Kate Nelligan has dreadful luck with shipwrecked lovers.Two summers ago she was smitten and bitten by Frank Langella after Count Dracula's ship foundered off the Cornish coast. In the frantic new espionage melodrama "Eye of the Needle," opening today at area theaters, she plays a lovelorn housewife who succumbs to the inexplicable allure of Donald Sutherland, a Nazi spy who washes up on her lonely island doorstep off the Scottish coast after failing to rendezvous with a U-boat. Fortunately, she comes to her senses just in time to prevent him from blowing the secret of the D-Day landings.

As a portentous climactic remark would have it, "The war's come down to the two of us." Only very gullible spectators will string along with the fiction that the success of D-Day depends on this romantic sideshow. The convoluted, farfetched plot begins unraveling with a vengeance once the heroine and villain cross paths. "The Spy Who Loved Me" would have been the ideal title for this delirious scenario, which foreshortens the plot of Ken Follett's best-selling novel to the verge of idiocy.

The story begins during the Battle of Britain. Sutherland, code name "Die Nadel," German for "The Needle," is employed as a railway clerk under the name Henry Faber. Surprised to mid-transmission by a nosy landlady, he murders her and flees, leaving an unsolved case in the hands of Ian Bannen, a sternfaced detective called Godliman. Simultaneously, the wedding day of the heroine, Lucy, ends in tragedy. She and her bridegroom, a Royal Air Force pilot named David, are involved in a car crash soon after leaving their reception.

The storytelling trouble starts when the movie jumps ahead to the spring of 1944. The novelist's full account of the intervening years is replaced by a screen writer's skimpy update. Sutherland turns up with a slightly altered appearance and promptly stabs several more victims while snooping around an airfield, where he discovers mock-ups intended to throw German Intelligence off the Normandy scent. Bannen's humorless sleuth, a pathetic composite of two personable characters in the novel, reappears several steps behind Sutherland's felonies and never quite gets in the flow. During the denouement, the absent-minded filmmakers lose track of Bannen completely. After inviting anachronistic wonder by showing him board a helicopter to fly to the heroinehs assistance, the filmmakers forget they've left him airborne for cinematic eternity.

Lucy and David are discovered on Storm Island, a craggy lighthouse outpost in the North Sea. Lucy was not harmed in the accident, but David lost both legs. Embittered, he refuses to be consoled by the presence of a loyal wife and their cherubic little boy.

There's an odd hitch in continuity that gets the funny business rolling after Sutherland is maneuvered near the island. We see Nelligan, as Lucy, and Christopher Cazenove, as David, turn in for the night. Attention shifts to Sutherland as he tries to reach the coast and engineer an escape by sea, efforts that surely must consume several days at the least. When his stolen boat breaks up in a storm and he drags his drenched carcass to the cottage on Storm Island, we find Lucy and David in the same positions we left them in almost a reel earlier. Presumably without meaning to, director Richard Marquand creates the impression that they've been in bed for days.

When Nelligan and Sutherland finally meet, the groundwork is far too spongy to support outbursts of graphic passion and melodramatic desperation. Although Nelligan is an exceptionally attractive and expressive actress, with a flair for erotic surrender that borders on genius, not even the combination of her sensibility and Lucy's prolonged frustration seem sufficient to put Sutherland across as a ladykiller.

Marquand's attempt to sustain minimum plausibility and methodical suspense comes to grief at the moment David, suspicious of their guest's shipwreck story, decides to make a citizen's arrest. The ensuing wrestling match degenertes into grotesque slapstick, with David twice playing possum in vain efforts to overcome his ambulatory adversary. Once maybe, but twice?

The tussle between David and The Needle seems to release a Pandora's Box of outrageous scenes. Nelligan's pantomime of True Ecstasy is rendered absurd by a follow-up, in which she's required to Fake It with a stiff upper lip, lest her lover catch on to the fact that she's caught on to him. By the time Nelligan chases Sutherland down a hillside, firing shot after shot as he doggedly tries to keep that date with the sub, moviegoers ought to be begging for mercy.