still recall with a modicum of exhilaration the queerly addictive quality of Follett’s book; discovering it at the tender age of fifteen at my local library, and quite unexpectedly plunged into this netherworld of almost too fanciful to be true WWII espionage. It was not simply that Eye of the Needle was a pulse-raging race against time with the sort of ‘action set pieces’ to appeal to an adolescent boy. In fact, knowing little – if anything, actually – of the real world beyond my own front door then, a lot of the backstory Follett included was decidedly ‘over my head’ at the time.
Nevertheless, I could somehow intrinsically sense Follett had written a novel that, if it forced the novice reader to do a bit more research to get up to snuff with the plot, nevertheless was a stylish affair, easy to embrace. The novel had guts, glory, and, an age-ole ‘good vs. evil’ plot twister to make ‘history’ truly come alive. Suddenly, the war was there, between my fingertips, teleported from page into mind’s eye with an adventurer’s cloak and dagger; moodily revised and steadily paced to give these characters plenty of time to struggle with their respective pasts and the ever-daunting present, unanticipatedly drawing them nearer to the maelstrom under the most nightmarish of circumstances. I suppose if I were to be one hundred percent honest with myself as well as my readership, I should also confess that as a fifteen year old boy I found Follett’s anatomically-precise sex scenes between the dashing, yet murderous Henry Faber and lithesome house frau, Lucy positively invigorating. In re-reading them only a few moments ago, they retain their simultaneous and equally as unsettling sense of terrifying tawdriness; the woman, wounded in heart; the man, seemingly lacking one of his own.
Problem: I still envisioned Henry Faber (a.k.a. the Nazi, Die Nadel) as a rather robust and handsome figure; what with Follett’s initial description of him energetically pumping his long legs to propel a bicycle back to the rented boarding house, and even more vigorously pursued by his lustful landlady, Mrs. Garden; furthermore, to be considered an attractive counterweight for Lucy, whose own husband, the one-time dashing, now crippled RAF flyboy, David Rose was no slouch in the amiable manhood department before his accident. With few signifiers to follow, the almost forty year old Faber was described by Follett as ‘youthful’ and more physically robust than most men half his age; ergo, ‘stud material’ in wolf’s clothing. Apparently, director, Richard Marquand missed this, or perhaps, merely underestimated the powerful images the novel conjured to mind. Because what we get in ‘his’ Eye of the Needle is a rather bookish, Donald Sutherland – dubbed in his Germanic accent, and, affecting a rather awkwardly effete British one to fool everyone else; the actor’s gangly soft physicality, coupled with his New Brunswick-born odd facial features, never to be remotely confused with anything even remotely ‘attractive’ to the opposite sex. I suppose one could argue, “well, mate…there was a war on after all…and any male presumably deemed 4-F could us it to his advantage.” Perhaps, but Sutherland’s Faber looks frequently takes on the flavor of the glowering ‘soup Nazi’ from Seinfeld than the real McCoy; not exactly the finest undercover operator Germany had. I suppose, at least from a cinematic standpoint, this ‘every man’ quality can be argued to be Die Nadel’s greatest camouflage. The point is, the novel frequently built upon the finer points of Faber’s burgeoning masculinity, his exacting precision with the stiletto taking on a very Freudian subtext for sexual frustration. By contrast, the movie simply pretends it just isn’t there.
I sincerely hope if Sutherland is reading this review he will forgive me my impressions of him as the failed/flawed McDreamy of this piece. His talents lie elsewhere. And for some time now, I have sincerely considered him one of the finest actors of his generation with copious examples to suggest a near pluperfect track record of exceptionally well-crafted performances. Alas, Eye of the Needle is not among them. As gifted as he is, Sutherland is never entirely able to rid himself of a beady-eyed pseudo-menacing; indiscriminately plunging his retractable spike into anyone who even remotely gets close to his truth. The element that made Die Nadel so appealing to Lucy in Follett’s novel was her projection onto him as possessing the same idyllic masculinity as her husband, David. Hence, Lucy could feign willingness to make improper advances and even more indecent love to this stranger as an extension, not simply of her own loneliness and yearning to be touched (something David has not done since the accident), but equally using Faber as David’s surrogate. However, to effectively do this, one has to sincerely believe the likeness of one man strikingly reminds our heroine of the other. Whoa, Nellie – how much imagination did it take actress, Kate Nelligan’s to reconcile Sutherland’s angular, bug-eyed and toad-like features with the fair-haired, dimple-chin and square-shouldered uber- virility of actor, Christopher Cazenove, as David?!?
