Eye of the Needle (1981)
Directed by: Richard Marquand
Written by: Stanley Mann, based on the novel by Ken Follett
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Cazenove, Philip Martin Brown, Rupert Frazer, Barbara Ewing, Faith Brook, Ian Bannen
On July 24, 1981, MGM-United Artists released Eye of the Needle, a suspense/romantic thriller set in Great Britain during the Second World War. Based on the eponymous 1978 best-selling novel by Ken Follett, the film stars Donald Sutherland as Henry Faber, a cold and calculating German intelligence agent who has stumbled onto one of the Allies’ greatest military secrets. Code-named die Nadel (the Needle) in reference to his weapon of choice, a stiletto, Faber is under orders to return to Germany via U-boat and deliver his information to Adolf Hitler personally. If he succeeds, the tide of the war may turn once again in favor of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Adapted for the screen by Stanley Mann (The Collector) and directed by Richard Marquand (Jagged Edge, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), Eye of the Needle is a throwback to the moody suspense thrillers helmed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1940s and ‘50s. Like most of “Hitch’s” old-school thrillers, Eye of the Needle is a mix of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, romance, and murder.
Mann and Marquand begin their tale in early 1940 Britain. Neville Chamberlain is still Prime Minister, and what was then essentially “the European war” is in its “phony war” phase. Germany has conquered Poland and secretly preparing for its blitzkrieg against the United Kingdom and its main ally, France. The British and French are preparing to send an expeditionary force to Finland in a bid to save that small nation from a Soviet incursion – and to keep the war at arm’s length for as long as possible.
Faber successfully transmits his report to the Abwehr, but when his landlady inadvertently walks in while he is doing so, die Nadel uses a stiletto to prevent her from revealing his secret. Then he flees, knowing that if the authorities catch him, his mission to serve the Third Reich.
In this same time frame, a young RAF pilot named David (Christopher Cazenove) and his bride Lucy (Kate Nelligan) are upper-class newlyweds on their way to a brief honeymoon before David joins his fighter squadron to fly Spitfires. Intoxicated from drinking too much celebratory champagne and driving his sporty car much too fast along a narrow country lane, David is unable to avoid an oncoming truck and crashes headlong onto it. Lucy is only slightly injured, but David is left hopelessly crippled and forced to leave the RAF.
Eye of the Needle flashes forward to the spring of 1944. The war has gone badly for Germany – its Navy has lost the Battle of the Atlantic, America has entered the war on Britain’s side, and German forces are retreating in Russia and the Italian front. Allied air forces batter the Reich by day and by night. The so-called “Thousand-Year Reich” that once ruled Europe from the Atlantic to the steppes of the Soviet Union totters on the edge of defeat. And the long-awaited Anglo-American invasion of Western Europe is in its final stages of preparation.
The Germans – no slouches in the art of war – know that an invasion is coming. They also know that the only way that Hitler’s regime can survive is if the Wehrmacht can defeat the Allies in France and force the Soviets to accept a negotiated peace in the East. But in order to crush any landings, or at least inflict enough Allied casualties to demoralize Germany’s enemies in Britain and America, the German high command needs to know when the invasion will occur – and where.
The German generals believe that the Allies’ main attack will take place where the distance between Britain and German-occupied France is shortest: at the Pas de Calais. But Hitler, advised by his astrologer, thinks that the Anglo-American forces under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower will land on the beaches of Normandy.
Hitler sends word to Faber via a network of couriers, including a man named Muller (Rupert Frazer), to determine which theory is correct by gathering information on troop movements and taking photographs of Allied bases in East Anglia, where a massive host commanded by Gen. George S. Patton is assembling. Once Faber has the necessary intelligence, he is to rendezvous with a U-boat and return to Germany to deliver it to the Fuhrer – in person.
Faber has no choice but to obey the orders he has received, but circumstances have changed since 1940. He suspects that British counterintelligence is aware that a Nazi spy is on the loose – the murder of Mrs. Garden, his landlady, did not go unnoticed, and Faber has had to kill at least six people to protect his cover while getting the information Hitler wants. And with the campaigning season in Northwest Europe (early May to late October) fast approaching, Faber needs to get out of Britain – and fast.
But when Faber succeeds – by happenstance – in his efforts to find out where the Allies are going to invade (or, in this case, where they aren’t), his mission is complicated by both the dogged efforts of Inspector Godliman (Ian Brennen) to find him and the whims of nature.
Knowing that the submarine sent to retrieve him can only be contacted during a 12-hour window and can only be on station off Britain for a couple of weeks, Faber steals an unattended boat from a harbor near Banff and heads out to sea. But he does not reckon with the weather in this part of the North Sea, and Faber barely survives a shipwreck when a storm tosses his purloined vessel onto the rocks off the coast of the aptly named Storm Island.
