Reviewed by Jared Rapfogel

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger; screenplay by Tom Stoppard, adapted from the novel by Graham Greene; edited by Richard Trevor; cinematography by Mike Molloy; art direction by Kenneth Ryan; music by Gary Logan and Richard Logan; titles by Saul Bass; starring Nicol Williamson, Richard Attenborough, Iman, Derek Jacobi, Robert Morley, Richard Vernon, and John Gielgud. DVD, color, 115 min., 1979. A Warner Archive release.

This 1979 adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, The Human Factor, was the final film of Otto Preminger’s distinguished, fifty-five-year career, and while far from Preminger’s best-known work, it’s a magnificent capstone, and a quintessential “late film.” Like the final works of some of the other great directors of the period (Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo [1959] and Hatari! [1962] come to mind, as well as John Ford’s 7 Women [1966], Chaplin’s Limelight [1952], Fritz Lang’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse [1960], and especially Yasujiro Ozu’s final films), The Human Factor displays a cinematic mastery that may at first glance appear downright anticinematic. Radically dedramatized and free of stylistic flourishes, it’s a spy film that intentionally goes against the grain of what most viewers expect from the genre—it daringly courts charges of visual blandness, stilted acting, and unmodulated pacing, resembling a run-of-the-mill TV movie rather than a theatrical feature by one of the towering figures of mid-century Hollywood moviemaking. But to a perceptive viewer, this apparent blankness is the manifestation of a hard-earned cinematic wisdom, a transcendence of the youthful urge towards bold effects or self-evident expressiveness. The Human Factor is a brilliant demonstration of the devastating power that can result from eliminating stylistic adornment.

Indeed, The Human Factor is ultimately a devastating film, a genuinely tragic tale of humanity and love crushed by the machinations of international espionage. The film centers on Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson), a veteran British Secret Service operative who appears to be more of a functionary than a glamorous secret agent. Castle commutes every day between his nondescript office, where the only real satisfaction comes from his friendship with his libertine, lovelorn colleague Davis (Derek Jacobi), and his home, which he shares with his beloved wife Sarah (Iman), a black South African woman with whom he fell in love during a previous assignment. The film opens with the appearance of a new internal security chief, Daintry (Richard Attenborough), who has been recruited to uncover the double agent thought to be leaking information (albeit of negligible value) from within the Secret Service. While Daintry seems at first to embody a certain cliché of British genre films—his superficial affability only barely masks his relentless determination to find his man—his ruthlessness is soon shown to pale in comparison to that of his superiors. When Daintry is called to a private, post-shooting-party meeting with Secret Service puppetmasters Sir Hargreaves (Richard Vernon) and Dr. Percival (the great Robert Morley, typically hilarious even as he delivers his most chilling performance), he listens in horror as they casually and matter-of-factly discuss the need to discreetly murder the mole once he’s identified.

The noble motives of Secret Service agent Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson) fail to ward off tragedy in The Human Factor

The noble motives of Secret Service agent Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson) fail to ward off tragedy in The Human Factor

Preminger’s portrait of the British Secret Service leadership as thoroughly amoral and unscrupulous is less striking than his own treatment of the scene—reflecting the characters’ embodiment of the banality of evil, Preminger films the interaction, and indeed the entire film, without emphasizing or underlining the drama in any way. An exceedingly talky film, The Human Factor, which was adapted to the screen by the playwright Tom Stoppard, is essentially a series of conversations, which are almost invariably shot from a medium distance, with the characters sharing the frame, and hence with a minimum of cutting (there’s very little use here of the usual shot/reverse-shot approach to filming interactions). It’s hard to think of another Hollywood film, especially a spy film, that so rigorously flattens the drama. Even as the intrigue grows increasingly tangled, and the stakes for the protagonists become higher and higher, the camerawork and pacing remain stubbornly unaccented (viewed silently there would be no intimation of the story’s suspensefulness). Stylistically, The Human Factor has less in common with the typical spy movie than it does with Carl Dreyer’s late masterpiece, Gertrud (1964), another film that consists almost entirely of static conversations between two characters, filmed in medium shot, and performed in a muted, anti-dramatic manner. Like GertrudThe Human Factor is likely experienced by many viewers as off-putting and uncinematic, but the unaccented quality in fact heightens the drama, almost unbearably so. [Plot Spoiler Ahead!]

With the revelation that Castle is the double agent—motivated not by ideological conviction or greed but by a sense of indebtedness to the communists who helped save Sarah’s life in South Africa—The Human Factor’s deliberate, seemingly artless construction takes on an inexorable, tragically fateful quality, perfectly conveying the sense that Castle is caught up in events beyond his control, trapped in a machine whose fatal mechanism is all the deadlier for being so camouflaged. In The Human Factor evil and inhumanity don’t announce themselves as such but are woven insidiously and inextricably into the fabric of everyday life, a vision that’s infinitely scarier than the subtly reassuring depiction of unmistakable monstrousness put forward by so many dramas. Perhaps the most remarkable scene in the film is an instance of cold-blooded, state-sponsored murder that’s depicted every bit as off-handedly and impersonally as the murder itself is implemented. It’s a moment that an inattentive, impatient viewer might even miss, but a perceptive viewer will experience with queasy horror.

Similarly, The Human Factor’s conclusion sidesteps the typical, paradoxically cathartic choice between life or death, choosing a resolution that’s both subtler and more despairing. Preminger is less interested in narrating Castle’s struggle for survival than in demonstrating that his relationship with Sarah is doomed in a world suffused with hatred, ignorance, suspicion, and brutality. The Human Factor ends with Castle alive but crushed in spirit, irrevocably separated from Sarah and profoundly isolated—a fate that in the Cold War context, the film implies, awaits anyone who chooses genuine human connection and decency over ideology and national loyalty. It’s a chilling but uncompromising final statement from a filmmaker who has transcended the need to call attention to his own mastery.

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Jared Rapfogel is a member of the Cineaste editorial board and the Film Programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine