Monday Editor’s Pick: The Human Factor (1979)

by on September 12, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Sept 19 at 4:30, 6:50*, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

*Q&A with film critic Dave Kehr at 6:50 show


Seven films showcased in Kehr’s new book “When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade” play in the BAM series, thru Sept 28.


As most reviews of the book note, Kehr sincerely backed a few oddball choices with great sincerity and articulateness. Preminger’s last film, an adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, is no exception.


Kehr on The Human Factor:

Preminger has achieved a drama of pure surfaces (though it is anything but superficial), devoid of emotional appeals to the audience, free of directorial judgment of the characters, and purged of the seductive highs and lows of narrative texture. The Human Factor plays out in an even, uninflected flow of events and images. No single episode is given a value over any other, as Preminger untwists the contortions of plot into a clean, straight line. The film seems to consist entirely of exposition, of the careful gathering of information, unrelieved by confrontation or climax. And yet, when the climax does come, it cuts deeply and truly. Preminger has violated every commonsense rule of cinematic expressiveness and dramatic construction, and his risk has gained him a uniquely affecting work – unique, because I can’t imagine the style working again for anyone else. Preminger has earned it with his intransigence and experimentation over the last two decades; in the hands of another director, lacking Preminger’s commitment and assurance, it could only lead to debacle.



A few reviews of Kehr’s book…


Todd VanDerWerff for the Onion AV Club:

A new collection of some of Kehr’s favorite reviews from his days at the Chicago Reader from 1974 to 1986—first delves into his top films of the year throughout that period, at least for the years in which he chose one. His essays on American classics like Melvin And Howard and Days Of Heaven nestle comfortably next to more esoteric choices, like The Aviator’s Wife or Blake Edwards’ 10, whose review here should prompt some sort of critical reappraisal.


Kehr is a dense, wordy writer, who will go on at length about the connections between John Carpenter’s first three films just as much as he’ll pry apart the elemental symbolism in Days Of Heaven. (His reading of that film as being about a Biblical battle between earth, water, and fire is masterful.) He can be contrarian—his top-10 lists don’t list such mainstays of the era as Raging Bull or Woody Allen—but he’s never at a loss for a way to explain his exact feelings on a piece, or to dig deeper into why a film might work for its intended audience. He’s the kind of critic most critics aspire to be, and anyone wishing to learn more about film writing would do well to start here.


J.R. Jones for Kehr’s old stomping grounds, the Chicago Reader:

Readers who know Kehr mainly through his pithy capsule reviews may be surprised by the level of passion in these long pieces, though that passion is always elegantly phrased and modestly subordinated to the filmmaker’s designs. In fact that skillful melding of feeling and intellect may be the book’s signal accomplishment: Kehr trades heavily in cinematic technique, but his excitement over what makes a filmmaker tick is so palpable that this appreciation of form seldom seems dry or academic. (An exception that proves the rule is his arcane piece on Carl Theodor Dreyer, a filmmaker whose spiritual depth has defeated many a film writer before and since.)


Again, the key to Kehr’s persuasiveness is his humility: he fully acknowledges that Godard’s later films are rough sledding, and though his appreciation and understanding of them are impressive, one never gets the sense that he’s elevating himself above his readers. Cinephiles can be a tiresome bunch because, while they bemoan the obscurity of their auteurist heroes, they often seem to savor the feeling of being culturally elite—they’re like indie-rock kids who get mad when their favorite band catches on with the jocks. When Movies Mattered reminds me that a critic’s ultimate mission should be to invite people in, not wall them out. Kehr’s sincere championing of both highbrow and supposedly lowbrow movies seems even more vital now. As he rightly observes in his introduction, “At the moment, American movie criticism seems divided (with some exceptions) between two poles: quick hit, consumerist sloganeering on Internet review sites and television shows, and full-bore academia, with its dense, uninviting thickets of theoretical jargon.”


Kevin Canfield for Film Comment (March/April 2011):

In the introduction to this admirable compilation of criticism, Dave Kehr notes that contemporary movie-reviewing typically falls into a couple of categories:”quick-hit consumerist sloganeering” and “full-bore academia.” And in the space between, you’ll find countless underserved readers. Kehr’s diagnosis highlights what’s so persuasive about his own work collected here from his tenure as critic for the Chicago Reader from 1 974-86 (plus one essay that appeared in a 1984 issue of Film Comment). Straddling the boundary between old media The New York Times, where he pens a weekly DVD column) and new (, his popular blog), Kehr writes in a way that merges an enthusiasm for Innovation with an exhaustive knowledge of film history.


