Movie review: ‘Eye of the Needle’

eotnEye of the Needle” is a great novel by Ken Follett. It has an excellent story premise that is wonderfully executed with Follett’s top-shelf talent and pretty much tees it up potential winner for a filmmaker. In the end though, “Eye of the Needle” is a disappointment as a film and there’s much more disappointment from the acting end than the storytelling (usually just the reverse happens when a novel is turned into a movie). “Eye of the Needle” offers a very shallow talent pool of totally miscast and misdirected actors and it is the complete lack of ability by filmmakers to convey the spirit of Follett’s actual good guys that help sink this one.

‘Eye of the Needle’
(1981; 112 minutes; rated R; directed by Richard Marquand and starring Donald Sutherland, Kate Nelligan and Stephen MacKenna)

SHOULD HAVE BEEN GOOD, BUT ISN’T

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some more opinion; a bit more trivia; and the updating of links on Feb. 17, 2017.)

Eye of the Needle” might have been a good espionage film. It isn’t. “Eye of the Needle” could have been a decent World War II film. It isn’t. “Eye of the Needle” should have been a good “frustrated woman gets taken by the wrong guy and gets him back” film. It isn’t. However, the oddest thing is that while there are a lot of things that it isn’t, “Eye of the Needle” isn’t THAT bad.

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At the helm of “Eye of the Needle” is Richard Marquand and he would certainly bounce back in a big way with his next film: “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.” I’m glad that Marquand didn’t leave any good work behind doing “Eye of the Needle” when he made “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi,” but the former could have used even a smidgen of the latter’s greatness. Heck, a smidgen? It could have used a truck load just to be called adequate. Still, it’s watchable for some reason.

Eye of the Needle” is the story of a Nazi spy in World War II who has discovered the big secret of D-Day: the Allies have built a fake army under legendary Gen. George Patton (this is actually true from WWII) to deceive the Germans as to where the invasion of Europe will take place. The spy, whose code name is “The Needle,” gets the photographic evidence and now has to make his way back home in time to expose the Allies’ deception.

The parallel story is how British intelligence agents track him in an attempt to thwart him leaving via a U-boat.

The final part of the story is how the spy uses a woman and how her ultimate strength dominates at the end.

Marquand does a good job of condensing some of the more detailed espionage parts of the novel and compresses the scope of the book in an intelligent fashion. However, he wastes the talent of leading man Donald Sutherland, who is the spy with a cover name of “Henry Faber” and a penchant to use his stiletto.

The biggest sin of the film is the complete spectrum of filmmaking: dialogue, casting and actors’ work. I even dislike the film’s score, which sounds like an amateur night winner from British television in the ’70s.

The second biggest sin is that the film doesn’t manage to properly balance the spy-war story from the woman who is cheating on her disabled husband with Sutherland after he washes up on the island where the couple have retreated from life after a wedding day crash that left the husband crippled. It’s not that I don’t believe that an emotion-driven spy story isn’t good, but this one just wastes that component. Sutherland was much better five years earlier in another WWII spy tale with a love undercurrent for him – “The Eagle Has Landed” from the Jack Higgins bestseller (click here for my review).

In any case, outside Sutherland, the worst marks are earned by every other actor. They stumble around appearing incompetent and the casting looks like the actors were rejects from dinner theater auditions. Add in the fact that they cannot act worth anything and had nothing to work with to begin with, and you’ll quickly understand why the film fails almost from the first scene.

Here’s a rundown of some of the primary cast:

  • A two-time Golden Globe winner (not for this one), Sutherland looks like he cannot determine how to play the character. Sometimes he’s focused and does a good job projecting the Nazi spy, but at others he’s a bit vacant and doesn’t look like he invested in the character. He certainly doesn’t project the torrid emotion necessary to properly convey the internal problems his affair with Nelligan develops. Sutherland is much better than this effort shows and was WWII’s only hippie in “Kelly’s Heroes” with Clint Eastwood (click here for my review); the original “Hawkeye Pierce” in the “MASH” movie; and was particularly creepy in “Panic” (click here for my review).
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Kate Nelligan tries to turn up the heat playing conflicted wife “Lucy Rose” with couple of sneaky-peeky nude scenes (certainly not as effective being spied on while bathing as Kelly McGillis would be four years later in “Witness”), but also muddles around with her character and really never finds her rhythm. The ending with Sutherland could have been so much better if the look on her face reflected the true emotion of the moment instead of looking as if she just realized she’d never successfully complete a Rubik’s Cube. Nelligan was nominated for the unwatchable treacle that’s called “The Prince of Tides” (blame the annoying, talentless Barbara Streisand) and was also in.
  • As to the rest of the cast. Well, who cares? They don’t distinguish themselves and appear to be rejects from a “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” casting call. The good guys are stiff, excitable and full of themselves while Nelligan’s physically challenged husband (Christopher Cazenove as “David Rose”) makes the effort out of an undistinguished lot, but isn’t given enough to work with. The only successful scene with a supporting cast member is the fight between Sutherland and Cazenove, who was in “A Knight’s Tale” with Heath Ledger.

The bedroom scenes between Sutherland and Nelligan are forced and maybe different casting would have brought better results. I’m not a critic of either, but they’re just not good here together and maybe it’s their lack of chemistry that is the ultimate failure.

Eye of the Needle” was the 42nd ranked film at theaters in 1981 with $17.5 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. The No. 1 film was now legendary, instantly iconic and most-wonderful “Raiders of the Lost Ark” ($212.2 million). Other films from 1981 that I’ve reviewed include:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Eye of the Needle” is the only Follett novel to be made into a film. Other of his works have been made into television productions.
  • Sutherland was born in Canada (Saint John, New Brunswick) and that makes a Canadian playing a German who’s impersonating an Englishman.
  • Marquand died of a stroke in 1987 at the young age of 49, nearly six years after the U.S. premiere of “Eye of the Needle.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “A cottage and lighthouse were constructed on the The Isle of Mull for the production of this movie. The set building utilized the skills of a seventy-two year old master thatcher, a local of the island.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “This movie is what led George Lucas to hire Richard Marquand to direct Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). Lucas was mainly impressed that Marquand was able to finish a difficult production on time and on budget, a factor that was critical on a huge production like Star Wars. Lucas also had to hire someone who was not a member of the Hollywood director’s union as he was having a dispute with the Director’s Guild at the time.” My note: obviously his talent wasn’t a driving force although it worked out well in the end for Lucas.
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about the movie.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015-17.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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