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I-Spy Scotland: The Thirty Nine Steps and Eye of the Needle

  For some reason, much as horror and science fiction entered a mini-heyday in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, so did another genre: the British spy film. Obviously the most prominent of these would be the James Bond series, which was still going strong in that era, with The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977 garnering acclaim as Roger Moore's best outing so far as the secret agent, Moonraker judged his silliest so far (and still there is no real contention for that crown), and For Your Eyes Only a welcome return to the serious matters that the purists believed was what Bond should really be about. Fans of silly Bond may still lean towards Moonraker, however.

Meanwhile, there was a spate of action movies that featured British stars, such as The Sea Wolves, Disney's The London Connection or Who Dares Wins, representing a renaissance in the industry that had been in the doldrums since the start of the decade once the American money had deserted them. Now there was a reason for Brits to return to the pictures to see homegrown entertainment, not that it lasted as the eighties saw the industry relying on television funding to get projects made, but in 1978 there was a conscious attempt to update a property from the nineteen-thirties when things were going rather well for British movies, and bravely, it was an Alfred Hitchcock.

The Thirty Nine Steps (not The 39 Steps as it had been in the original) was a fresh version of what had been acknowledged as one of Hitchcock's unassailable classics out of the land of his birth, a loose adaptation of the John Buchan tale where he exploited the suspense and thrills yet turned them to his own devices. In '78, director Don Sharp was not as lauded as Hitch, nor would he ever be, but he knew how to keep a film moving and the main hurdle for the remake was not in its tries at being more faithful to the source, which after all was a novel begging for the cinematic treatment, but in the inevitable comparisons between it and the original piece.

Robert Donat had played the story's hero Richard Hannay before, but Robert Powell was a different proposition, coming off the worldwide success of the Biblical miniseries Jesus of Nazareth and seeking a change of pace. He still had the haunted look in his eye, but when he set his jaw he could appear grimly determined in a heroic fashion and had a way with a witty situation that saw him perhaps not a million miles away from the beloved Donat. When Hannay is embroiled with Prussian spies in Britain in the run up to World War One who are chasing him to get a notebook recently assassinated local agent John Mills has given him, there's only one thing to do.

That is travel to Scotland! He was going there anyway, but Mills has encouraged him to reach there, in fact Dumfriesshire in southern Scotland where the landscapes were picturesque in a way that were recognisable Celtic; no Highland mountains, just rolling hills that Powell could dash across while looking dashing. It was the perfect backdrop for adventure, and when the action returned to London in the later stages there was a noticeable dip in the excitement levels before recovering for the main addition to Buchan, a finale on the clock face of the Big Ben clock tower in a curious Will Hay in My Learned Friend tribute. If it didn't supersede Hitchcock, it had a damn good go.

Three years later, there was another spy thriller set in Scotland that, while it didn't set the box office alight, has gone on to gather a loyal following, often from those who caught it on television where in Britain at least, it had been a regular visitor. The film was director Richard Marquand's Eye of the Needle, based on Ken Follett's breakthrough bestseller at a time when war suspense novels were as popular as they ever were, though his work here arguably appealed as much to women as men for there was a dark romantic theme to his storyline. This was between the two protagonists, a Nazi spy and the British woman he falls in love with but will not let her distract him from his deadly mission.

Donald Sutherland played the spy, and putting his flair for essaying coldhearted villainy seen most famously in the twenty-first century in The Hunger Games series to good use, as the agent is nicknamed The Needle for his way with a thin blade planted in the guts of his victims, of which there are a few. Mostly set in the days before D-Day, he finds out that the Allies have fooled the Germans into believing Normandy is not the destination for the invasion, but Calais is, and has photographic proof to boot. Now he must reach the U-Boat off the Scottish coast to provide that proof to his overseers, and he when we catch up with him some way into the movie, he has almost made it.

The location picked for Eye of the Needle was Mull, one of the Hebrides' largest islands though in this depicted as a bleak, barely populated and windswept isle, which has become the home for a couple somehow estranged but living in the same cottage with a toddler son. They were Kate Nelligan, the accomplished Canadian actress much seen in British productions of this era thanks to her knack with the accent, and Christopher Cazenove, who was the crippled and bitter husband, so sour in his demeanour that he sends his wife into the arms of The Needle when the spy washes in on the shore after being shipwrecked in his increasingly desperate bid to reach the submarine.

Whereas in The Thirty Nine Steps the Scottish countryside was shown as an attractive location, ideal for adventures, the Storm Island of Eye of the Needle was unforgiving, its harshness offsetting its natural beauty, and therefore one of the most evocative location shoots in spy movies of this period. Sutherland had played a spy before in The Eagle Has Landed, and the Alistair MacLean adaptation Bear Island was also an espionage yarn on, yes, an island, but the loneliness of Nelligan's character's situation, where she doesn't really have anyone to talk to aside from her hostile husband, could not have been better summed up by those outdoor shots. Perhaps this is what keeps its fans returning to the film, it could have been a pulp thriller with wartime trappings as arguably the Buchan adaptation was, but the tormented relationship between the romantic couple and the reality of a grim world around them was surprisingly potent as a drama, never mind a spy tale.

[Eye of the Needle has been released by the BFI on Blu-ray and DVD. Those features in full:

Director Richard Marquand's preferred cut of the film, presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
Audio commentary by Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and music historian Jon Burlingame
Alternate ending sequence, which appeared on the previous UK DVD release
Donald Sutherland Guardian Interview (1987, 73 mins, audio only)
Careless Talk Costs Lives: Wartime Warnings (1940, 36 mins): three short wartime propaganda films produced by Ealing Studios for the Ministry of Information
Theatrical trailer
Illustrated booklet with full film credits and new writing by Little White Lies essayist Paul Fairclough.
]
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018