The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Eye of the Needle

Revisit a spellbinding thriller from Richard Marquand, director of Return of the Jedi.

Richard Marquand, the director of Return of the Jedi, wouldn’t seem to be the obvious choice for the job to most people. He’d done some television work, a biopic about the Beatles, and a horror film.

But most importantly, he directed a film called Eye of the Needle, and it caught the attention of George Lucas. “Eye of the Needle was the film I’d seen that he [Marquand] had done that impressed me the most. It was really nicely done and had a lot of energy and suspense,” Lucas recounted on the audio commentary for Return of the Jedi.

Watching the Eye of the Needle, it’s easy to see why Lucas found it impressive and why he’d see something special in Richard Marquand in his ability to handle directing duties on the final installment of the classic trilogy. Add to that the fact that Marquand delivered the film on time and under budget, it made him even more attractive, as Irvin Kershner had delivered The Empire Strikes Back late and way over budget.

Eye of the Needle is a suspense film set during World War II and based on the bestselling novel by Ken Follet. It stars Donald Sutherland as a Nazi spy living in England who discovers vital secrets about the Allied plans for D-Day. He races to flee the country and get back to Berlin, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, all killed by his signature switchblade that has earned him the nickname “the Needle.” Eventually, he finds himself shipwrecked on Storm Island, off the coast of Scotland, working desperately to make contact with a German U-Boat. There, he falls in love with the only female inhabitant of the island. She’s in a loveless marriage to a veteran who lost his legs not in the war, but in a car accident. On their wedding day. And naturally, she falls for the charismatic spy as well. But things turn sinister as she slowly pieces together what’s really going on.

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 was a perfect choice to direct Return of the Jedi? The film is incredibly literate in the language of cinema and the language of the 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 Needle has 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 (else I wouldn’t have so much to write about in this space) and why seeing this particular skill on display with Marquand would get him added to the list of potential directors.

It’s a mature film that some might consider “slow,” but there’s no doubt it has the structured deliberation of a well-crafted thriller. Marquand’s deft use of suspense, in the editing, the music, and the way he blocked the situations he was filming, is nothing short of breathtaking. The way he punctuates these things with brief glimpses of unspeakable violence shows a mastery of the craft that is easy to admire.

Return of the Jedi - Luke with Blaster looking up at Jabba

It got Marquand the job, obviously, and you can see these techniques reflected in Return of the Jedi. When Luke is dealing with Jabba inside Jabba’s palace and we’re left asking questions about what is going on and how Luke is making threats and how he might get out of the situation, Marquand builds the shots slowly to a boil and then gives us a crescendo of fast editing that drops us right into the rancor pit.

Luke and Vader on gantry on Endor

He also uses that same suspenseful energy to give us some of my favorite quiet scenes in the entire saga. Marquand wasn’t afraid to take the time and let the audience bask in the revelations being made about Anakin Skywalker and the Skywalker family in general. You can see echoes of Eye of the Needle in scenes like the one where Luke reveals to Leia the secret of her lineage on Endor, or where Luke and Vader are discussing the name of Anakin Skywalker. Most powerfully, this influence is felt on the heartbreaking and emotional final scene of Anakin Skywalker’s at the entry ramp of the Imperial Shuttle. Marquand’s ability in these scenes is what made me a lifelong fan of Star Wars and so supremely fascinated in the fall and eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

Aside from the craft of the filmmaking and the way Marquand handled the actors, there’s a moment in the film that reminded me quite directly of Return of the Jedi.

Return of the Jedi - Luke lashing out at Vader in front of Palpatine

There’s a moment in Eye of the Needle where Donald Sutherland’s character is working to gain entry to the house where the woman he loved, played by Kate Nelligan, is hiding. He’s talking her through the exchange, practically daring her to act. And she’s heartbroken and confused. Eventually, she finds an axe and lashes out violently. The staging and feel of the scene is almost exactly that of Luke and Vader’s confrontation beneath the throne room that culminates in Luke severing Vader’s hand in anger. But the suspenseful lead up to that moment and the way it’s built is directly from Eye of the Needle.

I enjoyed the film much more than I thought I would, but I feel like it played to my personal likes and sensibilities more than a general audience. In fact, since I’ve viewed it, I can’t get it out of my head and I want to watch it again, which is always a good sign. It’s a deliberately paced espionage thriller set in World War II and it’s a beautiful film that I would recommend for anyone looking to gaze through that window of work that informs the building blocks of Star Wars. It’s rated R by the MPAA for violence, sexuality and nudity, and brief language. It’s something I’d consider watching with my teenager if he felt particularly attentive, but I definitely wouldn’t watch it with younger children or with people sensitive to watching situations of women and children in life-threatening situations.

Availability: Eye of the Needle is available on DVD and is available to rent for streaming on Amazon Video.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

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