If you are familiar with thrillers that blend history, suspense, melodrama, and romance, you know that the seemingly unconnected stories of the German spy and the luckless newlyweds David and Lucy intersect on this remote and sparsely populated island. And even if you are new to the genre, the poster – which prominently features Sutherland and Nelligan – and the trailer gives you a sense of what’s to come: David and Lucy’s marriage is not a happy one, and Faber uses their estrangement to his advantage, in more ways than one.
With a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, Eye of the Needle is a tightly-paced and extremely focused film that manages to make a seemingly implausible story believable and riveting. Even taking into account several anachronisms – the use of a helicopter by Faber’s British pursuers in Act Three is perhaps the most glaring goof – that perhaps were unavoidable or inadvertent, this 1981 theatrical adaptation of a Ken Follett novel is a solid piece of entertainment, even if it got mixed reviews from contemporary film critics (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times liked it; his counterpart at the rival Chicago Tribune did not) and was, sadly, a flop at the box office.
I like Eye of the Needle for various reasons. I read a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books version of Ken Follett’s 1978 novel and enjoyed it. Follett’s story of espionage and romance is, of course, full of tropes familiar with the “spy novel” genre: the cold and remorseless protagonist, the dedicated antagonist/pursuer and his colleagues, a high-stakes McGuffin, and an unexpected hero chosen by fate to stop the villain from achieving his goal.
The novel and movie also trotted out a cliché that was popular in the “wartime romance” subgenre of movies set against a World War II backdrop – the one-woman, two men “love triangle” story.
What made Follett’s novel interesting to me when I read it – even in its abridged edition – back in the late 1970s wasn’t so much the Faber-Lucy-David story, even though I liked it well enough. Rather, what I liked best was the historical backdrop, particularly its focus on a little-known Allied deception plan known as Operation Bodyguard.
Bodyguard was actually comprised of a set of separate deception plans, of which two are perhaps best known by World War II buffs. Operation Fortitude North was an effort to persuade Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, that the Allies intended to invade Norway from bases in Scotland.
Operation Fortitude South, the creation in East Anglia of a fictitious First United States Army Group (FUSAG) under the command of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., is the backdrop for Eye of the Needle. To trick the Germans into believing that Patton’s FUSAG will invade France where the English Channel is narrowest, the Allies set up a “phantom army” equipped with plywood replicas of military aircraft, rubber mockups of tanks and other vehicles, sparsely manned marshaling area for non-existent divisions, and simulated radio traffic that broadcasts fake messages either in codes the Allies know the Germans broke or “in the clear” to simulate sloppy radio discipline on the part of careless GIs.
The Germans flew many risky reconnaissance missions over southern England prior to D-Day, but the Allies carefully channeled most of these Luftwaffe snoopers so that they overflew East Anglia and took aerial photos of Patton’s fake FUSAG. Hitler waffled between believing the resulting intelligence reports that the Allied main landing would take place at Calais or going with his notion that Normandy was the true invasion site. Fatally for his regime – and himself – Hitler split the difference between both possibilities. Contrary to myth, he never really dismissed Normandy as a landing site and belatedly sent a few reinforcements there before D-Day. However, Fortitude – and the fact that Patton was kept in England for weeks after June 6, 1944 – convinced the Fuhrer and many of his generals that Normandy was a diversionary attack. As a result, many German divisions remained in the Pas de Calais area for weeks; by the time the Germans realized the Allies had deceived them, it was too late. The Allies had established a lodgment in the Bay of the Seine area and captured the port of Cherbourg by the time the German high command finally released the Fifteenth Army from the Calais-Dover Narrows to help stabilize the Normandy front.
Since Eye of the Needle is not an alternate history tale, most viewers who know how World War II unfolded realize that Donald Sutherland’s die Nadel must fail. Like the similarly-themed The Eagle Has Landed, which coincidentally stars Sutherland as an IRA fighter who helps 13 German paratroopers in a mission to kidnap Winston Churchill, Eye of the Needle isn’t so much about who wins in the end, but how the story’s protagonists are prevented from changing history as we know it.
This is a hard trick to pull off, no matter if it’s in print literature or in the visual arts. Stories of any genre – whether they are action-oriented like Memphis Belle or a suspense/romance mix like Hanover Street or Eye of the Needle – work well if they have believable heroes and villains that keep audiences focused on them rather than on the historical backdrop.
In my opinion, screenwriter Stanley Mann (who was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for 1965’s The Collector) did a magnificent job of adapting Follett’s 1978 best-seller. I have never read the unabridged version, but Mann’s screenplay for Eye of the Needle is faithful to the original novel, at least what I remember from the Condensed Books edition of it.
