Edward Dmytryk was no slouch director. His resume includes such excellent fare as The Caine Mutiny, The Left Hand of God, and The Carpetbaggers. So it isn't totally surprising that a relatively low budget Italian produced revenge picture, shot in 1975 at the height of revenge cinema, would be not only well done, but damn fun to watch. Sure, it's a knock off of 1974's Death Wish, the first 1970's "revenge" film, but it's a damn bit smarter.
The script by Thomas Hunter and Peter Powell (the men later responsible for one of the 1970's most overlooked Sci-Fi gems - The Final Countdown), manage to put together the first true technological thriller that isn't science fiction. Hunter and Powell milk every telecommunications and data networking technology available at the time, database searches? They have them. Cracked phone and travel records? Got em! Surreptitious computer-to-computer communication? Oh yeah baby, it's there!! This film is like a Home Brew Computer Club porn film.
Meet John Kinsdale (George Kennedy), he's a computer programmer working for NATO. He's stationed in Italy and lives with his loving wife and kids while maintaining his day-to-day routine of programming simulated events of nuclear war for the NATO brass. He likes his job, and sure maybe he works too much, but he's a good father and husband. But things are tough on he and mom's relationship; they need someone to occasionally watch the kids so they can get some alone time. A sitter sure would be a good idea.
One late evening John returns home to find every single member of his family dead; executed gangland style. The bodies are flown back to the USA for burial in their home town. John doesn't accompany them. With his family gone it's as if he has become unanchored. Should he mourn? Should he get away from the whole scene and try to put things into perspective? Should he go home to the comfort and sympathy of his friends and family? Should he shoot himself in the head?
Maybe he could put that .45 automatic to better use than offing himself. Maybe it would work better as a "kill them" device than a "kill himself" device?
The cops can't help. Because he's an American citizen the local constabulary puts only a single detective on the case and he's overworked and sort of lazy. The FBI men who come to aid in the investigation don't even bother talking to John, they have a suspect in mind, but aren't talking.
John thought has something neither cops nor the FBI have on hand. He has a ginormous mainframe computer (as powerful as a modern digital watch!), better yet, it's networked into both DARPANET and ARPANET. If he can use the computer to sift the information he collects then it might be possible to identify the killers and bring them to justice.
And this, for the next 90 minutes is exactly what John does.
The Human Factor of the title refers to what John does when he finally gets all this information collated. He acts on it, and oh man, the last fifteen minutes of this film are stunningly good, so good I watched the end four times in a row.
When you think of men of action it's hard to picture George Kennedy as one, and he isn't much of an action star in The Human Factor either. This is one of the personality traits of his character that makes him so endearing. The audience can see he's hurting and everyday he gets a little closer to the people who whacked his wife and kids he slips a little further into the shadows of insanity. He's also 6.5 feet tall and about 250 pounds, which puts him at least a foot taller than every single other character in the film. He wades through Italy like Gulliver. And when he finally unleashes his George-Kennedy-impervious-to-bullets cans of whoopass on the punks who killed his family it's like a small-scale Godzilla movie.
Sharing the stage with him is his right hand man Mike McCallister (John Mills) and their girl-pal and resident NATO psychologist Janice (Rita Tushingham). John Mills is a veteran of some 130 films and brings decades of experience to the role moving effortlessly between enthusiasm and pathos. Enthusiasm because his character is a data nut, and it doesn't matter that all of the data he's collecting will be used for a retaliatory mass murder, he's just happy to crunch number and see where they lead. Later, when he knows what John's about to embark on he tried desperately to talk his friend out of what should be a suicide mission. Rita Tushington is no slouch either, with 20 films under her belt by 1975 and while she's painfully underused here her worries for John's sanity are well realized. She has no romantic attachment to him but, like any friend who knows you are about to do something extremely dangerous, conveys a keen sense of dread when John's plan is made clear.
The score by Ennio Morricone is surprisingly bland and boring.
A note about the technology in this film. I realize that watching this some 31 years after it was released will make many of us in the audience snicker at the goofy 9-key entry systems and paper-tape program rolls on display here, but like any piece of technology, it's how those tools are put to use that makes them effective in a film. Here the computers are not super intelligent machines that answer questions, they just help the main characters get data relevant to very specific questions. Just like computers today, and just like computers today they rely on us to make something important out of that data they fetch. Rather than, say, focusing on how the computers work (as in many of today's computer centric films Hackers, The Net, The Matrix etc…) The Human Factor specifically studies how we work with what the computer gives us. It's a great approach. Other computer-centric films of the same time period as The Human Factor inevitably focus on the dangers of computers being too smart like Gog or Colossus: The Forbin Project. So it's a breath of 1975 fresh air that The Human Factor is not a cautionary tale, but a thriller that in the wrong hands, could have easily gone very, very wrong.
Dark Sky releases The Human Factor in 1:85-1 widescreen. It's funny, the print looked fine on my regular TV, but sort of blurry and washed out on my computer monitor. Go figure. There are a few scratches and nicks in the transfer and the color is a little washed out, but that doesn't matter at all. Anyone who stumbles into this will be too interested in John's revenge to notice. The DVD also contains a short interview with George Kennedy as well as a stills gallery and the TV spot for the film.
I'd have LOVED a commentary track for this, but alas, none was to be had.