The Human Factor (1979)

Otto Preminger’s final film, based on one of Graham Greene’s later variations on his style of “entertainment” thriller novels, fits in neatly with the same year’s television adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a mordant portrayal of the smugly hermetic world of British Intelligence. If digging for the truth and finding only metastasizing complexity and moral shading is Preminger’s hallmark theme, this material certainly suits him. With a screenplay by no less then Tom Stoppard, The Human Factor is the tale of Marcus Castle (Nicol Williamson), a mid-level bureaucrat in MI6 whose life seems completely without peculiarity, peccadillo, or any highlighting quality to suggest he’s anything but a dull conservative gent, except for the interesting, casually introduced detail that he has an African wife, Sarah (Iman), and son, Sam (Gary Forbes). Meanwhile, the company regime, represented by corpulent, bluffly cheery Dr. Percival (Robert Morley), who’s actually an expert in assassinations and biological toxins, and grey eminence Sir John Hargreaves (Richard Vernon), advise newly appointed security chieftain Daintry (Richard Attenborough) that thanks to a source they have cultivated in their Moscow enemy headquarters, they’ve learnt that they have a traitor in their African department. The duo shock the complacent Daintry by deciding that whoever the mole is must be quietly killed, rather than be allowed publicity in a trial or a flight to Moscow. They determine quickly that the most likely candidate for the traitor is Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi), Castle’s playboy office partner.

The Human Factor is, like most of Greene’s other tales, a study in the endless compartmentalisation in both the human world and the human heart. Percival makes the concept of that compartmentalisation explicit in comparing the lives of the intelligence community to the balanced squares in a Mondrian painting. But it’s the “human factor” that sees things ooze beyond the bounds of their nominal enclosures, locked in deceptions and divided loyalties with many causes, but here, most pertinently, the moral judgement that demands violating a given faith, in this case Castle's aggrievement with the western liberal government he originally sought to defend and uphold. The grimly humorous abstraction with which Percival views the world, and the acts of murder and bastardry he readily acquiesces to, counterbalance Castle, under whose bland surface and suburban outlook lays the heart of a superlative romantic and reflexive idealist. Castle is really the mole, and the causes of his leaking minor, entirely unimportant financial documents to Moscow are quietly traced back to a time when he was an agent in South Africa, seven years earlier. In the course of developing agents amongst the Communist-backed anti-Apartheid resistance, he met and fell in love with Sarah. When their affair was discovered by the authorities, Castle was all but thrown out of the country, and he entrusted Sarah’s smuggling out of the country to a mutual Communist acquaintance. Ever since, he’s been repaying the favour. But the authorities fail to perceive his duplicity: Percival kills Davis, and passes it off as cirrhosis brought on by his gaudy lifestyle.

Preminger’s style is at its most deadpan here, taking his late-period fondness for a lack of artifice in lighting and filming to an extreme, showing up the oppressively unadorned walls of the MI6 offices and the kitschy environs of the homes of the English haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy, a post-imperial England where even the halls of power seem stripped of gilt. Preminger’s peccadilloes, working in tandem with Greene’s, including his detestation of racism (and fondness for interracial eroticism), as well as a recurring fascination with folie-a-deux romances that perpetuate in spite of and because of social constraints, gives recognisable personal heft to a dry and blackly comic tale, which is finally a little hampered by the story’s innate lack of real urgency. The Human Factor doesn’t go anywhere terribly thrilling, and the restrained handling perhaps saps some of the potential potency in the film’s forlorn final moments. But this is still one of Preminger’s best later films and quite under-rated, as he portrays the insidious hypocrisy of the world he presents in fine detail, carefully intermingling the business of the main characters with their dully ordinary day-to-day lives. Daintry asks Castle to come with him to his daughter’s wedding reception primarily to keep a human shield between himself and his cantankerous ex-wife (Adrienne Corri). Percival invites himself along with Davis and Castle to a nightclub Davis is a member of and spends the night drooling over the dancers even as he quietly plots his companion’s murder. The survival of romantic and ethical values, the narrative suggests, is in the modern world only viable in cultural evolution as represented by Castle and Sarah, whereas the retrograde “defenders” of freedom do everything they can to retard individuality and have finished up a blind alley; the fusty old-school gentleman Daintry’s being chased out by his ex-wife, brittle with anxiety over kitsch decor and barely repressed fury and resentment, is emblematic of an exhausted paradigm.

The Human Factor cleverly contrives to make Castle’s treachery seem not just forgivable but almost gallant in an accidental, charmingly confused manner: “I’m not a Communist,” he bleats in distress when he learns he’s to be taken to Moscow and feted as a hero. He’s driven to desperate ends by a single goal: his determination to remain with Sarah. This is compounded as the story entwines his personal straits and political distaste for the South African Apartheid regime, emblem of the unpleasant alliances Cold War politics too often dictated and given tacit tolerance in the name of the anti-Soviet front. Castle is stuck chaperoning Muller (Joop Doderer), the official who had formerly harassed him and Sarah back in South Africa, when Muller is sent to England to negotiate plans for a monstrous defence against possible Communist invasion – irradiating the borderlands. That plot so shocks and appals Castle that he transmits it to Moscow, blowing the perfect cover Davis’s killing gave him. Preminger is particularly droll in observing Muller’s utterly unfazed reaction to learning that Sarah is now Castle’s wife after rambling on uncomfortably about the old case. Muller indulges a roll in the hay himself with a black prostitute, and then contemptuously orders her to get out. If the material wasn’t quite cinematic enough to make for a really compelling film, nonetheless it’s handled with a cool poise that's deceptive in its steadily coiling intensity. The cast particularly good, including the uncommonly restrained Williamson. Iman is hampered more than a little by her stilted accent, but she pulls off the necessary task of making Sarah seem infinitely more aristocratic than anyone the former colonialist overlords can offer, clashing with both Castle’s high Tory mother (Ann Todd) and Percival and discovering only one-dimensional pettiness and hollow canards remains in the bastions of the green and pleasant land.

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