The Human Factor
1975 / Colour / 95 m. / UK
Starring: George Kennedy, John Mills, Raf Vallone, Barry Sullivan, Rita Tushingham, Tom Hunter, Shane Rimmer, Haydee Politoff, Arthur Franz, Fiamma Verges
Cinematography: Ousama Rawi
Art Director: Peter Mullins
Film Editor: Alan Strachan
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by: Thomas Hunter and Peter Powell
Produced by: Frank Avianca
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
John Kinsdale (George Kennedy) is a NATO computer expert attached to the organization’s southern European base in Naples. A terrorist cell have threatened to randomly target American citizens living in the locality if their demands for ten million dollars and the release of certain political prisoners are not met and Kinsdale’s family soon become their first victims. With the Italian police, led by Dr Lupo (Raf Vallone), and the US security services all failing to get a proper lead on the terrorists’ identities or whereabouts, Kinsdale and his workmate Mike McAllister (John Mills) use NATO’s computers to tap into a worldwide on-line network that allows them to effect their own investigation. However, once he’s got a fix on the terrorists, Kinsdale decides to go after them himself.
While they are often routinely dismissed as being cynical Dirty Harry (1971) rip-offs, Christopher Barry (2004) has suggested that the Italian poliziottesco (crime/cop) films from the 1970s were in fact cultural productions that reflected the Italian public’s increasing anxieties about judicial corruption, inconsistent policing practices and political extremism. An English production shot on location in Italy, The Human Factor seemingly seeks to align itself with the more politically themed poliziottesco entries. Shoehorning a Death Wish (1974)-like revenge narrative into a political Euro crime-cum-thriller framework results in a film that bears the trappings of exploitation cinema at times and it’s quite interesting to see respected mainstream talent such as George Kennedy, John Mills and Raf Vallone getting to grips with material of this nature.
The film’s novel narrative hook involving the protagonist’s unauthorized use of computers to gather secret intelligence information – as well as more humdrum fare – from a range of diverse but networked electronic resources and databases has perhaps been rendered completely passé by the proliferation of computer and communications technology that has been made available to the general public over the past twenty years. The show undoubtedly employs some artistic license during its networked computer-orientated scenes but, in 1975, few people would have known about the existence of real proto-Internet computer communication networks such as ARPANET and the film’s revelation that those in the know could actually patch into computers worldwide via telephone line modems must have played like science fiction to most of The Human Factor’s original audiences.
That said, the technology-induced paranoia and worry that the film’s narrative focuses on has become a relevant concern for many today. The Human Factor’s depictions of ‘Big Brother’-style invasions of privacy (as represented by the unauthorised compilation and storage of personal information in computer databases) and its representations of illicit hacking activities, on-line tracking and the use of computer programs to predict human behavior or influence human decision-making were incredibly prescient.
It’s actually a response from a computer that sets up the atmosphere of suspense that makes the audience want to stick around and see just what’s going to become of Kinsdale and his quest for revenge. Although he’s physically strong by virtue of his huge frame, Kinsdale is an overweight, unfit, past-middle age desk jockey who is not properly qualified, equipped or indeed trained to go head to head with merciless professional killers. When McAllister and a female colleague, Janice (Rita Tushingham), feed data relating to Kinsdale into the “event probability program” of a computer housed at the Delaware Bay Institute’s human behavior department, the computer predicts that he will turn vigilante whilst warning that he only has an eight percent chance of surviving a confrontation with the terrorists.
With his quest for revenge predicted to fail spectacularly, a tension is set up within the film’s narrative that effectively pits the over-rational powers of analysis associated with computers against those unpredictable courses of action that human agency grants to desperate individuals who are in search of a quick solution to their immediate problems.
It becomes apparent that using pure logic to analyse Kinsdale’s predicament resulted in the computer failing to take account of the “human” factor of the film’s title. It’s the human factor that ultimately motivates Kinsdale and in turn dictates his desperate and sometimes seemingly illogical actions. Kinsdale is by no means at all a cool, calm and collected killing machine in the mould of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey character from Death Wish. Unlike Kersey, who has come to terms with his grief and taken time to formulate a covert revenge strategy of sorts, Kinsdale is an emotional wreck who is teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown.
His need to succeed in exacting his revenge before the Italian police or the US security services apprehend him forces Kinsdale to pursue an increasingly reckless and often ill-thought out course of action. The use of NATO’s computer resources and a lot of luck – the theft of a security services investigator’s ID card and a meeting with a loose-tongued US official (Barry Sullivan) – is all Kinsdale needs to track down his quarry. But when he finally meets the terrorists face to face, it begins to look like the computer’s prediction that his mission would fail was accurate.
The Human Factor is essentially an exploitation movie but the crowd-pleasing spectacles that are generated by Kinsdale’s vigilante revenge trip are offset by periods of reflection that do question the moral soundness and validity of Kinsdale’s actions. McAllister only assists his work colleague because he believes that Kinsdale will ultimately make their findings known to the authorities and let them deal with the terrorists. Both McAllister and Janice deliver stern lectures to Kinsdale, offering the opinion that what he is doing is wrong and imploring him to work with the Italian police or the US security services instead.
When Kinsdale does eventually make a move on the terrorists, his actions are shown to only make matters worse: when the terror cell realize that somebody is on to them, they break cover, abandon their slow burning, long-term agenda and recklessly go for broke. But in spite of the many calls for Kinsdale to allow the proper authorities to tackle the terrorists, the film offers little in the way of faith in those self same authorities: the overriding impression given is that much of the mayhem and tragedy that unfolds here could have been avoided if the lack of trust – and the lack of information sharing – that defines the US security force’s relationship with the Italian police had been addressed sooner.
Shot on location in Italy in a somewhat indifferent yet wholly serviceable manner by director Edward Dmytryk, The Human Factor is marred by a storyline that features a potentially confusing element or two. The film is no classic but it should appeal to fans of European crime dramas and political thrillers from the 1970s. Indeed, the film’s general look, its bleak tone and its urban settings serve to link the show to a number of entries found within the poliziottesco genre. Further links to that genre can be found in the police procedural activities of Dr Lupo, the menacing stomp of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack score, the show’s reasonably well-executed big car chase sequence and its violent and action-packed – if slightly too brief – finale.
George Kennedy looks a little bit uncomfortable in a couple of scenes but, for the most part, he turns in some very good work here. An unlikely action hero in many respects, Kennedy’s performance prompts plenty of audience sympathy for his Kinsdale character. The rest of the cast are on reasonably good form too though the appearances by Rita Tushingham, Barry Sullivan and Arthur Franz can only really be described as being extended cameos. All in all, The Human Factor is something of an oddity that remains interesting due to the prescient nature of its depictions of the great power that is held by those who control – or can access – networked computers and their attendant databases.
Psychotronic Cinemas rating: Good
© Copyright 2007, 2016 Lee Broughton.