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The final film in the long and mercurial directing career of Otto Preminger, The Human Factor (1980) does a straightforward and impeccable job of bringing Graham Greene's novel of international intrigue to the screen. To adapt this tale of the extreme measures taken by the more shadowy sectors of British Intelligence to patch a perceived security leak within the nation's diplomatic corps, Preminger engaged playwright Tom Stoppard (The Real Inspector Hound), no stranger to the mystery form. The final result is a compelling if overly mannered tale of compromised loyalty.
The story's central figure, Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson), an inconspicuous functionary for the London Foreign Office, regularly puts in his day and returns to his suburban home, where his gorgeous black South African wife (Iman) and stepson eagerly await him. The quietude will be short-lived, however, as the Office hierarchy has been tipped to the existence of a mole by a Soviet defector. The security chief Daintry (Richard Attenborough) is quick to finger Castle's suitemate, the far more freewheeling Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi). The consensus leads to the house physician Percival (Robert Morley) striking up an after-hours friendship with Davis who soon falls victim to a sudden, mortal, and ultimately untraceable illness.
With the ostensible leak dispatched, Castle is asked to be point man for the visit to Britain made by South African diplomat Cornelius Muller (Joop Doderer), who's involved in a joint effort with the Americans and the Brits to stem Russian incursions within the Dark Continent. Castle draws the assignment due to past history with Muller; as becomes evident in flashback, the two men go back some seven years, when Castle was stationed in Pretoria. The story details how he met and fell in love with the anti-Apartheid activist Sarah, and how he became obliged to funnel information to the communist sympathizer attorney Matthew Connolly (Tony Vogel) in exchange for Sarah's safe passage out of the country. Back in the present, suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Davis' death, Castle must race to protect his family before his cover is completely blown.
The primary strengths of The Human Factor lie in its performances. Williamson provides an extremely solid lead as an outwardly drab individual who is hiding some dangerous secrets, and the fashion model Iman delivers an entirely creditable job with her first piece of film acting. Attenborough actually manages to drum up sympathy for his ethically stunted company man while Morley brings his customary panache to his deceptively solicitous doctor. And rounding out the upper-echelon cabal are John Gielgud and Richard Vernon in small but memorable roles.
Saul Bass, whose trendsetting career in devising film titles commenced when Preminger commissioned him to adapt his print campaign graphic designs for the opening of The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), entered into his 11th collaboration with the director for The Human Factor. Complemented by a raking acoustic guitar score, the stark pan of black cross-hatches against a red background--revealed in pullback to be a fraying telephone cord--make for an indelible image. "Otto had a vision," Bass recounted in an interview with Pamela Haskin in the Fall 1996 Film Quarterly. "A true artistic, visual vision. He believed that he knew what he knew and he believed that what he knew, together with what would come out of our work, was worth defending to the death. He also had the bullheadedness to take that position and the clout to pull it off."
Producer: Otto Preminger, Paul Crosfield
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Graham Greene (novel), Tom Stoppard
Cinematography: Mike Molloy
Film Editing: Richard Trevor
Art Direction: Ken Ryan
Music: Gary Logan, Richard Logan
Cast: Richard Attenborough (Col. John Daintry), John Gielgud (Brigadier Tomlinson), Joop Doderer (Cornelius Muller), Derek Jacobi (Arthur Davis), Robert Morley (Doctor Percival), Ann Todd (Castle's Mother).
by Jay S. Steinberg