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    Needling Details

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    On the occasion of best-selling novelist Ken Follett’s 68th birthday today, he’ll be celebrated as a creator of spellbinding spy thrillers, meticulously researched historical novels and gripping family sagas across 29 books published to date, with another promised this September, A Column of Fire, combining aspects of all the above-mentioned preoccupations. He says on his website: “It is a spy story set in the sixteenth century, during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. There were many assassination plots against the Queen, so the people around her set up an espionage system to foil those 16th-century terrorists. This was the beginning of the British secret service that eventually gave us James Bond," for which he sourced 228 books. From the rigid framework of names and dates, battles and assassinations and massacres to details of underwear, cutlery, coins, toilets, hairdressing, shops and booze – they were vital for getting the details right.” That commitment to the minutiae of storytelling was evident early on in his first breakout novel, a World War II spy hunt suspenser first published in 1978 under the title Storm Island, its fictional climactic setting. Soon thereafter, it was renamed Eye of the Needle – after its cold-blooded protagonist’s penchant for dispatching people with a stiletto – and would go on to sell more than 10-million copies and capture a 1979 Edgar Best Novel Award from the Mystery Writers of America. For any film version to succeed, it would have to mirror Follett’s dedication to complex characterizations, tight plot structure and enveloping period recreation – and needed adaptors who were ready to take the kill-shot. Eye of the Needle (1981) came to the screen so equipped. Screenwriter Stanley Mann had both high- and lowbrow credits, but a few stood out as good signposts for their touching and tormented characters: The Mark (1961), The Collector (1965) and Rapture (1965, a Twilight Time title offered here: Director Richard Marquand had nearly 20 years of grounding in British travel and historical documentaries before making two theatrical features, the horror yarn The Legacy (1978) and an intriguing depiction of the Fab Four’s early struggling years, Birth of the Beatles (1979). Producer Stephen Friedman’s resume included projects both critically acclaimed (1971’s The Last Picture Show) and audience-rousing (1977’s Slap Shot).

    With this sturdily built and executed tale of an undercover Nazi spy in Britain, on the run with the secret of the location of the pending D-Day invasion site, they achieved the propulsive qualities of Follett’s fiction to become the cinematic equivalent of a compulsive read. The “Needle’s” post-shipwreck encounter with an isolated island’s inhabitants – particularly the love-starved wife of an embittered, crippled war veteran – generated gripping suspense as moods of menace and tentative, unexpectedly tender romance were stunningly rendered. Eye of the Needle also became a key element in Star Wars lore when that saga’s mastermind saw the film. As Bryan Young reflects in his essay The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Eye of the Needle: “The film is a knockout of suspense and performance, but there isn’t a single major action sequence in the film and even fewer special effects. It’s told in the cinema of editing and of performance. But what could George Lucas have seen in the film that would have made him think he [Marquand] was a perfect choice to direct Return of the Jedi [1983]? The film is incredibly literate in the language of cinema and the language of cinema that came before it. Eye of the Needle feels almost anachronistic for its time, feeling more like a British film from the ’60s rather than being released in 1981. But unlike the sort of World War II films released in the UK during the ’60s, this is completely different in tone. It more resembles an Alfred Hitchcock film than a war film, and if you told me that Hitchcock had directed it some time between Vertigo and Torn Curtain, I’d believe you. And though it might slot well between those films, Eye of the Needlehas much in common with earlier Hitchcock, as well (The Thirty-Nine Steps and Foreign Correspondent), but it also has more violent and adult flourishes that more resembled the later parts of Hitchcock’s films, like his only R-rated film, Frenzy. This is a technique that Lucas is the best at…and why seeing this particular skill on display with Marquand would get him added to the list of potential directors.” Starring Donald Sutherland, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Cazenove and Ian Bannen in hauntingly powerful performances, with a masterful Miklos Rosza score that throbs with tension and heartache, Eye of the Needle gets Follett right – and proud – on TT hi-def Blu-ray.