Transatlantic Points of the Needle
As the very British, stylishly Hitchcockian and period-perfect World War II espionage thriller Eye of the Needle (1981), adapted from Ken Follett’s gripping best-seller, played in theatres nationwide at this time 35 years ago, it represented quite the Anglo-North American partnership. Although original novelist Follett and director Richard Marquand (who would go on to helm Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and Jagged Edge as a consequence of his marvelous work here) were dyed-in-the-wool Welshmen and the iconic Hungarian-born composer Miklós Rózsa started his exalted film scoring career in the British cinema with the likes of The Spy in Black, The Four Feathers and The Thief of Bagdad, the film’s producer was American Stephen Friedman (The Last Picture Show, Slap Shot, Bloodbrothers) and three of its principals – leading players Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan as well as screenwriter Stanley Mann (1928-2016), born 88 years ago today – were Canadian. This polyglot pool of extraordinary talents came together on a densely plotted, tightening noose of a tale in which a murderous Nazi spy (Sutherland, codenamed The Needle for his switchblade-styled method of killing), long implanted in a British double life in the years verging on World War II, discovers the secret of where the Allies will imminently invade German-occupied France on D-Day, and sets out to bring this crucial information to the Fuhrer in Berlin personally, only to be shipwrecked off the Scottish coast (the film’s Storm Island is played by the breathtakingly scenic Island of Mull, where the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger romantic idyll I Know Where I’m Going was also shot). There he meets an embittered ex-soldier (Christopher Cazenove), paralyzed in an auto accident on his wedding day years earlier, and his supportive yet long-suffering, lonely spouse (Nelligan) and son (twins Jonathan and Nicholas Hardy, alternating in the role). The secretive stranger and the neglected wife – two solitary, contained souls in need of tenderness and emotional release – strike up a passionate affair that becomes both the throbbing heart and ticking time bomb of the movie, especially in the hands of the actors involved and the ravishingly soulful soundtrack accompaniment of the great Rózsa and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the summer of one of the greatest, fastest-moving, period-set action adventures of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in his review of Eye of the Needle, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert ruminated: “Some people will find the movie slow going. I preferred to think of it as deliberate. It is effective, I think, to develop a plot like this at a deliberate pace, instead of rushing headlong through it. That gives us time to meditate on the character of the Needle, and to ponder his very few, enigmatic references to his own behavior. We learn things about him that he may not even know about himself, and that is why the film's final scene is so much more complex than it seems. ‘The war has come down to the two of us,’ Sutherland tells Nelligan, and in the final exchange of desperate looks between the man and the woman there is a whole universe left unspoken. The movie ends with Nelligan regarding a man who is either a treacherous spy or an unloved child, take your choice.” For a finely calibrated convergence of top international talents, Eye of the Needle (featuring Ian Bannen as the dogged Scotland Yard operative on the Needle's trail and the marvelous Bill Nighy film-debuting in the small role of a Squadron Commander) is choice screen suspense. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray includes the lush Rózsa score on an Isolated Track as well as an involving Audio Commentary featuring resident TT aficionados Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, plus film music expert Jon Burlingame. Keep your needle-eyes open for its September 13 arrival. Preorders open August 31.