• Eye Of The Needle

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: September 13th, 2016.
    Director: Richard Marquand
    Cast: Donald Sutherland, Ian Bannen, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Cazenove, Philip Martin Brown, Bill Nighy
    Year: 1981
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    A German spy, who has been to school overseas and is fluent in English, is given a crucial assignment by the Nazis - to confirm where the allied invasion (aka 1944's Operation Overlord) of Europe will occur. Working in wartime Great Britain, agent Heinrich Faber (Donald Sutherland), who is known to intelligence services as The Needle due to his preferred killing method, has managed to obtain priceless information that could completely change the course of the war. Having made a narrow escape from the mainland of Great Britain via a small boat, he runs into unforeseen complications when he is shipwrecked on nearly deserted Storm Island (in reality the isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland). Matters become further complicated when the spy becomes involved with the lonely wife (Kate Nelligan) of a crippled and bitter amputee David (Christopher Cazenove) and their young son who live there. The couple have fled to this location after the car accident that turned David into an amputee. The only other inhabitant of Storm Island is an aging sweet but drunken lighthouse operator named Tom (Alex McCrindle).

    EYE OF THE NEEDLE is an extraordinary film for many reasons. Even as early as 1981, the WWII spy and film genres had become dangerously oversaturated. As noted on the commentary track, the average British consumer of popular entertainment at that time had probably watched too many hours of this kind of thing to count. And while less inundated in the USA and elsewhere, German spies and the stalwart defenders of queen and country out to foil them weren't exactly fresh topics. But EYE OF THE NEEDLE has a hook. A few of them actually. Based on novelist Ken Follett's originally titled Storm Island, the plot manages to combine the disparate elements of gritty espionage, genuine eroticism and even a touch of the police procedural. It features three exemplary performances in Sutherland, Nelligan and Cazenove, stunning cinematography and direction and a terrific score by Miklós Rózsa.

    Sutherland, as a younger man, had a unique quality. He could be creepily handsome or unobtrusively ordinary. He could play lovable flakes and sinister assassins with equal aplomb. He could be convincing in highly erotic scenes with gorgeous actresses like Julie Christie. Here, we first see him as jolly and avuncular while pretending to be a Brit. EYE OF THE NEEDLE begins as a straight wartime thriller. When Sutherland's agent in deep cover is seen transmitting messages via a secret radio to the Germans from his boarding house room we receive our first shock. The film switches back and forth initially from this plot strand to the tragic saga of newlyweds Lucy (Nelligan) and David (Cazenove) and the accident that will forever alter their lives. The third and final plot piece revolves around the British intelligence services tasked with locating and stopping The Needle headed by Ian Bannen's Inspector Godliman.

    EYE OF THE NEEDLE, in its first half, is simply a first rate WWII thriller. The kind of film you see, enjoy and then forget about until it pops up on TV a few years later and you remember liking it. But from the sequence of The Needle's tiny ship caught in a monstrous storm until its shattering conclusion, this film becomes an entirely different animal. THIS film is one that haunts you and leaves an indelible impression. The doomed relationship between the sociopathic spy/assassin and the tragic Lucy is riveting and laced with a raw and realistic sensuality that's rare in most films, save the most raw arthouse excursions. Faber, when he's killing, is joyless and efficient. He doesn't seem to have much zeal for the Nazi cause. But he is phenomenally determined to do his job and has a knack for survival. His ability to assess a deadly situation in seconds and take lethal countermeasures is both impressive and horrifying. This is a man who kills people with all the passion of squashing a bug. Sutherland doesn't play this aspect up in any kind of melodramatic way either - there is a studied control and blankness to his performance in these scenes. But Lucy - so sad and beautiful - stirs something human inside this monster's soul. Part of it is raw lust, but the bigger part is genuine compassion. He actually feels for her situation. His work by necessity has made him a lonely man albeit one in control. Lucy has chosen a life of sacrifice and emotional neglect out of misplaced guilt over her husband's physical condition and the desire to protect her son. She has given up all control and is tortured daily by her cruel and vindictive spouse. Imprisoned on this remote island and sexually and emotionally frustrated, she's teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

