Monday, May 5, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Eye of the Needle" (1981)

I first encountered Ken Follett's novel "Eye of the Needle" when I was fairly young, and found it a rousing good read. Not surprising considering it featured a lot of violence, Nazi spies, WWII intrigue and a fair amount of sex -- all catnip to a young reader.

The 1981 film version contains all of that stuff, but manages to be dull and lifeless. It's the story of a German spy with a secret that holds the fate of the entire war in the balance -- have you noticed that every war movie has this? -- who ends up seducing a lonely British housewife on an isolated island.

Donald Sutherland, one of the finest modern actors never to be nominated for an Oscar, is charming and icy as Henry Faber, a seemingly pleasant everyman working as a clerk at a shipyard. Of course, he's secretly transmitting all the troop movements to his German command in preparation for the Allied invasion of France. As we've heard before in a hundred other war pictures, great pains were taken to convince the Axis the invasion would happen further to the north instead of at Normandy.

Faber discovers the huge armada of American airplanes are actually fakes made out of wood and canvas, takes pictures of the lot, and prepares to bring this crucial information back to the Fatherland so he can personally deliver it to Hitler. He had been transmitting his intelligence via radio, but that was compromised early in the movie (requiring the murder of Faber's landlady).

This little plot point provides crucial late in the game, when Faber is trapped on remote Storm Island waiting to be picked up by a U-boat, and he has to find a way to radio the submarine to coordinate his pickup. Of course, he could always have spoken a few words into the transmitter and his mission would've been accomplished. But then, as they say, we wouldn't have a movie.

Kate Nelligan is sympathetic as Lucy, the woman who takes Faber into her bed seemingly four minutes after she's met him. She's more or less been abandoned by her husband, David (Christopher Cazenove), who lost his legs in a car accident on the day of their wedding. (Cazenove is an able-bodied actor, and the various half-hearted attempts to depict him otherwise leave it  unclear whether the character is supposed to wear prosthetics or not.) Now he lives out his days as a sheep farmer on the island, rejecting any physical affection from his wife and virtually ignoring their young tow-headed son, burying his sorrows in drink.

Lucy and Faber begin their affair almost immediately, the first day after Faber shipwrecks his stolen trawler on the shores during a storm. By the time of their last coupling, though, Lucy knows that her lover has killed her husband, resulting in a disturbing scene that implies the sex is coerced out of fear for her life and her child's.

The most interesting thing about Faber of course is his code name, The Needle, and why it's given: his penchant for dispatching his foes with a stiletto knife.

My recollection of the book is the stiletto is a narrow-bladed dagger with a hilt, which the Needle uses to thrust into his victims so they die without very much messy blood loss. I seem to recall he favored stabbing in the neck upward, so as to pierce the brain, resulting in instantaneous death.

In the movie, though, Faber uses a huge modified switchblade -- since that's what American audiences think of when they hear the word "stiletto." And he invariably stabs them in the gut, on the left side approximately where the stomach should be. Blood spurts out in a crimson river, and his victims invariably fall dead within seconds -- in contradiction of biology and basic common sense. The extension of the knife's blade is always accompanied by a harsh metallic "skree" sound, perhaps a forbear to the "snikt" of Wolverine's claws.

The biggest problem with "The Eye of the Needle" is that it's essentially two different movies smushed together. The first half is about Faber's flight from British authorities, led by a resolute but one-dimensional Ian Bannen. This includes a tense sequence aboard a train, where Faber is recognized by a soldier he used to be friendly with when he was a boy. Needless to say, he gets the needle.

Then the syrupy romance part takes over in the second half, leading up to a confrontation between Lucy and her would-be lover. Their combat is quite messy -- including cutting off some of his fingers with an axe -- yet Faber remains hesitant to use the full extent of his prowess. This begs the question of whether the spy truly feels something for the Englishwoman, or if she's simply a means to an end.

Given the confused logistics of the finale, "Eye of the Needle" is a movie that leaves us with more questions than answers, and even the questions aren't all that interesting.

Director Richard Marquand would go on to direct "Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi," an odd choice given his meager film credits, including this one. He later made "Jagged Edge" and "Hearts of Fire," Bob Dylan's brief foray into film acting, before dying young at age 49.

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