Eye of the Needle (1981)

Eye of the Needle (1981), directed by Richard Marquand.

Undercover in Britain during WW2, a top German spy and assassin learns the truth about the 1944 invasion plans. Can he stay one step ahead of the police long enough to meet his U-boat and get home in time? Will a lonely woman on a remote island melt his flinty heart?

This is a traditional British war-time thriller, hotted up with a bit of sex and violence. That was actually about all I remembered: Kate Nelligan's brief nudity and convincing passion scenes, and a glimpse of axed flying fingers that made me think of Straw Dogs (1971).

Seeing it again on Blu-ray it is a fine example of the genre, expertly done. More than anything else the performances elevate it above the field.

Donald Sutherland is often in quirky, off-beat roles, but here his focused intensity is quite believable, and he gives a chilling performance. And, of course, we can't help rooting for the fox running from the hounds. Did he soften at the end? It is hard to tell. He didn't kill her and had showed no such reluctance before.

I always watched for Kate Nelligan in those days. Last seen in Dracula (1979). Always possessed of great poise and soulfulness, here she is a good mother in a bad marriage where her self-loathing husband will not touch her. Her loneliness tugs at the heart.

She and the mysterious visitor fall into bed with cinematic hurry, but when the truth comes out the violence begins. He tells her: "The war has come down to the two of us". Which is a pointed illustration of the nightmare: no uniforms or lines on the map, just two people who should have loved one another, but now must turn unwillingly to killing.

The nightmare is specifically hard for her: the shame of combined guilt and pleasure, mortification of having risked her husband and child.

Also in the cast: the reliable Ian Bannen as the somewhat plodding police inspector, often seen in The Offence (1972), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), and Hope and Glory (1987).

Spot a young Bill Nighy.

Old-school, emotional score by Miklós Rózsa. Call out the old dog if you want a period film done right.

Available on Twilight Time Blu-ray with an enthusiastic commentary track by the usual crew. They point out how unlikely it would be for someone as goofy-looking as Sutherland to be a leading man these days. Even less, as a romance/passion lead as he is here and in Don't Look Now (1973).