Eye of the Needle (1981)

“Find him, Godliman — it could cost us the bloody war.”

Synopsis:
When a ruthless Nazi spy (Donald Sutherland) is shipwrecked on an isolated island, he embarks on an affair with the wife (Kate Nelligan) of a disabled sheepherder (Christopher Cazenove) — but what will happen when Nelligan finds out Sutherland’s true identity?

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Review:
Donald Sutherland gives an eerily memorable performance in this well-directed (by Richard Marquand) adaptation of Ken Follett’s bestselling spy novel. Sutherland’s cold-blooded dedication to transmitting information to Nazi Germany about Operation Fortitude‘s plans for D-Day landings leads him to ruthlessly kill (with a needle-like stiletto — hence his nickname “The Needle”) anyone who stumbles upon his secret identity. During the first third of the movie, we’re also introduced to the tragic collapse of a doomed marriage between the seemingly happy Lucy (Nelligan) and her RAF-husband (Cazenove), who loses his legs in a car accident as they’re leaving their own wedding. The middle portion of the narrative shows stoic Lucy raising her four-year-old son (Jonathan Nicholas Haley) on a rocky, isolated island, where her husband bitterly drinks and refuses to sleep with her. Nelligan’s performance is compassionate and nuanced enough that we believe what ensues next: she allows herself to fall for Sutherland when he washes up to shore in a shipwreck. Since we as audience members know what this sociopath is capable of, we watch their romance unfold with deep trepidation and interest — especially since Sutherland seems authentically enamored with Nelligan, rather than simply taking advantage of her vulnerability. Once Nelligan understands the truth about the enemy she’s been intimate with, the film turns into a high-octane thriller worthy of any horror fan’s attention.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Donald Sutherland as Faber (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • Kate Nelligan as Lucy
  • Excellent use of location shooting and fine attention to period detail

Must See?
Yes, for Sutherland and Nelligan’s performances. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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4 Responses to “Eye of the Needle (1981)”

  1. Superb film from start to finish. I never though Sutherland’s character was a sociopath, more a dedicated soldier doing his dangerous war time job. Special mention to Miklos Rosa’s score.

  2. Forgotten gem. Ample tension, terrific acting by all. It’s solidly paced with great storytelling that embraces relational complexities between its characters. It strikes the right balance here without getting ground down, which is not easy to do.

    As was the case with a number of lower key productions like this one during the era of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, it didn’t have much impact at the box office (interestingly director Richard Marquand would direct the third Star Wars installment Return of the Jedi two years after this was released).

    The book effectively rocketed novelist Ken Follett’s career a few years prior. I haven’t read the book, but if it’s anything like the movie, which I suspect it is, I can see why.

  3. First viewing. Not must-see.

    As someone with a particular interest in WWII tales, I can appreciate a related spy story. As such, it’s a reasonably well-directed piece of commercial entertainment – even if it’s a bit ‘paint by number’. (The ‘obligatory’ sex angle is a bit of a yawn – there might have been more tension if it had gotten close to sex but without the actual sex. That certainly would have given Nelligan more to play; her role is under-written.)

    The main reason I let this pass by when it was released was because I had no real feeling for either Nelligan or Sutherland. I would usually see Sutherland in a film if he wasn’t the main draw (and I’ve only really appreciated his performances when I felt the director handled him better: i.e., ‘MASH’, ‘Ordinary People’ and esp. ‘Klute’).

  4. A genuinely great film, with splendid lead performances but although it was must see at the time it’s not really remembered or revived all that much, which is a shame.

    Sad to say but as a result, not a must. But, highly recommended nonetheless.

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