Even if one could reconcile the lack of any physical similarities between these two diametrically dissimilar men, or the grotesque absence of romantic chemistry between Nelligan and Sutherland; a pair of Canucks playing Brits, and/or buy into Sutherland’s lanky loner as super spy/beefcake du jour, Eye of the Needle has other monumental hurdles to overcome. While Follett’s novel possessed the luxury of 330 pages to evenly pace out Die Nadel’s ruthless mission, the movie understandably needs to cram everything it can into barely 2 hours; Stanley Mann’s screenplay distilling the lulls between into a string of rather brutish assaults, narrow escapes, and increasingly frantic maneuvers that leave our villain bedraggled. For me, at least, the merit of the movie teeters almost entirely on how well Marquand is able to render Follett’s prose into a suspense-laden roller coaster ride. In fits and sparks, he marginally succeeds; Faber’s escape from his boarding house after killing Mrs. Gardner (Barbara Ewing), butchering his own blonde operative, Muller (Rupert Frazer, two peroxide jobs away from some serious scalp poisoning), merely as a decoy to elude Inspector Godlimen (Ian Bannen), and, finally; yet again, Faber avoiding capture aboard a crowded train, murdering one-time friend, Billy Parkin (Philip Martin Brown) before leaping from the platform; these early misses in Eye of the Needle are tautly and tenaciously staged; Alan Hume’s pervasively bleak cinematography not altogether abetted by Miklós Rózsa’s pronounced underscore; about three decades too lush and sentimental for the grittier realism of the late seventies/early eighties.
I suspect Marquand is reaching for a sort of ‘artistry’ here, while desperately hell-bent on achieving commercialism with class. The only problem is Eye of the Needle plays much more like a movie made at the start of the seventies instead of one released on the cusp of the eighties. In part thanks to Production Designer, Wilfred Shingleton and Art Directors, Bert Davey and John Hoesli, it at least has the look of the early forties to recommend it; the scenery crammed with gallant men in uniform waiting at the train depot, idyllic cottages nestled in the ever-green amphitheater of a movie-idolized ‘jolly ole England that never was’; bombed out cityscapes interpolated here and there to suggest, in fact, a war is going on, and, a countryside dotted in a sort of Technicolor-ized/Mrs. Miniver-esque landscape, sparsely populated by careworn old-timers and winding waterways. One of the movie’s most impressive ‘set pieces’ is Faber’s discovery of the fake FUSAG army installation; complete with plywood bomber planes that, at least from the air, suggest a formidable airstrip from which the Allies are about to launch their counteroffensive into Calais. As a matter of record, this episode is derived from history. With America’s complicity and participation, FUSAG was actually built to throw the Nazis off the scent of their real plan to invade Normandy. It worked spectacularly well as a matter of nearly forgotten history. But as a set piece in the film, Faber’s discovery of this flimsy camouflage manages instead to remind the audience that, like the airfield, the rest of what is on display here is ‘a movie’; the sets, costumes, etc. et al. mere props as artifice for our popcorn-munching enjoyment.
Eye of the Needle begins in 1940, with the seemingly congenial Henry Faber working for the Nazis while gaining unprecedented access to the heart of British Intelligence. Faber is befriended by Billy Parkin, desperate to enter the war, despite being rejected twice for enlistment - a year too young to partake. Faber cryptically promises Billy the war will continue for some time. Faber then retires to his boarding house, using a shortwave radio to communicate with the Nazi high command in Berlin and divulge his latest secrets. In another part of town we are introduced to newlyweds, David and Lucy. He is a passionate RAF fly boy about to be sent up into the skies. She is a forthright young Miss of rare endurance and qualities who confides to her mother (Faith Brook) there is no need to ‘explain’ away the ‘surprises’ awaiting a young bride on her wedding night. The bloom, it seems, has already been amply rubbed off. Regardless, everyone thinks highly of David. Besides, the couple is madly in love; a passion prematurely vanquished when an oncoming truck forces the newlyweds’ roadster off the side of a bridge. David is paralyzed in both legs as a result of the crash, but Lucy seemingly escapes this hellish wreck virtually unscathed. Some four years later, we catch up to Lucy and David – a wheelchair-bound sheep farmer, living on the remote Storm Island off the Scottish coast with their young son, Jo (Jonathan Nicholas Haley) and Tom (Alex McCrindle) a chronically inebriated – but lovable – lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse contains a CB radio; apart from a ‘once a week’ supply boat bringing foodstuffs to this isolated place, the couple’s only other contact with the outside world. David is a bitter, broken man; humiliating his mother-in-law at table before sending her prematurely packing for home. He cannot stand to be touched by his wife or to initiate any sort of intimacy in return. This leaves us to presume Lucy’s impregnation occurred sometime before the car crash, except exactly how she managed not to miscarry because of it remains an absurd mystery.
