The Human Factor (1979) has cachet to burn in its creative lineup: Otto Preminger’s last directorial effort is based on a Graham Greene novel, features a Tom Stoppard script, and even boasts a credit sequence from Saul Bass. So, how’s the film? Well, spy fiction afficionados will enjoy it; I certainly did. For others viewers, I suspect mileage will vary wildly.
MI-6 has a leak, and its new security man, Colonel John Daintry (Richard Attenborough), has been assigned to plug it. Based on information passed back from a Moscow agent, it’s suspected that someone on the Africa desk is responsible, but is it mild-mannered bureaucrat Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson), or his hard-drinking bachelor colleague Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi)? MI-6’s higher-ups hatch a low-key scheme to catch the traitor out so they can quietly deal with the scandal, but a tangle of circumstances escalates the situation from a quiet matter to a shattering tragedy.
Structurally, The Human Factor is a satisfying espionage puzzle with a complex, devious plot that entangles callous intelligence officers and innocent bystanders alike. The focus is less on action and suspense than on the mundane needs and desires of desk-bound servants whose personal and professional lives get hopelessly tangled. It’s less Bond than Smiley, then; indeed, in terms of style and ambience, le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People adaptations starring Alec Guinness are obvious touchstones. It’s also of a piece with The Sandbaggers, which has a similar focus on the grubby corridors of intelligence world bureacracy. (The appearance of Richard Vernon here, in a role not dissimilar to his Sandbaggers one, further cements this comparison.) Fans of these properties will find plenty to like in The Human Factor.
On the other hand, there’s a certain flatness of affect to the drama. Attenborough, Jacobi, and a gleefully sinister Robert Morley all have their usual spark, but the story relies heavily on a sparkless romance between Castle and his South African wife Sarah (Iman). Williamson is well cast as a good-natured civil servant, but there’s little chemistry. Other key roles are filled by actors who deliver in distancing monotone, and occasional scenes are awkwardly staged, framing actors in conversation who weirdly aren’t looking at each other. Viewers not entranced by the plot will probably find themselves bored.
Nonetheless I enjoyed the movie, which despite its flaws is much better than many of Spy 100 list’s entries. If for no other reasons, its elegant plot and unusual geographic focus render it a memorable, worthy entry in the spy film canon.