    When Lucy and Faber commence their affair (in one of the film's standout scenes), it's both tender and explosive with a shocking urgency. It's completely believable and devoid of the kind of fake sentimentality or leering lasciviousness you see in most sex scenes. But EYE OF THE NEEDLE's complex human realism extends to Cazenove's husband as well. He's a prick, no doubt. But you understand his rage and sympathize. This handsome, once physically impressive man was destined for a life of great promise and potential wartime heroism. He now spends his days farming sheep wearing a pair of prosthetic limbs and drinking himself into a stupor regularly. He takes pills to sleep constantly and refuses to touch his wife and refers to himself as "a legless joke". But he can be funny and playful with his son and he's shrewd - in one of the film's most shocking scenes, he unmasks and has a fight with Faber where he shows remarkable tenaciousness and ferocity. The "legless joke" is a brave and ballsy bastard.

    Director Richard Marquand so impressed George Lucas with this film that he tapped him to direct RETURN OF THE JEDI for the Star Wars franchise. It's a shame that Marquand is primarily remembered for that trifle because this profoundly adult film should be his real legacy. Marquand made few films due to his tragic early death at the age of 49 from a stroke. His ability to create mood and tension was remarkable as well as his skill at directing action sequences. Marquand consistently makes interesting choices. In scenes involving physical brutality he chooses to focus on human reactions instead of gore or money shots. Violence is portrayed as difficult to employ for many characters or horrifyingly rudimentary. When the final reel takes on a bit of a home invasion vibe, Marquand keeps things intense but always emotionally real. Finally, his technical skills were top drawer. Shooting night scenes without creating a visual muddle, showing stunning aerial vistas of Island green or handling a difficult shipwreck sequence, Marquand never stumbles.

    Quick aside - this is the superior and most common cut of the film. The old British DVD contained an additional minute of footage at the end of the movie with a superfluous scene that added little to the narrative. This release is the EYE OF THE NEEDLE that was shown on screens in 1981.


    Twilight Time brings EYE OF THE NEEDLE to Blu ray in a gorgeous 1.85:1 framed 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The scenes in sunlight show great detail and have a lovely organic appearance. The portions of the film that occur at night however are where the transfer really earns its plaudits - clarity is very strong. There are zero signs of any digital image manipulation and black levels (very important in this one) are excellent. Flesh tones look natural and there are no issues with color balance. This is a transfer with no issues.

    Audio? It's a DTS-HD Master 2.0 track that sounds awesome. Rózsa's spectacular score sounds full-blooded and all dialog is clear and the audio elements show no signs of wear or degradation or any other anomalies. Twilight Time, as is their custom, have also kindly provided the score on an isolated lossless track which is a must listen for film music aficionados considering the composer. You also get the film's theatrical trailer.

    Moving on to the film's final and most engaging special feature, we have a commentary track featuring film music expert Jon Burlingame and cinema historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman. This isn't really a regimented and moderated commentary track like you hear on many other titles. These three have history together and are clearly great friends. So what makes this commentary track so special? It's fun but informative and filled with fascinating trivia but the most impressive thing about it is the conversational aspect. These three are talking TO each other. Not reading off of note sheets or interrupting each other. The informal aspect is really refreshing when you are dealing with people who understand this medium so that the track never lags or gets redundant but it also stays informative. Burlingame knows a hell of a lot about Rózsa's score and he manages to impart that sometimes technical information without ever being boring. Redman has some nifty insights about the British cultural landscape of that era and that nation's viewing habits and Kirgo brings a welcome female perspective to the proceedings. Frankly, we rarely hear enough from women experts on commentary tracks, and considering the eroticism and romantic aspects to this film, her input is fascinating.

    Kirgo also provides a nice set of liner notes in the Blu ray's booklet.

    The Final Word:

    It's pretty obvious how much I like this film. Any fan of thrillers, period or otherwise, should certainly find this a rewarding viewing experience. It's immaculately performed, beautifully shot and directed, and filled with gripping human drama. Nelligan and Sutherland are outstanding and the score is terrific. Twilight Time have delivered a great looking and sounding Blu with a great commentary track and lossless isolated score. Highly recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Nice review, Horace. Those screencaps looks fab, too.