Britain, 1940, and there is one man in London who could jeopardise the whole of the Allies’ campaign, though even he does not know it yet. He is Heinrich Faber (Donald Sutherland), a Nazi spy who is working to undermine the war effort and sending back information to his superiors with the radio he keeps in the boarding house room where he stays. However, that plan is fraught with danger as highlighted when he has his headphones on and is broadcasting one night when his landlady walks in on him; aware he must act quickly, he produces the weapon that had given him his nickname of the Needle, a stiletto blade he uses to murder the woman, and take off for a new identity elsewhere in the British Isles…
Eye of the Needle was a big hit for author Ken Follett, selling millions and satisfying those who enjoyed a rollicking war yarn as well as those who liked more character and depth to their thrillers, for this supplied both. A short time after, a film was being made, and after screenwriter Stanley Mann focused the plotline to a leaner variation director Richard Marquand, previously prolific in television, was hired to helm the production, doing so with such skill that George Lucas in turn hired him to direct Return of the Jedi straight after. But what did Lucas see in this film that made him offer Marquand the post? It was probably the mixture of thrills, location work that could have been tricky, and a more human dimension.
For the first half we were very much in the territory Sutherland had mined a few years before in The Eagle has Landed, where he also played a spy with a grand plan. The plan this time around was to reveal to his Nazi contacts what he had found in East Anglia, which was the supposed base containing armed forces all ready to invade Calais was in fact a fake, a false campaign to fool the Germans with the D-Day landings fast approaching. When we catch up with him Faber has photographic evidence that he can pass on which will see the Nazis waiting for the Allies at the right location rather than the wrong one, catastrophic for the British and Americans. Now, he could just have passed this message on with a radio broadcast, making the reel of photographs something of a MacGuffin.
But one supposes they needed proof and a wireless Morse code message wasn’t going to cut it with the top brass. Anyway, while all this is going on and Faber is making his way up to the west coast of Scotland to be picked up by a U-boat, we had another plotline running alongside it, and that concerned a lonely housewife on the so-called Storm Island in that location. She was Lucy, played by Kate Nelligan which had two Canadians taking the leads in a British movie, though to be fair they both had worked extensively in the United Kingdom, only she had evidently picked up the accent better than he had. While Sutherland contained that cold-hearted quality that made him a fine villain, Nelligan arguably had the more difficult role as Lucy must reject her disabled husband David (Christopher Cazenove) for the embrace of Faber.
The spy is washed up after his small boat is shipwrecked, a stroke of luck for the good guys though the villain was so capable he remains a threat to the very last scene, not least because for a while he and Lucy become very close. Not, it should be noted, because she has changed allegiances and is backing the Nazis, but because she is desperately lonely and the phrase any old port in a storm never seemed so apt, Faber offers companionship, even affection, that the bitter David could never provide now their marriage has hit the rocks. She grows to be the most intriguing character in the movie, a young mother striving to protect her son (we just know the little guy will soon be a pawn in this game of deadly espionage), but wracked with guilt that the only person who she reached out to and was not rejected by is a man who will be responsible for the deaths of countless of her countrymen and women. Nelligan played this superbly, bringing shading to what could have seemed a foolish woman so that we sympathised with her turmoil; couple this with some striking scenery and a Sunday night television air that is skilfully dissipated, and Eye of the Needle was an underrated, dramatic thriller. Lush music by Miklos Rosza.