'The Human Factor' (1979)

by Michael Barrett

30 August 2013

A Greene Grass on Otto-Pilot
cover art

The Human Factor

Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: Nicol Williamson, Richard Attenborough

USDVD release date: 12 Jun 2013

Otto Preminger’s final film focuses on British espionage not as fieldwork of 007 splendor but as a poky bureaucracy with, as one character says, everyone in their boxes like a Mondriaan painting. The style is appropriately cramped and cornered, even cheap and dull, with pretty outdoor work (in England and Kenya) when the film seems finally to breathe fresh air. It’s a dowdy, claustrophobic, nearly inert counter-vision of the spy game in a line with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Topaz and The Kremlin Letter.
The almost buried plotline involves a rumor that there’s a Soviet leak inside MI5’s Africa department, and the viewer understands well before anyone else that the compromised figure is the continually uncomfortable desk-jockey played by Nicol Williamson, who while stationed in South Africa got involved with a black woman (supermodel Iman, who poses and enunciates like a supermodel), and his protectiveness and gratitude have become his Achilles’ heel. This is the human factor, along with all the other false assumptions and cross-purposes that tend to fatal or otherwise unfortunate consequences.

Many scenes are devoted to old-school-tie types having uncomfortable conversations full of mundane details in which such matters as betrayal and murder are alluded to as casually as other workday trivia. We’d call it Pinter-esque but in fact it’s Stoppard-esque, since Tom Stoppard adapted Graham Greene’s novel. Preminger traditionally seems disengaged from his characters but usually presents their unease in a context of sleek power or suspense; this film feels tired and enervated, apparently as a reflection of its frustrated bureaucrats and their unglamorous lives—unless it only reflects an aging producer-director ready to call it quits.

Also downplaying in the dazzling cast are Robert Morley, Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough, Howard Vernon, and Ann Todd. Now available on demand from Warner Archive, this item shouldn’t be confused with the 1975 film of the same name, a revenge thriller with George Kennedy.

The Human Factor


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