The opening scenes in The “Human” Factor dramatize the humdrum but happy family of John Kinsman (George Kennedy), a U.S. government computer programmer stationed in Naples. When he comes home one evening and finds his wife and children slaughtered, the grief-stricken man decides to take revenge. This leads him on the twisted path of finding who killed his family and why. In the process, he impedes the investigation of local Italian authorities, abuses government resources, and ends up running from the police himself after impersonating a NATO ambassador to get information.
Kennedy’s strong performance as Kinsman is the key to the film’s success. In addition to selling the grief and confusion over his family’s death, Kennedy’s stocky build and hang-dog face give the impression of a regular joe pushed to extremes. This is not a super-badass like Charles Bronson in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. When he’s chased on foot, Kinsman is visibly out of breath and ready to collapse. When he makes the decision to track his family’s murderers, he doesn’t run out guns blazing, trying to punch and maim his way to the killers. He does it the only way he knows how: with computers.
Obviously, in a movie that’s more than 30 years old, the technology will be dated. This isn’t as severe an issue as it could have been; Kinsman essentially uses a primitive version of Google to search international databases and learn the killers are terrorists who announced their political intentions to Interpol. The use of computers really only gets goofy and far-fetched when he uses an experimental computer program (which he helped to design) to analyze psychiatric profiles and tell him the terrorists’ modus operandi. (Of course, rudimentary forms of this technology exist today, but the key words are “rudimentary” and “30 years old”—it may have been easier to swallow back then, but in our computer-dominated world, it comes across as silly.)
Screenwriters Thomas Hunter and Peter Powell do a good job of making the “high-tech” clues plausible, but this isn’t Kinsman’s only method for tracking these terrorists. Once he discovers how they selected his family “at random” through a newspaper ad, Kinsman calls every American family who placed similar ads, which leads to an actual confrontation with the terrorists. In an effectively suspenseful sequence, he’s nearly shot by both the terrorists and the family he’s trying to save. However, it leads him to a woman’s purse loaded with clues that may lead right to the terrorists.
Modern audiences might not appreciate the slow pacing of the first hour. At times, it does rely too much on “wowing” the 1975 audience with the computer aspects. I’m a nerd, so I found the dialogue-free 90 seconds of George Kennedy unscrewing a phone receiver and plugging it into a computer input jack nostalgic and interesting. I can’t convince myself that other audience members will feel the same way.
Mostly, the pacing is in line with Kinsman’s old-fashioned detective work, slowly building suspense, lingering on Kinsman’s emotional pain as he discovers one of his daughter’s toys in the terrorists’ hideout. This quiet tone is occasionally punctuated with scenes of extreme violence, car chases, gunfights. It all leads to a climax where it seems Kinsman might finally get the revenge he so strongly desires. Director Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet; The Caine Mutiny) does an excellent job of letting this suspense fester so the payoff in the third act feels earned and gratifying.
This is not to say the film is perfect. There are occasional moments of hackneyed dialogue that not even the excellent cast (which includes Oscar winner John Mills and Italian actor Raf Vallone) can rise above. Several moments seem a little too convenient, none more than when one of the terrorists chases Kinsman into the courtyard of an apartment building and pins him down, and a long and deadly iron chain just happens to be resting on a chair within Kinsman’s reach. (All this on top of the aforementioned computer goofiness…)
Could more have been made of Kinsman’s government/military connection, in light of these politically motivated murders? The fact that the full scope of the terrorists’ plan is never revealed could be seen as a flaw, but it works because Kinsman doesn’t care about their plan (and to that end, neither does the audience); he just wants them dead. However, I wonder if the impact of discovering this was a truly random, senseless act of violence could have dealt yet another emotional blow to Kinsman’s already-weary psyche. However, none of the characters (including Kinsman) seem to consider the possible connection between the target and the terrorists, before or after they learn of the random selection of victims.
The film works, though. Even with the contrivances, it gets the most important thing right: it sticks with Kinsman, his grief, and his desire for vengeance. It never lets up on that aspect, and thanks to George Kennedy’s great acting, it’s easy to ignore the flaws. This film has never been issued on DVD until today, but it’s a worthy entry in the extensive library of ’70s revenge thrillers. Better late than never.