Eye of the Needle (1981) – A Review


Donald Sutherland stars as a deadly Nazi spy during WWII who hides out on a remote island with a family who are unaware of the danger he poses in the 1981 WWII thriller Eye of the Needle. Also starring Kate Nelligan, Christopher Cazenove and Ian Bannen

Eye of the Needle 1981 Donald Sutherland Kate Nelligan

It’s 1940 England. Donald Sutherland is a Nazi spy who goes by the name ‘The Needle” – gaining the nickname from his preferred method of killing.

He has just obtained top secret information of the upcoming Allied European invasion. He must transmit what he knows and signal for his pickup by a German U-Boat. But it’s going to be a difficult task since his true identity has been discovered. He is now on the run desperate to escape the dragnet closing in on him led by Ian Bannen.

Inadvertently, the emotionless Needle ends up on an isolated island. Its only inhabitants being Kate Nelligan, her disabled husband, their young son and a lighthouse keeper.

An unexpected romance develops between the lonely Nelligan and this dangerous spy. For the first time The Needle drops his cold calculating ways with this lonely woman.

However, his mission remains his ultimate goal and he will do whatever he must to relay that  information about the invasion to his superiors and kill anyone who tries to stop him.

Donald Sutherland Eye of the Needle 1981Eye of the Needle is a seemingly simple story. Deadly spy, innocent unknowing woman, a charade is put on by him, underlying suspense lies throughout the movie since we know what this guy is capable of.

Nelligan is a sympathetic woman who we understand her sorrow. We see how the happiest day of her life at the start of the film turned into a sentence of solitude for her. On the day of her wedding she and her new husband get into a car accident that leaves him paralyzed. It’s not only his ability to walk that has gone, but his zest for life – and Nelligan suffers right alongside him on this remote island.

It’s the performances that really make the movie so memorable. Sutherland is excellent in this.  He is the emotionless killer from the start and we see how he has no reservations eliminating anyone who endangers his mission – even ones he has been living with for years!

It’s clear he doesn’t allow himself to become attached to anyone while being deep undercover for such a long time and his main motivation are his duties to Hitler. The line never becomes blurred for him.

Sutherland is consistently scary and never for a moment doesn’t seem dangerous. He also very unflappable even in the most tense situations he finds himself in. He doesn’t break much of a sweat when he’s confronted or cornered. He’s pretty confident in his abilities.

Even in the brief instances later where it appears he let’s his guard down with Nelligan, I remained on the edge of my seat awaiting to see what he might do.

As we meet Nelligan I thought her story started to play as a bit ‘soap opera-y’ as we watch her happy wedding day turn to tragedy.

Donald Sutherland Kate Nelligan Eye of the Needle 1981

You can understand this is not the life she had hoped for and she has indeed become a prisoner on this island they are now living on.

She’s unable to bring Cazenove out of his bitterness he’s wallowing in, but continues to try to put on a good face to their young son and make the best of the situation she is now trapped in. I ended up getting sucked into her story.

Then The Needle shows up on the island.

Director Richard Marquand establishes the isolation of the island quite successfully. It’s a convincing remote location where it’s clear Nelligan and her son are on their own and no one will be able to rescue them when trouble begins to erupt. Add to it the fact that her husband is immobile and an elderly lighthouse keeper are the only males she can go for help reinforces that this woman will not be able to rely on anyone but herself.

I had heard about this film for years and always wanted to see it. I had heard it was a really good and Sutherland gives one of his best performances in it. I was not disappointed.

The original trailer – it is not a good representation of the film and contains some spoilers. So, my suggestion is don’t bother watching it.

Here’s a clip that is much more tantalizing. The Needle discovers the British’s misdirection ploy’s of where the Allied Invasion will take place. An airfield with prop planes to fool the Germans is information that will be most useful. He runs into a bit of trouble as he’s leaving.

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