Posted September 25, 2018 by Chris Hick in Film Reviews

Eye of the Needle (1981) Blu-ray Review

In the popular all star war film, The Eagle Has Landed (1977), Donald Sutherland played an IRA man, Liam Devlin who acts as a spy and assists with a Nazi commando raid to kidnap Winston Churchill in an English village. He played a similar type of character in a film that cropped up about 4 years later in the British espionage thriller, Eye of the Needle (1981), now released by BFI on a dual format disc. Equally, in both films Sutherland’s character is brought down by a romantic tryst.

At its heart this is an old fashioned espionage war film and opens in 1940 with Henry Faber (Sutherland) working in a job in which he is exposed to secret information. In secret Faber is the ‘needle’, a German spy we later learn was trained in the abwehr, the German secret service and was close to the Head of the abwehr, Admiral Canaris. He is friendly with a teenage lad, Billy (Philip Martin Brown) who has been rejected from the army on a number of occasions for being too young. One day he is caught with a radio tapping out a message in German by his landlady (Barbara Ewing). He murders her with a flick knife and goes on the run. While all this is taking place, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is all loved up and getting ready for her wedding to handsome spitfire pilot, David (Christopher Cazenove). After the wedding, David and Lucy leave the wedding reception with David driving fast in his MG Roadster. Suddenly the car flies off the road and crashes.

The film jumps forward 4 years as the Allies prepare for D-Day and a British officer relates to an Inspector Godliman (Ian Bannen) (in a perfect example of careless talk costs lives) that the Allies are planning to either invade Normandy from the South Coast or the Lowlands from Norfolk. The ‘needle’, aka Faber discovers an airbase in Norfolk is filled with fake aircraft giving the impression that this is an invasion force. He takes photos of the site to send to his Nazi masters. When there is a trail of bodies left behind him allowing Godliman to be hot on Faber’s trail. He employs Billy to help identify him (Billy ends up skewered on Faber’s flick knife). Faber makes his way up to Scotland with the film and holds up at the isolated island cottage of Lucy and David as he waits for his U-Boat to pick him up. Following their accident on their wedding day 4 years earlier, David and Lucy have been living on the isolated island on their own other than the lighthouse keeper. David has grown bitter at losing his legs from the accident, while Lucy, now in a loveless relationship, draws her to the mysterious stranger who has washed up on their shore.

This classic war time espionage thriller has some of the style and tropes of the type maybe the likes of James Mason would have played into a more psychopathic character and while today is not ranked as among the best, it’s a film that has weathered very well. It doesn’t actively try to emulate a Hitchcock style, but his shadow is cast over the film, even if  by suggestion. In his conversations with Nelligan’s Lucy we learn that Faber was not loved by his parents, was pushed educationally and dumped into a boarding school which, we assume makes him the character he has become. The film moves along at a good pace and is enjoyable viewing. It does take time for the story strands of Faber and David and Lucy to converge, while the relationship between the killer and Lucy is more than a ‘love interest’ but the thing that will lead to his downfall with the action on the island feeling somewhat like a psychological landscape. This British espionage thriller is an intelligently made film that deserves to be more widely seen.

The only extras relevant to the film are an audio commentary by Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and music historian Jon Burlingame as well as an alternate ending that had appeared on a previous UK DVD release. Other extras include some Careless Talk Cost Lives wartime public information films and an audio only interview with Sutherland from The Guardian Lectures.

Chris Hick

Chris Hick