For his part, the late Richard Marquand gets kudos for his steady, professional directing of this focused and fast-moving film. It’s not a perfect film; the camera – perhaps unavoidably – catches a few random details of post-World War II Britain, such as signage that would not have been seen either in 1940 or 1944, or glaring errors – to WWII grognards, anyway – such as the use of 1950s era helicopters or the use of “invasion stripes” on the fake Allied planes laid out for the Germans to see from their recce flights. (The iconic black-and-white stripes seen on U.S. and RAF planes over Western Europe to prevent “friendly fire” incidents during the invasion and the months following were not applied until early June of 1944. Eye of the Needle is set roughly in the spring of 1944, months, if not weeks, before D-Day.)
Marquand also gets great performances from his three main leads (Sutherland, Nelligan, and Cazenove) and a large cast of mostly British stage and film actors. Sutherland in particular was already a well-known star (he played Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman’s Korean War-set black comedy MASH, as well as the roguish Irish collaborator Liam Devlin in John Sturges’ The Eagle Has Landed). Here, he performs solidly as the icy, perhaps sociopathic Faber. Sutherland plays Follet’s antiheroic protagonist as a damaged man who rarely displays any real emotion except a certain cold determination to complete his mission.
Even Faber’s seduction of the lonely and frustrated Lucy seems like a means to an end. He intuits that a beautiful woman who has not had sex with her husband since their tragic car accident in 1940 might be useful, so after listening to Lucy’s account of life on Storm Island – including the facts that her small family and Tom (Alex McCrindle), the alcoholic lighthouse keeper, are the only residents on Storm Island and that there is a radio transmitter in the lighthouse – Faber has a silent a-ha moment. He makes love to her and gains her trust.
As for Nelligan, Eye of the Needle should have made her a star. Her portrayal of Lucy as a still vital and loving woman makes an interesting contrast to Christopher Cazenove’s dark and brooding performance as David. The Canadian-born Nelligan is not only attractive – she even has a few tasteful nude scenes in Eye of the Needle – but believable in the various roles that Lucy must play here.
In Eye of the Needle, we see her character go from blushing bride on her wedding day to a lonely, love-starved woman whose husband is so bitter about losing the use of his legs and his chance to play a role in the war that he avoids all of Lucy’s attempts at intimacy. And even more impressive is when Lucy has to become, in the tradition of a Hitchcockian leading lady – the one obstacle in die Nadel’s fateful mission.
The film also highlights a brilliant musical score by Miklós Rózsa, the Academy Award-winning Hungarian born composer of music for such films as Spellbound, A Double Life, and Ben Hur. Fittingly for a film set in the 1940s, Rózsa’s score evokes the styles of the film noir and melodramas that inspired Eye of the Needle.
Sadly, Eye of the Needle was not a box office success. Sutherland’s career was not badly hurt by the film’s failure, but his fellow leads only had fair-to-middling success in film or television. Nelligan eventually left the UK and returned to North America, where she dropped her British accent and made a modest comeback as a character actor in several U.S. features and TV series; Cazenove died in 2010 from septicemia, but not before getting roles such as Karl von Bayerling in 1985’s Mata Hari and Ben Carrington in the nighttime soap opera Dynasty.
If there was an upside to the careers of anyone involved in making Eye of the Needle as a result of their role in it, it is this: When George Lucas was looking for a director to helm Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Richard Marquand was one of the candidates that Lucas and Howard Kazanjian interviewed. Lucas originally wanted his friend Steven Spielberg to direct; however, the Writers’ Guild of America and the Director’s Guild of America were upset with Lucasfilm because Irvin Kershner’s director’s credit was shown at the end of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back rather than at the start. The guilds had okayed Lucas’s variance from the then-traditional use of bylines in the main titles for the original Star Wars film in 1977, but in 1980 they backpedaled and threatened to fine Lucas and Kershner for breaking the established rules.
Lucas – who was by then in the middle of a divorce from his first wife, Marcia Griffin Lucas – was in no mood for such pettiness. He not only paid his fine but Kershner’s, as well. But he was so angry with the process that he left the Directors’, the Writers’, and the Producers’ Guilds (he later rejoined all three).
In essence, this meant that Lucas could either direct Return of the Jedi himself – which he did not want to do – or hire someone who was not in the Director’s Guild. There were a few American independent directors, but Lucas and his producer, Howard Kazanjian, decided to look in Europe, especially in the UK, for a director who could tell a story that focused on characters, was good with action set-piece scenes, and could turn in a movie on time and on budget.
Richard Marquand was one of the directors in the short list, and he eventually got the Jedi role mainly because George Lucas liked Eye of the Needle.
Eye of the Needle is a smart and watchable thriller. Though far from perfect and definitely a throwback to an earlier era of film (strip the film of its brief nude scenes with Nelligan and show it in black-and-white, and it will fit in with any noir thriller of the late 1940s), Eye of the Needle is worth spending 112 minutes with.