Meanwhile back in London, Faber is ordered to make contact with another Nazi operative, Muller later that evening. Since having murdered his landlady, Mrs. Gardner for her inadvertent discovery of his dark secret, Faber has been on the lam, pursued by the steadfast, Inspector Godlimen and the police. Muller’s apartment is so obviously a trap. And Muller cannot be allowed to live; his inherent apprehensions to use the cyanide capsule afforded him foreshortened when Faber uses his favorite weapon to fatally puncture Muller in the gut, leaving the corpse to be discovered too late by Godlimen and his men. Connecting the dots, Godlimen finds Billy Parkin and asks him to identify Faber from a series of ‘graduation photos’. After a few false starts, Parkin picks out his old nemesis. Director Marquand does a particularly adept job at covering a lot of the novel’s backstory in the following montage; interpolated scenes of Faber chartering a boat to the remote location where the bogus Allied Airbase has been established, while MI5 agent, Kleinmann (John Bennett) offers a voiceover debriefing Scotland Yard of Die Nadel’s activities since the war. Upon returning to his boat after exposing the base as a fraud with a hidden camera, Faber is confronted by a pair of soldiers from the old home guard (Steven Phillips, Richard Graydon) whom he effortlessly dispatches with his stiletto.
A short while later, Faber makes contact with another counterintelligence operator in the back of a taxi, passing along the information he has gleaned and ordering it be placed in the latest diplomatic pouch to Lisbon with all speed. Alas, only moments after exiting the taxi, Faber’s point man is apprehended. Faber deviously boards a train to get out of London, unaware Godlimen and Parkin are already on board, examining the cars one at a time. Realizes his only chance at escape is to outfox them, Faber decides to sacrifice Parkin in between cars, laying his corpse in front of the door to prevent Godlimen from following. Faber then pulls the emergency break and leaps from the moving train not far from a station; stealing a motorcycle to drive across the countryside undetected. He makes it half way to the port city of Aberdeen before running out of petrol, thumbing it the rest of the way. Determined to make contact with the German U-boat nestled quietly off the coast, Faber steals a trawler under the cover of night and makes a break for the open sea. Too late he realizes a terrible gale is fast approaching. The violent waves gnash on all sides and bash the trawler against the rocks of Storm Island. The boat is lost. But Faber has survived – barely - and is given shelter by Lucy and David who is more immediately suspicious of Faber’s motives. He also does not believe Faber’s reason for chartering a boat in the middle of one of the worst storms these parts have ever seen. But not even David can imagine the wife who has dutifully tolerated his belligerence for four long years will be so quick and easy to be seduced by this stranger. Faber and Lucy share a passionate night of love-making in front of the fire while David and young Jo are fast asleep upstairs.
Learning of old Tom’s radio transmitter, Faber feigns an interest in accompanying David to the lighthouse the next afternoon. However David, realizing Faber is a German spy with hidden microfilm in his pocket, confronts him at rifle point on the moors. The men wrestle; a particularly brutish confrontation in which David momentarily gains the upper hand, subdues Faber and nearly manages to knock him off a steep cliff, before being thrown by Faber from the same precipice into the swirling waters below. Hurrying to the lighthouse, Faber attempts contact with the German U-boat, is discovered by Tom and is quickly dispatched. Now, Faber returns to Lucy. More love making – this time, naively discovered by Jo. Faber lies to Lucy, that David and Tom have taken to the bottle together and are drunk and passed out at the lighthouse. Faber suggests he will go up to the lighthouse later on to collect David. In the meantime, Lucy and Jo elect to go on one of their ‘exploration’ walks along the coast; Lucy unintentionally stumbling upon her husband’s battered remains floating face down in the surf. Hurrying back to the cottage, Lucy is startled by Faber who is already there; also, by Faber’s claim he has only just left David, still drunk with Tom and refusing to return home to the cottage. For the first time, Lucy realizes Faber is responsible for David’s death and also how endangered she and Jo are of suffering a similar fate. Agreeing to make love to Faber for the last time, Lucy drugs Jo to keep him silent as she later sneaks out of the bedroom, collects the unconscious child in her arms and hurries for the jeep with David’s loaded pistol firmly tucked in her skirt.
