BOXED IN: OTTO PREMINGER’S THE HUMAN FACTOR (1979)

June 25, 2013

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“The dullest movie ever made.” -Rex Reed, review of The Human Factor

Nothing much happens in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of The Human Factor. A group of gray men sit in poorly upholstered rooms and talk about cheesemongers and malted milk balls. The detente between Eastern and Western powers reduces the workload of the bored British secret service agents to whinging and paper pushing. So when an inconsequential leak is uncovered, it is treated as a matter of national security, the boys gifted a bone to gnaw on. They end up gnawing on each other, their whole world reduced to a series of boxes that splits and drains them. Their deaths are as dull as their lives, but the emotions held in check by these relentlessly logical manipulators – fear, doubt, loneliness – curls the wallpaper in its repressed intensity. Newly released on DVD by Warner Archive in an un-restored transfer (the print shows plenty of wear and tear but it was certainly watchable), this final film of Otto Preminger pushes his dispassion to a radical extreme.

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Preminger was at a low ebb in his career, scrambling to source funding after a string of 1970s box office failures. He had a number of projects fall through, including a bio-pic of  Mao Tse-tung’s Canadian physician and a recreation of the hostage rescue at Entebbe Airport in Uganda by Israeli Defense Forces. Then he nabbed the rights to Graham Greene’s novel The Human Factor through his Sigma Productions a few weeks before the book’s release. He had previously optioned Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case in 1967, but nothing came of it. This time he pushed it through, with financing promised from the inexperienced producer Paul Crosfield, which later fell through. While on a location shoot in Nairobi, his crew’s checks started bouncing, and to avoid a mutiny he bankrolled the feature himself, selling his house and two Matisses, though still having to slash the budget by $2 million (he managed to keep one of Saul Bass’ most memorable opening montages). The Human Factor would put Preminger in debt for years.

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An eager Tom Stoppard was hired to adapt the screenplay. Stoppard claimed that, “if Otto had said I can’t pay you but you’ll get one or two lunches with Graham Greene, I might have done the job. I was much more nervous of displeasing Greene than I was of displeasing Otto.” He delivered a very faithful script, so much so that Greene expressed surprise, telling Stoppard he “needn’t have stuck so closely to the original.” The story concerns Castle (Nicol Williamson), a  lifelong diplomat with a wife and kids and the whole middle-class shebang. When MI6 discovers a small leak of economic information into the USSR, Col. Daintry (Richard Attenborough) and Dr. Percival (Robert Morley) begin investigating the African department, including Castle and his partner Davis (Derek Jacobi). Circumstantial evidence damns Davis, but it is Castle who was living a double life, one that begins to collapse.

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The dry, procedural script served Preminger’s purposes, in any case, and after failing to snag Michael Caine or Richard Burton for the lead role, he settled on Nicol Williamson. Williamson is ideal for the self-effacing part of Castle, a pasty company man of rumpled shirts and clammy handshakes. It is hard to imagine Caine or Burton disappearing into the background as humbly as Williamson. As Castle’s South African wife Sarah, Preminger tapped Supermodel Iman, for her film debut. Since his discovery of Jean Seberg in Saint Joan, Preminger considered himself an actress whisperer, but Iman never gets into the flat declamatory flow of spy-speak, her halting line readings registering as stilted.

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Preminger was insistent at a flat, drab look across locations, so an English country estate would looks as nondescript as Castle’s peeling suburban home or Spartan office. In Chris Fujiwara’s critical study, The World and Its Double, director of photography Mike Molloy recalls he, “started out trying to light it with a bit of mood to it and a bit of contrast, and he [Preminger] had an apoplexy at the first batch of rushes.” Fujiwara writes that he “complained of not being able to see the actors’ eyes”, making Molloy use flat and direct light. He used a 20mm lens and placed it in the corners of rooms, getting wide shots of the decrepit interiors, the actors just another piece of furniture, what Dave Kehr described as a “drama of pure surfaces…purged of the seductive highs and lows of traditional narrative texture.”

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In a pivotal speech, the casually sadistic Dr. Percival points at a Mondrian print and expounds: “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 upsetting of this monastic balance is Percival’s cause for justifiable homicide. Preminger seems to take his line as a formal decree, the film as a whole is a series of discrete boxes, those corner shots emphasizing the boundedness of the interiors, cells which only lead to other cells. Castle, eventually smoked out and isolated in Moscow (rendered in chintzy backdrop at Pinewood Studios), realizes he is caught in this labyrinth of logical bureaucratic design, partly of his own making. It is only then that Castle, and Preminger, can vibrate the surface of the film’s rational design, Williamson’s tears expressing a profound regret at a lost love now safely locked away in another impregnable box across the ocean.

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