Kehr also has a knack for divining links between seemingly disparate moments in cinema. Inai 984 review of Sudden Impact, he spots the similarities between Clint Eastwood and Buster Keaton:”The opening sections of Sudden Impact suggest the cyclone finale of Steamboat Bill, Jr.: wherever Buster goes, buildings collapse . . . wherever Dirty Harry goes, someone is pulling a stickup or tossing Molotov cocktails in the backseat of his car.” The Tom Cruise vehicle Risky Business finds Kehr thinking of the master:”As in a Hitchcock film, the first transgression opens the door to a swirl of surrealistic, disorienting events.”


Alluding to an era in print journalism when he could “slip in a two thousand word review of a three-hour film by a forgotten Portuguese director,” Kehr laments that the freedom I knew at the Chicago Reader is something I suspect I will never recover.” He might be right – which makes this collection all the more essential.



A case study in the contrast between Kehr’s fresh analysis and the critical consensus on The Human Factor


Roger Angell for the New Yorker:

The picture is a failure of such serious dimensions that we must try to reconstruct how it happened, as if preparing a coroner’s report. The story, in extreme brief, concerns a minor, steady, functionary in British intelligent, Maurice Castle, in works in a backwater of “the Firm” in London and lives in suburban Berkhamsted with his wife, Sarah, and her young son, Sam; she is black, and the boy, in fact, is hers by a previous alliance in South Africa, where she and Castle met and under understandably painful circumstances, fell in love. A leak of information to the Russians is uncovered in Castle’s headquarters, and by the time a rather desultory investigations is ended, Castle’s young associate and friend, Davis, has been murdered – intentionally but wrongly, by his own side – and Castle has fled to Moscow (as he is the source of the leak) and is cut off for good from his family. The complexity of these events and the inadequacy of my precis begin to suggest the problems that the films run into. Green’s meaning as a writer emerges from an almost silently conveyed feeling of darkness and despair – an amalgam of useless loyalties, burned-out emotions, spiritual exhaustion, and an unepxungeable loneliness. Sometimes this condition can seem strangely and movingly funny (consider The Third Man), but it is almost unbearable to think about for long.


In the movie of The Human Factor, this tone – and tone is the most elusive quality in fiction, and the hardest to reconstruct – it almost inaudible, because the picture has leaped for all the more obvious and enticing qualities of plot and place, scene and dialogue and development.



The Human Factor is a film about hidden feelings in which feelings are hidden from the camera. The images seem designed to express, wrenchingly, nothing more than their own expressiveness – blank faces against blank backgrounds. The film covers a wide range of settings – from an English country house to a cold-water flat in Moscow – but all of the interiors acquire an eerie sameness in their lack of detail: in the naked, evenly painted or blandly papered walls, in the sprase furnishings too neatly arranged. None of the rooms look lived in – and none of them has been, not in any real sense. the characters move through them uncomfortably; they are cold, inhospitable, and belong to no one, decorated not to reflect a personality, but to confine it, deny it.



Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic (Feb 1980):

Greene’s The Human Factor is centered elsewhere, and the lack of religious tension contributes to its central weakness. That weakness comes through strongly in the film. There is no drama. The story has only the elements of drama, and they are joined too late, too feebly. How different were so many previous Greene stories where we were meshed from the beginning in the anguish of the protagonist, a man struggling to keep his word to both the immediate and the infinite. In The Human Factor the protagonist just goes about his daily life, with flashbacks laid in (we think) merely to explain his marriage to a black African, When the revelation comes, it doesn’t compensate for the long, seeming placidity; and the finish merely leaves him punished. That’s a low, literal conclusion for a Greene story, without any of the usual subtlety and transcendence. The film’s theme is as flaccid as its drama.


Otto Preminger, who directed, is 73, and except for some of the joinings of the flashbacks, is in pretty good form, with some sharp compositions in even such commonplace settings as office anterooms, Preminger has often said that he doesn’t like to work on novels that are easy to transpose to the screen. This time, however, it wasn’t interesting difficulty, it was fundamental dimness that was the trouble; and Preminger hasn’t licked it.



Greene’s novel is exquisitely structured, full of deft twists and turns. But while Preminger adheres to the outline of Greene’s plotting, he takes the film in a different direction, using the carefully locked chain of events to move down into the soul of his protagonist – for Preminger, plot is character. The Human Factor moves through a series of revelations about Castle – from the fact that this narrow, conservative suburbanite has a black wife and child, along to the ultimate exposure of his double-agent status – but Preminger’s presentation of the material is so unemphatic, so casual, that the word revelation hardly seems to apply.


