'Human Factor' cast outclasses movie

At one point in "The Human Factor," two intelligence men discuss the possible "elimination" of a colleague, suspected of being a double agent. A third man is deeply troubled by this conversation. Later he is visited by the physician who will eventually carry out the killing. Pointing to a painting by Mondrian -- rectangles arranged in a delicate balance -- the doctor explains that all intelligence agents must live in separate little "boxes." Let out superiors fit the pieces together, he enjoins. For ourselves, we must rest content with the squares that have been allotted to us. If clouds of mystery swirl about us, perhaps even bringing violence in their wake, we must do our best to ignore them.

It's easy to see why Otto Preminger became interested in this situation. As a visual storyteller, Preminger has explicitly rejected the notion of separate "boxes" for different personalities. Indeed, one of his favorite devices is to put a pair of opposing characters together on the screen -- and let them talk, talk, talk, with no editing or editorializing by the camera.

This device crops up frequently in Preminger's new movie version of Graham Greene's superb spy novel. Like many of Preminger's pictures, it's an objective , stand-offish kind of film. It doesn't reach out for our emotions, or plead for our involvement. Rather, it spreads issues across the screen, and waits passively for us to make up our minds. Does this reflect a laudable detachment on Preminger's part? Or is it simply weakness, resulting from the absence of style? It's up to the viewer to decide.

Assessment of "The Human Factor" is complicated by two other factors. One is the picture's apparently limited budget. This is a cheap-looking film, full of threadbare visuals and fuzzy sound. Fortunately, Preminger is enough of an artist to overcome many of these problems, and even to integrate some of them into the flow of the film. Near the end, for example, the hero is sequestered in a small Moscow apartment. By this time the movie appears to have run out of money altogether -- and yet the tackiness is appropriate to the situation, right down to the painted-looking "view" from the window.

More important in judging "The Human Factor" is Preminger's fidelity to the complexities and nuances of Greene's novel. The protagonist is a man of divided loyalties. He is a Britisher, married to a black South African woman, and considering himself a "naturalized black." He despises communism, yet he secretly helps communist agents -- convinced that they represent less of a threat to his wife's people than the machinations of London, Washington, and Pretoria. Torn by self-doubt, he worries that he is a "traitor." Yet his wife rallies to his support, insisting that he hasm been true to the most important country of all -- the private "country" comprising himself and his family.

Hence the title of "The Human Factor," which is prefaced -- in Greene's novel -- with the admonition that abstract ideals can never remain whole and pure in people who have been touched by private loves and personal attachments. Tom Stoppard's screenplay remains remarkably close to Greene's original, successfully transferring many of the book's fascinating questions about the manifold ambiguities of life, love, and loyalty. The novel's intrinsically mournful quality also remains intact, though the film packs less visceral impact than did the printed version of the yarn. (Again, Preminger's elaborate objectivity seems to be the reason.).

Helping to compensate for the movie's shabby trappings is a first-rate cast. Richard Attenborough and Nicol Williamson are just right as spies plagued with all the banalities of everyday living, and it's always fun to come across Robert Morley in a major part, though he must drop that habit of rounding his lips and eyes all the time. John Gielgud also pops up briefly. The protagonist's wife is played by a lovely new actress named Iman, who makes more impression with her incredibly graceful movements than with her flat speaking voice.

A critic once characterized Preminger's visual style as encompassing the "eternal conflict" between right-wrong and wrong-right, with the implication that absolute lines can rarely be drawn in an imperfect world. "The Human Factor" brims over with provocative questions about this eternal conflict, and about the emotions -- of love and anguish alike -- that accompany it. As such, it is a splendidly appropriate project for Otto Preminger, even though he hasn't succeeded at making the most of it.

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