Like many iconic directors who began their careers in the studio era, Otto Preminger fared poorly in the ’70s—with each successive picture, his old-fashioned style seemed more and more disconnected from current trends. Adding to the problem was the filmmaker’s apparent creative fatigue, because Preminger’s final films are even more static and talky than the ones he made in his heyday, which is saying a lot. This doesn’t mean, however, that Preminger had lost his ability find interesting material. Quite to the contrary, the director’s last feature film, The Human Factor, is an intelligent and restrained spy thriller adapted from a book by one of the genre’s grand masters, Graham Greene. Had a filmmaker with more passion tackled the project, The Human Factor could have achieved a much greater impact. As is, it’s respectable but unimpressive.
Set in England, the story concerns two MI6 analysts, Marcus Castle (Nicol Williamson) and Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi). Castle has settled into a quiet existence with his wife, Sarah (Iman), a former spy whom he met while working for the UK in South Africa, and her son. Conversely, Davis hates the dull routine of a desk job, preferring the high life of nightclubs and women. When clues from within the USSR alert ambitious security officer Colonel Daintry (Richard Attenborough) to a leak in MI6’s African division, Daintry collaborates with a ruthless superior officer, Dr. Percival (Robert Morley), on an investigation into the activities of Castle and Davis. Describing any more of the story would reveal key plot twists, but suffice to say that Greene’s narrative plays provocative games with duplicity, personal agendas, and political affiliations, as well as the X factors of bloodlust and careerism.
In fact, nearly everything about The Human Factor works except for Preminger’s direction. Tom Stoppard’s script is intelligent, if a bit mechanical, and the cast is excellent, with the exception of model-turned-actress Iman, who’s quite weak in this, her debut performance. Williamson defines a believable sort of middle-class discomfort, which is surprising to encounter in this context; Jacobi essays a would-be swinger whose style outpaces his substance; and Attenborough is terrific as a company man who maintains rigid control until he realizes the dangerous repercussion of his brazen maneuvers. Morley’s performance is a bit odd, for while he delivers lines with his usual panache, he often seems as if he’s reading dialogue from cue cards, and the lengthy sequence of Morley making exaggerated facial expressions while reacting to a topless dancer is unpleasant to watch. The stripper scene is one of many that Preminger both films unimaginatively and lets run to excessive length; these shapeless stretches dilute the story’s potential impact.
The Human Factor eventually comes together in a credibly unresolved sort of way, since everyone involved in the story becomes affected by revelations and suspicions. Nonetheless, the movie isn’t nearly the elegant descent into darkness it should have been.
The Human Factor: FUNKY