|The excellent film-noir'ish poster for the 1981 made, but January 1982 released, adaptation of Ken Follett's novel: THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE, directed by RETURN OF THE JEDI's Richard Marquand. Image: MGM/UNITED ARTISTS.|
With his sad passing, at the tragically young age of 49, in 1987, the chance for STAR WARS fans to meet, share and celebrate the making of RETURN OF THE JEDI with its director, Richard Marquand, would be denied us-in some ways since his departure his important contributions to the finale of the Saga have now become quite mysterious and criticized by fans. Despite the fan hypothesis and speculations regarding his work on JEDI, the loss of such an iconic contributor to the series (one of only two directors of the film series outside of its creator, George Lucas) is bad enough, but also the fact that he would never direct any more films of which previously, outside of STAR WARS, his material had been varied and interesting, and, bar the odd exception (the tragic horror movie THE LEGACY), showed a continuing and improving collective directorial body of work in the making, would prove equally tragic. With the exception of JEDI, and his last true box office success post the STAR WARS films 1983 release: the classic 1985 US thriller JAGGED EDGE (starring Jeff Bridges and a pre-DAMAGES Glenn Close), there have been very few opportunities to see Marquand’s pre-JEDI directorial work on television (and his early documentaries, to my knowledge, even in this age of multi-channel TV devouring archive programmes, have never been repeated). I had seen his 1981 movie EYE OF THE NEEDLE many years ago and had been aware of it prior to JEDI’s original release (I even remember seeing a FILM 82 programme behind the scenes look at it), and had enjoyed it, but the opportunity to see it again after so long (nearly ten years) was something I decided not to pass up when it was repeated recently on the UK FILM FOUR film channel this year (June 2009) and now on this Wednesday in the UK on Channel 4 on Wednesday PM, if only so as to re-discover just what made the film special enough for George Lucas to take the risk of hiring Marquand in the first place-then a total outsider for the job-for the all-important directorial realms of his universe.
|Stars Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan pose for the camera.|
Based on the highly popular novel of the same name by British thriller writer and award winning novelist Ken Follett (responsible recently for the smash historical book THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH), the story concerns the deadly German spy/killer, codenamed The Needle
, working undercover in London during the war’s height, who quickly obtains vital information that, if his German masters get hold of it, could alter the Normandy invasion plans already underway by the Allied Forces. Under constant pursuit by the desperate British security forces, The Needle
, awaiting submarine rescue, takes necessary refuge on the isolated Scottish island evocatively named Storm Island
and has an affair with an English woman looking after her child and crippled husband. As their love affair of need intensifies, it isn’t long before the German spy’s identity is revealed…
|His cover blown, The Needle attacks!|
Portrayed by Donald Sutherland, The Needle is a dedicated, manipulative, driven and intense spy on his most dangerous mission for his German high command superiors, masterly using his charm to survive, but actually letting his guard down at times when he falls in love, albeit briefly, with the Englishwoman Rose on Storm Island. Making the most of a quality film, Sutherland is very good at a time when he was able to appear in films of a good caliber (let’s not mention more recent material like DEATH SHIP or FOOL’S GOLD). During the eighties he made several quirky English thriller type movies and seems very at home in them.
|The lovely Kate Nelligan as Rose during the films suspenseful finale.|
Though more subtle, the part of Rose, the wife of a tragically crippled ex-RAF fighter pilot, is equally important and played by Kate Nelligan with controlled subtly. Nelligan is in her eighties prime here as a British actress, after the success of her role in the 1979 DRACULA re-make alongside Frank Langella in the title role. Her “English Rose” looks betrays beauty and warmth with a simmering sexiness which proves essential to the film, and she proves well cast-vulnerable but with a hardened edge, lonely after years of isolation on the island, and looking after her crippled ex-RAF officer. The affair and subsequent love scene between her and Sutherland happens a bit too quickly in the film but, due to the nature of the plot, it has to, so as to send it towards its final act and her later discovery of Sutherland being a Nazi spy, which then leads to her gaining a toughness within herself that she’ll certainly need to make the most of during the film’s finale.
