From the moment the U.S. entered World War II following the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, the Allied forces were already planning an invasion of Europe, a second front to help ease the fighting on the Russian front and ultimately lead to the end of the war. Whoo, that was a mouthful. But in 1942 and 1943, the U.S. just wasn't ready as the war developed through North Africa and Italy. But that invasion was coming, and it was only a matter of time and where.
Now in 2010 in an age of Twitter, Facebook and a 24-hour news cycle, it's nearly impossible to comprehend that for months the Allies were able to keep the location of the invasion, Normandy, under wraps from the Germans. Only a few possibilities existed for where the troops would hit the beach so obviously some higher-ups in the government and German army could guess it would be Normany but no one ever knew for sure until the morning of June 6th. But what if somebody did know the location, a German agent working in England? The only problem is this, he must get to Adolf Hitler himself to tell him because using a radio/wireless set will get him caught. So goes 1981's Eye of the Needle.
Investigating several murders that took place over a period of years in England, police investigator Goldiman (Ian Bannen) begins to suspect that the murderer is a German agent trying to protect his cover. An old roommate of the man points him out in a picture of his graduating class...from a German military school, and the chase is on to catch him. The man? Codename: Needle, Walter Faber (Donald Sutherland), who was born in Germany but is one of Admiral Canaris' best agents working in England. Faber is on the run with news of the coming invasion, Patton's 3rd Army doesn't exist across the channel from Pas de Calais so the attack will be at Normandy.
But Faber is running out of time as the gauntlet closes around him. Trying to get to the U-boat that will take him home, his boat crashes in horrific weather on a small island off the coast, Storm Island. The only people living there are a young married couple, Lucy (Kate Nelligan) and her wheelchair-bound husband David (Christopher Cazenove) and their son Joey, and a drunken old sheep herder. There's an aerial radio available on the island, but can Faber signal the U-boat before the family figures him out and the police find out where he is? The Needle's success or failure could severely impact the result of the war.
With the WWII setting, the story can be broken down into two segments, both of which work equally well. The first hour is a hunt for a fugitive with Faber first discovering a whole army has been fabricated to throw off the Germans and then his efforts to get out of England, and the second hour taking place exclusively on Storm Island with its four occupants. That second hour plays like a horror movie with Sutherland's Faber stepping in for Jason Voorhies or Michael Myers. It's odd to see a movie do a complete 180 like that, but it works surprisingly well here. The ending especially is downright creepy as Lucy takes her son and tries to run from Faber. But on an island in the middle of nowhere, where do you run?
In some of my favorite movies like Kelly's Heroes and The Dirty Dozen, Sutherland plays the lovable idiot, like this scene where he impersonates an American general. He's perfect in these parts, especially in Kelly's Heroes as hippie tanker Oddball. So basically seeing him flip a switch and turning into a steely-eyed, murdering villain is rather startling. His performance is something else and will quickly have you forgetting whatever preconceptions you might have about him as an actor. A comedic actor? Sure, but he could play a terrifying villain too when a movie called for it.
As the lonely wife so desperate for human contact she bonds with Faber, Nelligan's Lucy is a great character in her own right. Her husband refuses to touch her and barely talks to her, her son is 4-years old and the sheepherder is drunk most of the time so she's basically on her own and has been this way for years. So when a charming man like Faber shows up she can't help but be attracted to him. Nelligan delivers a great performance, the lonely young woman who never thought her life would end up like this, but at the same time can't imagine leaving her family. As the damsel in distress in the last 30 minutes, Lucy does show she won't go quietly with Faber's plan and ends up being the heroic heroine, quite a transformation for the character.
Based on a novel by Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle is an excellent book that translates well to the big screen. WWII spy thrillers are nothing new really and have been dealt with many times in movie form, but 'Needle' brings something new to the genre. You've probably seen the first hour before or at least something similar, but the second hour goes down a different road with a great result. Very entertaining, very different spy thriller well worth checking out. Found a trailer but it was from a sketchy site so I didn't put up a link, sorry.
Eye of the Needle (1981): ***/****