Reassessing the situation, Faber chases after Lucy. He is unable to catch up to her head start, but pursues her to Tom’s lighthouse. Lucy discovers Tom’s body in the attic. She also accidentally drops the pistol near the bed. Faber arrives and endeavors, first to barter, then to scare Lucy from the lighthouse. She chops off the tips of several of his fingers with an axe. But Faber manages to break a window, tossing a Molotov cocktail inside and starting a small fire to distract Lucy while he breaks in and takes Jo hostage. Ordering Lucy to submit, Faber is unprepared when Lucy sabotages his radio transmission by sticking a nail into an exposed light socket, nearly electrocuting herself, but shorting out the power necessary for his transmission. Unable to bring himself to murder her, Faber instead bungles his escape from the lighthouse, racing down the embankment towards a waiting dinghy near the water’s edge. Recovering David’s pistol from the bed skirts, Lucy takes dead aim and fires several rounds, wounding Faber in the leg and side before administering the fatal kill shot to his chest. Faber slumps over in the dinghy and Lucy collapses in typically hysterical regret on the wet sand.
Either out of budgetary constraints or perhaps simply to ‘liven up’ the ending, the movie’s finale considerably deviates from the novel. The movie ending is, alas, pulpy and clichéd; the scorned, gun-toting, ‘hell hath no fury…’ female, avenging her husband before devolving into tearful mush; the camera needlessly pulling back for a 360 degree aerial vantage of the cliff and a quick fade to black for the end credits. In Follett’s novel, Faber’s daring escape is foiled when Lucy, who has already resourcefully managed to contact the RAF via Tom’s radio for an emergency rescue, next manages to dislodge a sizable bolder from the cliff’s edge, dropped with dead aim and causing Faber to lose his footing and plummet to his death on the rocks below. The RAF arrives in time to discover Faber’s badly mangled remains lying on the rocks at sea level. Interestingly, the movie also omits a character named Bloggs – an ex-policeman and something of Godlimen’s right hand, also previously in touch with David and Lucy, and, who, at least in the novel, is suggested as a future marital prospect for the widow whom Bloggs proposes to and weds in the last chapter.
Unlike the novel, Eye of the Needle – the movie – is a rather flaccid spy thriller with a few dark and foreboding flashes of excellence. Director Richard Marquand has, for the most part, made the least of the assets afforded him; Stanley Mann screenplay truncated its source material to the point where too many loopholes are never satisfactorily resolved. As example: how does David know the microfilm in Faber’s pocket contains German secret intelligence? Better still, why does Godlimen allow Parkin to saunter through the train carriages unprotected, thereby affording Faber the prime opportunity to do away with his star witness? The chief difficulty facing the movie, unlike the novel, is Mann’s toggling between two seemingly unrelated narratives gradually brought into focus on a collision course for the third act. The novel is far more skillfully structured. It draws out a sort of ‘understanding’ these two narratives are running a parallel course in time with ominously threatening results soon to follow. Regrettably, the movie keeps the two plots almost entirely separate until the third act when they are thrust together merely by fate and ill-timing. It is, I think, futile to harp on comparisons between any book and the movie derived from it; as no movie ever made from a novel implicitly adheres to its structure or characters without at least a modicum of artistic license. Yet, many movies derived from books often improve upon their source, or, at least, give a reasonable facsimile to suggest ‘complete’ fidelity has been maintained. In point of fact, Eye of the Needle gets most of the highlights of Follett’s novel right. Yet, it still somehow manages to misfire.
Earlier in this review I mentioned being titillated by the novel’s handsomely expressed ‘love scenes’. Remember, I was fifteen. And yet, even as an adult I can admire Follett’s use of clever language to suggest a more intensely seedy and sweat-soaked passion never entirely visualized as such in the movie. Marquand really fumbles the ball here; a few gratuitous nudie shots of mother and child in the bath; a couple of ‘boob shots’ of Kate Nelligan (whose real ‘reel’ talent and appeal as an actress ought to have precluded the good sense God gave a lemon – she should have refused to do these inserts), and the inference of fellatio without actually seeing it. I have written extensively about sex in the movies in some other reviews on this blog; my issues with illustrating what may or may not transpire between two consenting adults when the lights are low, divided into two categories; all the way, or, nothing at all. If ‘all the way’ then I simply say, rent porn and be done with it. If nothing else, passion in the ‘legitimate cinema’ is more a product created in the mind than from any full frontal views of the loins.
