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Film Review - Eye of the Needle (1981)

Updated on February 27, 2015
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In a series of illustrated articles, the author gives personal easy-to-read reviews of some of the most watchable films in Hollywood history



Eye of the Needle is a Second World War movie with a bit of a difference, because this is a film in which there are no battles between armies; there are just battles between individuals and battles between consciences.

It is the story of one German secret agent and his ruthless determination to complete his mission. Physically, it seems that nobody can stop him, and anyone who tries is quickly eliminated without a second thought. However, an encounter with a young English woman changes everything for the agent, and a new story develops; the story of a brief and very passionate love - a love which weakens his resolve momentarily. Suddenly there is someone he cares about; someone he cannot eliminate quite so easily.

'Eye of the Needle' is a war movie which may be enjoyed by those who don't normally like war movies. This is my review.


Meet Henry Faber, and you might find he is a likeable person. He affable, pleasantly spoken, and a seemingly easy-going kind of guy. But he is also the most ruthless and violent killer, a German spy sent to England during the Second World War to uncover the truth behind the allies' D-Day invasion plans, and he'll stop at nothing to complete his mission. He'll stop at nothing even if it means killing his gentle, kindly housekeeper, a young friend who idolises him, and even a fellow German spy. He is heartless and cold, and human life apparently means nothing to hiim.

But then, armed with the top secret knowledge he has discovered about the Normandy landings, Faber makes his way across country in a desperate bid to contact his Nazi bosses and change the course of the war in Germany's favour. In the midst of a raging storm, he finds his way to a rendezvous point, a remote island off the coast of Scotland. And there, Henry Faber makes the biggest mistake of his life; he experiences genuine, heartfelt emotions. He meets Lucy, a lonely woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Lucy stirs affection in him, his single-minded approach is compromised, and his brutality is moderated in a fleeting yet critical way. He could kill her almost at any minute of the day in order to guarantee the success of his mission. But will he?

Faber remains a dedicated and vicious character, but this encounter with Lucy will change his destiny, her destiny, and the destiny of World War Two in a way neither of them could have imagined.

The 'Needle' of the title is Henry Faber's codename in England.


Donald Sutherland 
Henry Faber 
Kate Nelligan 
Christopher Cazenove
Ian Bannen
Inspector Godliman
Philip Martin Brown
Billy Parkin
Arthur Lovegrove


DIRECTOR : Richard Marquand


  • Ken Follett (novel)
  • Stanley Mann (screenplay)


RUNNING TIME : 112 minutes


GUIDENCE : Some violence. Brief nudity


Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan as star-crossed lovers in 'Eye of the Needle'
Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan as star-crossed lovers in 'Eye of the Needle'


The novel Eye of the Needle was the first commercial success of best -selling novelist Ken Follett. The story was published in 1978.

'Storm Island' the almost deserted location for the second half of the film, is ficticious. Filming was actually done on the Isle of Mull, one of the largest islands off the west coast of Scotland, where there is a sizeable resident population.



The always watchable Donald Sutherland is the star of this movie, playing the personable yet utterly amoral Henry Faber. It's one of his best roles, if one of his least pleasant characters. Kate Nelligan plays the woman who may prove to be his nemesis.

All the other characters are peripheral figures. Christopher Cazenove plays Lucy's unloving husband, consumed with self-pity over the accident (of his own making) which has confined him to a wheelchair and stopped him from pursuing his chosen career as a glamorous fighter pilot. His purpose in the film is really to afford a credible excuse for Lucy's ready acceptance of Faber's advances - Lucy is so very lonely and craves a warm and loving man in her life.

Most of the other characters are victims, present only to emphasise Henry Faber's ruthlessness. Their purpose is to make it clear to the viewer that nothing and no one - surely - will be allowed by Faber to stand in his way.

Finally there is Ian Bannen who gives a restrained performance as the British officer pursuing Faber across country. It has to be a restrained performance - this is not the film for a dashing hero, who would just detract from the turbulent relationship between Faber and the girl he wants to love.


The love affair (it's too brief to be a romance) between Faber and Lucy does seem slightly unconvincing to me. We know how lonely and sad this woman is, and this is the justification for her rapid stirrings of emotion, but even so, it's less than 24 hours after meeting Faber that Lucy begins to get intimate, (with her husband still in the house at the time). It's less than 48 hours before she hops into bed with Faber. It's hard to believe that this is genuine love.

But whether this is true love, or infatuation, or just a distorted emotional response to her own sad circumstances, the trauma which is about to unfold for Lucy provokes a distress-filled reaction which does seem quite credible.


This is very much a film of two halves, and each half appeals in different ways.

In the first half of the film in England, the grotesque contradiction between Henry Faber's very ugly character and rather attractive personality holds a certain fascination. This part of the film has all the thrill of a well executed manhunt between dedicated lawmen, and a cunning fugitive.

The landscape of Storm Island in the second half of the film can be seen as beautiful, or bleak, and so can the melodramatic relationship between Faber and Lucy. Initially beautiful for both, their time together degenerates in a calamatous way as the truth about Faber dawns on Lucy, and she faces a bleak choice - her country or her lover.


Very near the end of the film, Faber is sitting with Lucy. His plans to radio a German submarine have just been thwarted by Lucy, but he can still escape. Both he and she are desperate, yet still in love, neither really wanting to harm the other. But the truth is out and the importance of their next actions is clear. Faber says;

'The war has come down to the two of us. Do you know that?'

Lucy does know that.

Faber then says: 'I did what I had to do. It cannot be undone. I'm sorry.'

Now Faber must again do what he has to do, and Lucy must do what she has to do.


Any scene involving Donald Sutherland is good, and as he is on screen most of the time, most of the film is good. I'm not sure any one scene really stands out other than the final moments as Faber and Lucy's relationship reaches its climax.

However the moment when Faber uncovers the truth about the D-Day landings is enjoyable for the ingenuity of the allied deception which is based on fact - Faber happens upon an airfield in Eastern England full of allied planes seemingly prepared for an invasion of eastern France - except that the planes turn out to be hollow wooden shells designed to fool the enemy into believing the attack will come from here, and not from the south coast through Normandy.


Eye of the Needle is a story with an interesting plot, and a compelling anti-hero as played by Sutherland. To take a major event of the Second World War - the planning of the D-Day landings - and to turn it into a melodramatic story of just two people and their rollercoaster emotions, should make this a film which appeals to a wide range of tastes.


5 out of 5 stars from 2 ratings of this film

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