Spy thrillers are a dime a dozen, but 1981’s Eye of the Needle, based on Ken Follett’s best-seller, adds something new to the genre by flipping attention from the hero to the villain, with a narrative focusing on the perspective of a Nazi spy toward the end of World War II.
Under the pseudonym Henry Faber, a spy codenamed “the Needle,” has been under deep cover in the UK for a number of years. Upon learning key details of the upcoming D-Day Invasion he attempts to return to Germany only to find himself stranded on an island off the cost of Scotland when his attempts to rendezvous with a submarine in the English channel fails. Taken in by a small community, he finds himself growing close to a local named Lucy (Kate Nelligan), a woman living in isolation with her husband David (Christopher Cazenove), a man depressed after an accident leaves him a paraplegic. As the love triangle deepens, as do the suspicions of the other islanders about this new arrival.
At the center of the film is Donald Sutherland playing a German pretending to be English. It’s am impressive turn from the actor, one that elicits sympathy for a man that on first introduction is something of a monster. He puts you in the place of this character, his past and his present, and even meditates on his future. A ruthless assassin who finds something of a sympathetic soul in Nelligan’s Lucy, the connection between these two hardened individuals results in a rapport that owes a lot to these two actors. Eye of the Needle is a film you don’t get often today, one that takes its time to allow these characters to breathe and play off each other and leaves aspects of the relationship fairly ambiguous.
The rest of the film plays out like a typical thriller, albeit one lacking substance. The ever looming threat of suspicion and capture never truly solidifies, unaided by a homogeneous stream of policemen, agents, and soldiers. Director Richard Marquand (Return of the Jedi) wisely leans into the dramatic element over the thriller aspect, putting more interest in the yearning, attraction, and temptation sparked off by these two people encountering one another. It’s a chance encounter that holds as much promise as it does destructive potential.
THE PACKAGEWhile in isolation, the release is not overly impressive in terms of detail or crispness, in comparison to previous releases this is a definite step up. The exterior scenes fare well, while interiors can be a little murky at times. The transfer thankfully retains a natural look, with no signs of over processing and no significant damage or artifacts from the source.
There’s a pretty interesting audio commentary included with music historian Jon Burlingame and film historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo; the latter also contributes one of her superb essays on the film, contained within a booklet included with the Blu-ray. One of the strongest components of the film is a stellar score from Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity, The Killers, The Lost Weekend, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), which means the traditional Twilight Time feature of an Isolated Score Track is most welcome. There’s also a theatrical trailer included.
THE BOTTOM LINEEye of the Needle is a solid war time thriller that keeps most of its focus on an unlikely liaison between two damaged individuals. Thanks to the great work by Sutherland and Nelligan, a film that feels a little thin is given an more interesting dimension. Twilight Time continue their fine work with not only a decent transfer, but features that enhance appreciation for an old slice of cinema.
Eye of the Needle is available now from Twilight Time in a limited edition release of 3,000 units.