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HUMAN FACTOR, THE(director: Otto Preminger; screenwriter: from a book by Graham Greene/Tom Stoppard; cinematographer: Mike Malloy; editor: Richard Trevor; music: Richard Logan; cast: Richard Attenborough (Col. John Daintry), Nicol Williamson (Maurice Castle), Joop Doderer (Cornelius Muller), John Gielgud (Brigadier Tomlinson), Derek Jacobi (Arthur Davis), Robert Morley (Doctor Percival), Ann Todd (Castle’s Mother), Iman (Sarah), Imam (Sarah), Richard Vernon (Sir John Hargreaves), Paul Curran (Halliday), Tony Vogel (Connelly), Adrienne Corri (Sylvia), Gary Forbes (Sam); Runtime: 115; United Artists; 1980-UK/USA)
“The last film made by Otto Preminger.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The last film made by Otto Preminger is scripted by Tom Stoppard and is an accurate adaptation of Grahan Greene’s novel about loyalty and esponiage, yet it fails to reach any impactful tones as it seems starchy and uninspiring. The film has all the spy details of an intriguing chess game played, but it has no soul. It is only mildly interesting because of its interracial love story and as a comical look at some character quirks given off by the spies. The film itself completely breaks down by the end, as the final scene in Russia is poorly executed and hardly believable. The film ends up with nothing to say about the spy business that isn’t a clich√©. There were a few welcomed moments of sardonic humor, as it portrays the banality of evil through Robert Morley’s grand performance; a good look at loneliness through Richard Attenborough’s keen performance as a divorced man without any friends–he reluctantly takes a stranger to his daughter’s wedding because he has no one else to ask; and, through Nicol Williamson’s solid performance as a white man married to a black woman, who just wants to be a homebody. All other characters were dispatched as cardboard figures, slotted into roles that fit too conveniently into the story and were given no other importance.

In a London Foreign Office, two lowly desk spies, the senior Maurice Castle (Williamson) and the younger licentious bachelor Arthur Davis (Jacobi), work well together despite their different personalities. Castle is married to a black South African woman, Sarah (Iman), whom he met while stationed in Africa. She has a black 7-year-old son from her former boyfriend who died in an accident. He’s conservative, thrifty, a stay at home type, and has a very dull personality. Davis is women hungry, a spendthrift, and is a leftist who votes for the Labor Party programs.

Through the office head, word comes that a Russian defector mentioned there is a ‘mole’ in the Foreign Office. The new security man, Colonel Daintry (Attenborough), quizzes the men and believes the leaks can be attributed to the men taking their briefcases out of the office. The consensus among the administrators is that Davis is doing the leaking because of all the foibles in his personality. The agency doctor, Dr. Percival (Morley), plants false info to trap Davis and decides to inject him with a chemical that will bring on a fatal liver disease to eliminate the suspected mole without any adverse publicity.

When a South African official, Muller (Doderer), visits Britain and Castle is asked to accompany him, bad memories come back to him about the racist he is now asked to entertain. In flashback we see how Castle was introduced to Sarah by a Communist lawyer, Connelly, and when he was prevented from being with Sarah because of the Apartheid laws, Connelly helped smuggle her out to England. He has worked for the last seven years for the Commies, even though he’s not a Communist or a believer in their cause. He does it only to pay Connelly back, as he passes on minor economic info to him.

Muller is now working on a secret project called Uncle Remus, which has his segregationist government allied with America and Great Britain against the Russians. The hope is that Russia does not get a foothold in Africa. When Castle tries to rethink what he is doing, alarmed at what might happen to Davis–it’s too late and his secure life falls apart. In Moscow, his world is further crushed when he realizes that both Connelly and Russia betrayed him.

It remains a well-crafted but rather tedious effort, with only the sparkling performances from its outstanding cast giving the film some spark.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”