I suspect, Marquand would have hoped to concoct the cinematic equivalent to Follett’s literary description of these candid moments. In my not so humble opinion, it cannot be done. The book functions and arguably preys on our dirty imaginations. The movie must either show us or remain conspicuously silent. Marquand’s approach does neither and, as such never satisfies. He ought never to have even tried. Besides, the other codicil I have where ‘movie sex’ is concerned is if it must be shown at all, then let the consenting actors involved at least sport taunt and ‘sexy’ bodies to make us want to vicariously partake of the exercise ourselves through them. For some frightfully odd reason, movie audiences were already privy to a nude Donald Sutherland in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973); another much-admired cult horror fav I have little use or respect for; but another time and another review. Eye of the Needle is ambitiously mounted. However, it frequently waffles away from its tightly woven tale of espionage. What we get here is a lot of false starts, some mediocre acting and a strikingly bad/guns-a-blazing chestnut of a finale. I suspect the picture would have been better with more time allotted to iron out the novel’s narrative wrinkles; getting to know the young couple before the tragedy and, in particular, a more vibrant David Rose prior to his untimely demise; thus to better understand and empathize with his premature spiral into a bitter man, aged well before his time – or, perhaps not.
The casting of Donald Sutherland is equally problematic. He strikes a supremely satisfying chord as the brooding Nazi boogieman of the third act. But Sutherland can hardly be considered the object of any woman’s erotic fantasies; even one as sexually deprived, but still relatively attractive as our Lucy Rose. Besides, Sutherland is not the dashing type, if more than slightly psychotic German depicted in Follett’s novel. Part of the novel’s success is that a good deal of its plot is centralized on an oddly compassionate portrait of this Nazi rogue; merely doing his duty in war, yet catastrophically insulated and destined to remain apart from the world in which he is forced to inhabit as a fake and a fraud; his sequestered desire inadvertently and tragically awakened to his own detriment by meeting Lucy. While Follett’s novel never took Faber’s side (he is, after all, a Nazi and a ruthless killer), the book nevertheless achieves a level of compassion to suggest that behind the ruthlessness of his actions there is a man driven to suffer by his never waning devotion to the wrong side. The problem for the movie is that this subtext, like virtually everything else, is regurgitated by Marquand as mere contrivance; Stanley Mann’s screenplay a sort of watercolor by numbers study in still life, squandered on party empathy. There are virtually no nuances to the plot or the motivations behind these characters; they merely act and react to the machinations of the screenplay. Perhaps Marquand would have preferred his entire audience to have read the novel before entering the theater; a most adequately shorthand. Even so, Marquand has missed more than a few of the subtler hints in punctuation: Follett’s implicit commas and apostrophes, too many ‘i’s without a dot and far too few ‘t’s crossed. There is a moody magnificence to Alan Hume’s cinematography. But in the end it is not enough to sustain the whole show. Eye of the Needle endeavors to accomplish too much but comparatively achieves too little.
One could say the same about Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release. Overall, there is nothing inherently wrong with the bulk of this 1080p offering; although the opening credits are cause for my initial displeasure. I have never entirely understood why optical titles laid over any filmed image cause the image quality to greatly suffer from a rather thick and exaggerated patina of grain and muddy colors; the main titles are a dirty, gritty brown mess with a few hints of digitized grain in the bright spots of red on the caps of the British soldiers waiting at the train depot. Contrast during these establishing scenes is well below par. The good news here is that immediately following these titles, overall image quality vastly improves; the image sharpening up without appearing to have had artificial sharpening applied to it; colors infinitely better resolved and fine details quite often striking, particularly in close-ups. However, there is a modest inconsistency steadily creeping into these visuals the further we get into the movie; grain, most prominently shifting between indigenous and appealing to its source during brightly lit scenes and resorting to an unhealthy clumpiness for the scenes photographed at night. Best of all: this transfer is virtually free of age-related artifacts; no blips and/or scratches.
If I had to guess, I’d say MGM has given TT another 1080p transfer culled from imperfectly mastered elements that are at least a few years old and in need of a more ambitious upgrade. The 2.0 DTS mono audio is adequate for this presentation, though only just; dialogue front and center with Rosza’s score occasionally so dominant it sounds almost spectacularly like a throwback to a vintage in film scoring at odds with the grittier realism of the late seventies/early eighties. Extras are limited to an isolated score and an audio commentary from TT’s Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and historian, John Burlingame. At times, this commentary waffles for something intelligent to say; the three participants waxing more about their ‘impressions’ of the movie, and personal tastes than the making of the film itself. It has its’ place, but frankly, it isn’t my cup of tea. Bottom line: if you are a fan of Eye of The Needle, you will want to snatch up this Blu-ray. It isn’t perfect. Then again, far too few deep catalog releases are afforded perfection these days. In all truth, it isn’t as awful as some. Buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)