We must also have a special mention for the late actor Christopher Cazenove who, though not in the movie very much, brings more to the part than was probably scripted, with some notable heroism, to his disabled character of Peter. Sadly, Cazenove, despite some mild success in the US
(on TV series like DYNASTY) never quite made it in the movies, and I was surprised that someone of his acting credentials and physical appearance didn’t play an Imperial in a STAR WARS film. Alas, as an actor, and as his character, he may have been the victim of the editing room here...
|Alternate release poster.|
In some ways the dramatic conflict between the woman, her husband and her new lover could at times be considered similar to the Han, Luke and Leia relationship triangle as it was during THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (prior, of course, to Luke becoming Leia’s brother in JEDI!). Perhaps that was another element on the character side that Lucas thought Marquand handled well in the picture, and which helped make the Producer sway towards him in the final decision making process.
As well as it’s distinguished main cast, the movie is also a veritable who’s who of experienced and upcoming stars in the making from the British and TV film industries-look out for one of the first screen appearances of Bill Nighy and Rik Mayall, as well as old British acting stalwarts like Ian
Bannen (always great in anything he’s in. If you’ve never seen him opposite Sean Connery in the Seventies British drama SUSPECT, then do so) and Hugh Fraser.
Sadly, Scottish character actor Alex McCrindle (General Jan Dodonna to you and me!!) scenes as the lighthouse keeper, Tom, on Storm Island, are all too brief, and it seems to me, like Cazenove, that his character was probably an early victim of the cutting room floor (I suspect that the version being shown currently on FILMFOUR and CHANNEL FOUR is the UNITED ARTISTS released version of the film rather than Marquand’s own preferred DIRECTORS CUT. It would be intriguing to have known what advice Lucas gave Marquand whilst he was cutting the film when the pair met up whilst Lucas was looking for a replacement for Irvin Kershner on RETURN OF THE JEDI). It’s nice that we get a chance to hear old Angus without the dubbed American voice he was given for STAR WARS in 1977.
Despite the film being edited down for its eventual release, which clearly shows at times- parts of the story seem to happen too conveniently and quickly- EYE OF THE NEEDLE is directed with confident flair and style by Marquand, and has the flavour of early UK
made Hitchcock thriller films like SUSPICION. His prior work as a documentarian and a commercials director (like his contemporaries Ridley Scott and Alan Parker) is also clearly evident (another reason why he was probably chosen for JEDI by Lucas), especially in the opening scenes of war time London
and the blitz. Though some of it is not shown on screen, or discreetly not shown to camera, the film is also intriguingly quite violent at times and Donald Sutherland’s character uses a deadly hand knife, that pops out of his hand (a bit like Palpatine’s lightsaber from EPISODE III, in fact!!), to chilling and lethal effect (with a very nasty and distinctive sound effect to boot) in efficiently directed action and suspense moments.
|Rose is unaware of the new arrival's true identity as a lethal German spy. Image: CINEMASTRIKESBACK.COM|
The old time look and period feel of the movie is effective and kudos to the strong atmospheric cinematography from fellow Brit Alan Hume, who, away from the Blitz damaged London
streets, also shows us in the films second half the beautiful but harsh wilderness of the Scottish highlands. The movie, despite what was obviously studio interference, is also tightly edited by Sean Barton (who, like Hume, also worked on JEDI), with no wastage and very little exposition. Again, another notable factor for Lucas in getting Marquand, and his friends, to work on JEDI.
Capping things off, the legendary Miklos Rozas provides a familiar, nostalgic, but audience welcome mixture of danger, love and violence in his movie score-the kind that he has done so well in the past for films, and is an acclaimed composer for this type of genre and its emotionally complex subject matter.
Though it had not been a success during its original release, EYE OF THE NEEDLE has since become a charming little oddity- not just in its style and the way it was made, but also within the film industry of that time period, counter clashing with the type of big scale movies being made for audiences in 1981/82. Its does not, by any means, rank up there with the greatest noir drama thrillers, and I don’t think it was ever supposed to, but the film is an enjoyable, sometimes tense, well made relationship thriller, and an underrated little British movie gem which has some evocative moments, beautiful cinematography and a keen sense of capturing the period, especially in the movie’s first half, that certainly make it worth a look for it’s one hour and forty five minute duration (and especially if it’s being shown in it’s proper theatrical aspect ratio).
STAR WARS AFICIONADO RATING: 3 out of 5
EYE OF THE NEEDLE is being shown on the UK's CHANNEL 4 and HD on Wednesday, 17th November 2010.