Color, 1981, 112 mins.

Directed by Richard Marquand

Starring Donald Sutherland, Kate Nelligan, Christopher Cazenove, Ian Bannen, Rupert Frazer / Produced by Stephen J. Friedman / Written by Stanley Mann / Cinematography by Alan Hume / Music by Miklos Rozsa

Format: DVD - MGM (MSRP $24.98)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital Mono

A striking adaptation of Ken Follett's popular espionage novel, Eye of the Needle is one of those fortunate early 1980s films which admirably stands the test of time. Unlike many World War II thriller, both the book and film focus as much on character development and atmopshere as the traditional mechanisms of warfare, making this a satisfying tale on several different levels.

One of Nazi Germany's deadliest agents, The Needle (Donald Sutherland), has been posing as Faber, an unassuming Englishman near London, during the early years of World War II. Equipped with photographs which prove the Allies' intention of storming Europe through Normandy, Faber is instructed by one of his contacts to rendezvous with a U-Boat and personally deliver his evidence and testimony to Hitler. With British Intelligence in hot pursuit, Faber must escape from the train taking him to his destination and instead steals a boat, which he promptly steers into a violent storm. Shipwrecked and washed up on Storm Island, Faber makes his way to the isolated home of Lucy (Kate Nelligan), a wife and mother who lives with her embittered husband, David (Christopher Cazenove), who lost his legs in a car accident on their wedding day. Not surprisingly, Lucy quickly begins a passionate affair with the mysterious stranger, unaware of his true identity and his plans to notify the Germans of his location.

Though it could have easily been a trite melodrama, Eye of the Needle is boosted considerably by the two lead performances. Sutherland's performance at first seems ice cold and aloof, but in the second half he reveals some fascinating shadings to his character, particularly during the lengthy standoff between him and Lucy. As poised and charming as any Golden Age Hollywood star, Nelligan has never looked prettier and makes a fine, sympathetic heroine. Thanks to its austere cinemtography and a rich symphonic score by the always reliable Miklos Rozsa, the film manages to both evoke classic '40s thrillers while injecting modern levels of startling violence (the axe scene will have viewers cringing) and tasteful nudity. Director Richard Marquand, best known for helming the weakest Star Wars film (at the time), Return of the Jedi, performs the same competent duties as his later and similarly plotted Jagged Edge while maintaining the strong and uniquely lonely British atmosphere from his wild 1979 horror excursion, The Legacy. Along the way he and screenwriter Mann also include some sly nods to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher, among others, while firmly establishing the film's own identity throughout. The film isn't perfect -- the last scene is a little rushed and abrupt, and a subplot involving Ian Bannen promises to go somewhere but never does -- but it certainly deserves a look and offers a showcase for almost everyone involved at the peak of their craft.

MGM's DVD of this United Artists title is a dramatic improvement over the old, fuzzy VHS editions familiar to most viewers. While the source materials present some inherent problems, most noticeably the heavy grain which suffuses a couple of sky shots, the print is extremely clean and offers satisfying levels of detail. The robust mono audio track compensates for the lack of multi-channel sound, with the score in particular offering a dynamic range previously unheard outside a movie theater. The memorable theatrical trailer is included, as well as the usual printed production notes.

Mondo Digital Reviews Mondo Digital Links Mondo Digital