“Eye of the Needle” (1981) is a crackerjack thriller starring Donald Sutherland as Henry Faber, aka The Needle, a top German spy during World War II who discovers the Allies’ D-Day invasion plans and attempts to transmit the information back to Berlin. On the run from the authorities, he attempts to cross the English Channel by boat during a storm. His boat is wrecked and he washes ashore the isolated Storm Island, where he is taken in by the lonely and vulnerable Lucy (Kate Nelligan), who lives on a sheep farm with her crippled, embittered, often drunk husband David (Christopher Cazenove) and their young son.
Lucy soon falls in love with Henry, but doesn’t know his real identity. The Needle and Lucy begin a love affair, before she realizes he is not who he appears to be and The Needle is willing to do anything, or kill anyone, to achieve his mission of letting his superiors know where and when D-Day will occur. “The war has come down to the two of us,” Faber tells her during the climax.
I remember how excited I was when “Eye of the Needle” came out. Like millions of others I had read, and enjoyed, the best selling novel by Ken Follett, one of those books that was impossible to put down. I’m a sucker for World War II movies, as well as thrillers set in isolated areas, where help cannot be reached by picking up the phone and calling the local police station down the street.
But most important, it boasted a new score by the great Miklos Rozsa, my favorite composer. I was giddy at the idea of hearing a new Rozsa score, as he was in the twilight of his career and new scores were few, though he had scored a triumphant trifecta in 1979 with scores to Billy Wilder’s “Fedora”, Jonathan Demme’s “The Last Embrace” and the time travel romance/thriller “Time After Time” which has one of the greatest end titles of all time. Hearing it makes you glad to be alive.
I remember seeing “Eye of the Needle” during a summer afternoon matinee at the River Oaks Theater in Calumet City. I was taking summer classes at the local community college and after morning classes would often throw my books in the trunk of my car and drive to the River Oaks to catch a flick.
I was not disappointed, as “Eye of the Needle” is a terrific thriller, with a fine sense of time and place. Wartime England is well portrayed as a land of rations, overcrowded trains and military personnel hurrying to and fro. Sutherland superbly portrays The Needle, a man with ice water in his veins who, with his stiletto, dispatches anyone who remotely suspects him of not being who he says he is. It’s a wonderful performance.
The Rozsa score does not disappoint, though it could have been better dubbed. Apparently, large chunks of it were thrown out in post-production, which is a shame because there are large portions of the film that go unscored and the film tends to drag a bit. The end credits, however, do allow Rozsa to develop his rapturous love theme to near operatic heights with a nifty little coda that never feels to bring a smile to my face. I remember a good number of the mostly elderly audience members staying in their seats to hear the music. It did my heart good, but such is the power of Rozsa.
That summer I also saw, at the same theater, “Dragonslayer” with its difficult but ultimately rewarding Alex North score. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to hear the latest works of two master composers. I may not have been able to hear them in their heyday, but considered myself very lucky to hear their later scores in the theaters. Unlike athletes past their prime, at the end of their film careers Rozsa and North were still at the top of their game.
That summer of 1981 was a remarkable one, one of the best I can remember, both for the movies and their scores. There was also Ray Harryhausen’s last film, the Greek mythology fantasy “Clash of the Titans”, a now forgotten film called “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, one of the best 007 movies ever “For Your Eyes Only”, one of the few John Carpenter films I like “Escape from New York”, and “Victory” the rousing World War II soccer movie with Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Pele, with a gloriously loud Bill Conti score that more than lives up to the film’s title.
Would that we would have another summer like that one.
Rating for “Eye of the Needle”: Three stars