Greene sets out Castle’s dilemma as a moral paradox – he is torn between two loyalties, one to his wife and family, one less selfish, more abstract. Some information thas come into his hands that could prevent a wholesale slaughter but to pass the information along would mean exposure as a double agent. But Preminger, maintaining his distanced point of view, doesn’t focus on the struggles of conscience that occupy Greene’s protagonist – and that, for Greene, are also the climax of his Catholic fixation. Instead, Preminger handles Castle’s decision to defect with the same matter-of-factness that has come before: it is less a choice than the logical consequence of the character’s humanity, and it is reached without visible conflict. Given who he is, there is nothing else he can do. The qualities that bind him to his wife are the qualities the force him to leave her. Preminger presents his harsh conclusions as if it were the last step in a complicated theorem: he has logically proven the horror of logic.



Chris Fujiwara in his book The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger:

The restraint of the mise-en-scene is, no doubt, appropriate to the subject of the film, though it is impossible to avoid the feeling that the Preminger of 1969, to say nothing of 1949, would have got more movement into it. that the Preminger who made The Human Factor was psychically tired, more aware of his limits than his old self, and less willing to test them is obvious. Still the sense of tiredness, of going through the motions, that pervades much of The Human Factor proves appropriate to the slack and static atmosphere in which Green’s story is set and that gives it its special mood. And no one can say whether Preminger chose this manner of directing The Human Factor because he was too old and tired to do anything else, or whether he chose The Human Factor as material because it suited his condition and his inclinations.


Kehr says:

Over the years, Preminger’s style has changed as radically as Renoir’s – perhaps even more so. The features of his 40s style – gliding camera movements, chiaroscuro lighting, and intense, long takes – find their blunt contradiction in the hard, flat images of his latest work, The Human Factor. The contrast is so striking that I’m afraid many viewers will take one look at the shallow, closed-in compositions of the new film, think back to the depth and complexity of Laura‘s visual style, and conclude that Preminger has abruptly subcumbed to senility. From its opening shot – a view of a small, sterile office, taken with a short lens that pounds out the perspective into a flat, uninviting space – The Human Factor is startling, abrasive, and dismaying. But as the film gathers force and detail, the restlessly banal images take on a kind of beauty – a functional beauty, in that they continue to embody the precision and clarity that have always been the basis of Preminger’s mise-en-scene, and also a beauty of brinkmanship, the thrill of an artist dancing on the edge, openly courting disaster.



Fujiwara does find some aspects to admire:

Greene’s metaphor of people living in boxes (explained by Dr. Percival in the novel with reference to a room decorated with Ben Nicholson lithographs; the film substitutes Mondrian for Nicholson) becomes the controlling visual idea of the film. Percival articulates to Daintry nothing less than a worldview: “Boxes. All part of the same picture. Each one separate, but held in perfect balance. Everyone to his own box, you in yours, I in mine. No responsibility for the next man’s box.” The box metaphor takes on a sinister resonance with the South African government’s secret plan to use tactical nuclear weapons to create an “invisible wall” to seal off their country from the north. (In Bonjour Tristesse, Cecille spoke of being surrounded by an “invisible wall made of memories I can’t lose.”) The film’s last box is Castle’s Moscow apartment, a studio set whose unconvincing view of a Moscow skyline through a window makes the room’s desolation and isolation more inescapable. Throughout The Human Factor, characters are imprisoned and pinned to precise areas of the screen: Sarah between a lamp and a TV set while talking on the phone with Castle; Castle shot through a pane of glass in a phone box. One of the mos striking shots of the film, Daintry, calling Percival from a pup to inform the doctor that he killed the wrong man, is framed in a small window in the background behind the L-shaped bar as the camera slowly zooms in on him from the other side of the bar.


Roderick Heath for the blog This Island Rod:

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.


Kehr concludes:

Through its fierce repression of emotion, The Human Factor emerges as Preminger’s most passionate film. When the characters’ feelings are finally allowed to surface in the last sequence, the effect is devastating – it’s like a flash into color at the end of a black-and-white film. Not that it is a simple effect or rhetorical cloruish: Preminger has carefully hoarded his treasure, and to finally share in it is to have a glimpse of a rare and precious thing, an emotion sanctified by its scarcity. In The Human Factor, Preminger has followed his ingrained attitudes and stylistic preferences to their outermost extreme: it is a way of testing his most deeply held beliefs and a way of feeling their limitations most strongly.


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