Warner Bros. // 1979 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // July 3rd, 2013
"Hate is an automatic response to fear, for fear humiliates."
Cold War spy novels out of England fall into two basic camps. On the one hand, we have the fanciful and romanticized stories of Ian Fleming, whose James Bond promises the life of the spy to be full of martinis and beautiful seductresses. On the other, we have the books of John Le Carre and Graham Greene, who give a more realistic, measured approach to the worlds of secret service operatives. Each style has its place, both on the page and in their various cinematic adaptations, but all of them are steeped in the kinds of espionage and double agents that audiences have always loved. Oddly forgotten given the people behind it, the 1979 adaptation of Greene's The Human Factor is just such a story, though definitely one of the slower variety.
Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson, Excalibur), desk chief of the African division of the British secret service, is stunned when his second, Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi, Dead Again), claims that he's being watched. The upper brass suspects a double agent, and they suspect it is either Davis or Castle, but are convinced that Davis is their man. When Davis turns up dead, Castle is shocked and assures them that the man could never have been a traitor. He knows this for a fact because, indeed, he's the double agent and now must escape to the Soviet Union before the authorities can get their hands on him.
The fact that Castle is the agent is only a surprise to the brass. He doesn't come out and say it until the last third of the film, but his actions make the reality perfectly clear only a few minutes into the film. He claims at various points that he's not a Communist and that he has no politics to speak of, but his involvement in the Communist wing of South Africa and the fact that the Soviets helped him to smuggle his wife (Iman, L.A. Story) into England paint make all of that quite apparent.
It's an interesting story, nicely written by Tom Stoppard (Brazil). I haven't read the novel, so can't comment on the adaptation, but it moves well and stays tense, even if that's a mannered, deliberate tension. It's never boring, but it definitely takes a while to get going and, if you like your spy movies action-packed, The Human Factor isn't the one for you. This is about the inner workings of the intelligence bureaucracy and it comes a very close second to the double agent business. Together, they make a pretty compelling story that I'd never heard of, but I'm glad I watched.
It's strange to me, though, that the movie has been so forgotten. Not only was it the last film directed by Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder) and written by Stoddard, it stars a cavalcade of great British actors. The previously mentioned Williamson and Jacobi aside, it also features John Gielgud (The Elephant Man), Richard Attenborough (The Great Escape), Robert Morley (The African Queen), and Richard Vernon (Goldfinger). That's a ton of talent for one movie and they all do really well. The only downside of the performances is Iman; her film debut is not very successful and I suspect she was cast in the part strictly because of her beauty and because she's a native of Africa. Regardless of her lackluster performance, there's no good reason for the film's obscurity; maybe this release will help to change that.
The Human Factor arrives on DVD in a bare bones edition from Warner Archive. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image isn't the worst that the label has done, but it's not terribly good, either. With the plethora of scratches and spots, there has clearly been no restoration work done on the original print and, though there aren't any transfer errors or digital artifacts to speak of, the washed out colors are a real disappointment. The mono sound mix is nothing to write home about, either. There isn't much background noise, but the dialog is a little soft at times and the levels are inconsistent throughout the film. As usual, there are no extras on the disc.
Though it moves slowly and is a little dry, The Human Factor has a well-written, interesting espionage film that feels realistic and is quite enjoyable overall. With the wealth of talent behind it, the film doesn't seem as good as it could have been, but all of these great actors together in one film should spark the interest of more than a few viewers. Moderately recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R