Historical thriller Eye of the Needle (1981) takes us back to wartime England in the 1940s. This one stars the ubiquitous Donald Sutherland as “the Needle,” the last German spy behind the lines in England during World War II. In 1944, shortly before the invasion of France, the Needle obtains evidence that Patton’s First Army threatening the Pas de Calais is actually fake. This intelligence, if conveyed to Hitler, would betray the Allies’ real intention to invade at Normandy, which could tip the scales against them. On his way to rendezvous with a submarine off the coast of Scotland, however, his ship capsizes and he washes up on remote Storm Island, there to enter the life of Lucy (Kate Nelligan), a woman struggling to raise a child with little help from her bitter, alcoholic husband David (Christopher Cazenove). Unwittingly, they take the ruthless spy into their home, where he exacerbates their relationship troubles while biding his time to escape with the vital intelligence.
Eye of the Needle is an earnest, workmanlike suspenser that didn’t entirely enthrall me. Made in 1981, it feels like it could have been made thirty or forty years earlier; the music in particular is very old-fashioned. It’s slow to start, prone to melodrama, and much of the tension hinges on romantic chemistry between Sutherland and Nelligan that doesn’t really exist. On the other hand, the historical content is nicely woven into the plot, and the era is recreated effectively. The slow-build pays off in the final conflict, which is when the film finally comes alive as Lucy first struggles to survive, then comes to learn the significance of the Needle to the British war effort. There, the plight of the wider world starts to inform character, which lends weight to Lucy’s struggle. The fate of the war boils down to two people — a fact the film spells out a bit too obviously, alas — but once both characters are aware of where they stand, it makes for a powerful ending. I just wish I had been more interested all the way through.