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Monday, March 21, 2016

The Celluloid Zeroes Petroni Fide Roundtable: The Human Factor (1975)

Original screenplay by Peter Powell and Thomas Hunter
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

George Kennedy:  John Kinsdale
John Mills:  Mike McAllister
Rita Tushingham:  Janice
Raf Vallone:  Lupo

The Celluloid Zeroes are saluting the late George Kennedy with this roundtable, celebrating his work in cinema's trenches for decades. Yes, he did indeed win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in Cool Hand Luke, but the kinds of movies we're going to be talking about are the ones that he took for a paycheck rather than for the prestige. Kennedy himself knew how to poke fun at his image (he called the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrams after Airplane! came out, asking them why they didn't call him when they were making it since he'd been in all the Airport movies that they were parodying; that is why he would up in their six-episode wonder Police Squad! as well as the Naked Gun movies that were made a decade after the show went off the air). His physique was that of a stocky guy who was aging relatively well; it's a far cry from the chiseled bodies that get to do action movie things now. But once upon a time movies could star people who looked like him, and Checkpoint Telstar and its friends look back on those days fondly.

Is there anything that guarantees someone's going to get racked up more than a seemingly ordinary morning at the start of a movie? John Kinsdale has a cholesterol-packed breakfast with his kids at an ordinary looking suburban breakfast table, talking to one of his sons about a forthcoming sportsball game (which has been cancelled, according to the kid) and intervening with wisdom and humor when his young daughter wants to bring some kind of gigantic plush-doll person to school with her. Then he leaves his garage (stuffed so full of things in boxes and kids' bikes and wagons that there's no room for a car), gets into his blue station wagon and goes to work. There's a shady-looking dude working on a car on the street next to Kinsdale's house, though, and the viewer gets to think about that while a vaguely ominous piano theme plays under the credits and Kinsdale drives to the office, which has ALLIED FORCES SOUTHERN EUROPE / FORZE ALLEATE SUD EUROPA painted on the entrance gate overpass.

Kinsdale turns out to be an electronics engineer and computer expert for the Allied militaries in Naples; it's a slow day at work so he and a colleague, Mike McAllister, are playing a racing game on a mainframe (with Atari 2600 level graphics until one of them crashes; then it's stock footage of Grand Prix disasters on a loop). Kinsdale's wife calls to remind him that they're remodeling the patio and she's hiring a part-time nanny; things are still slow enough at work that more time is dedicated to discussing a birthday present for Kinsdale's son Jeffrey than to anything related to the military-industrial complex. It's a bad omen when an ambulance passes Kinsdale on the drive home after work and an worse one when he sees more than one of them (and a few police cars) parked outside his house, lights flashing and sirens still on.

Inside the house is Kinsdale's worst nightmare--his family is lying under bloody morgue sheets in the living room. The fake blood is fire-engine red, and I'm choosing to interpret that is intentionally lurid to make the crime scene look like a pulp magazine color. There's an Italian cop who says the victims were killed execution-style, which Italy wasn't used to at this point. And everyone's so concerned with the logistics of getting the bodies out of the house and to the waiting ambulances that nobody notices Kinsdale coming in until he wails over the body of his wife. That seemed like a realistically awful thing to have happen. God knows what he's thinking as he drives back to the crime scene (or, as he thought of it up until that day, his home) and past a couple kids playing in the street. Once he's back home, though, there's an empty bed and dozens of memories lying in wait to torture him.

In the manner of mass slayings in movies since the invention of mass electronic communications, a television news report drops some exposition on the audience while Kinsdale goes through his sock drawer and pulls out his duty weapon (a .45 Colt automatic) and a box of ammunition. As he listens silently to the news report about his family's deaths Kinsdale puts the gun to his head, but then decides to shoot the TV instead. There's a picture of John and his wife next to the television set; it's an interesting contrast to have the shattered glass of the picture tube and the intact glass over the photo in the same frame. And it's interesting to me to watch Kennedy playing a grieving husband and father. Yes, the point to the movie is that he's gonna seek vengeance on the killers of his family, but the film took the time to show him as a decent provider and a caring father and husband before putting him through sheer hell. I haven't actually seen the first Death Wish film so I'm not certain how little grieving Paul Kersey does before going out into the world with a nickel-plated revolver, but at twelve minutes into The Human Factor the death wish the protagonist is demonstrating is directed at himself, not at the world.

Over at the Naples main police station, the homicide detectives are asking John whether or not he got along with his wife (apparently looking at him as a suspect even though he was at work behind a security checkpoint when the killings took place). Inspector Lupo also has to ask if his family had been threatened by anyone, and Kinsdale doesn't know of anything that would have fit that bill. As a way to put the grieving father at ease, the chief detective shows off the crime lab and computer facilities at police HQ. He's also talking at least a little bit about DARPANet's precursors to the internet when he mentions the way they can transmit evidence to other police mainframes electronically (which makes me wish for a CSI show where that first letter stood for "Colossus").

The detective mentions that there was trace evidence at the scene--Kinsdale's wife grabbed a few hairs out of her assailant's head and they're being analyzed at the Carabinieri headquarters. Apparently the hair tonic the murderer used came from the Soviet Union, and microanalysis of the hair fibers themselves mean that Kinsdale has at least a vague idea of who the killer is now (a red-haired male between the age of 25-45 or so--and one with rH negative blood factors, not that you can tell that by looking at someone). He runs out of the room and stalks out of the complex after he hears that and goes back to his office to bury himself in his work. Back at the office, McAllister is goofing with a machine that goes "ping" and tells Kinsdale that he's welcome to return but everyone's surprised to see him back after so little time. It turns out that Kinsdale wants to use NATO's resources to track down his family's killers, and wrote a program--longhand, in a notebook--that should help him do just that. He tells McAllister that he knows just how far up shit creek they'll be if they get caught and he'll understand if his coworker decides not to do it. McAllister just says they should get started.

Immediately after that, we get a visit from this movie's version of the Stupid Chief. It's a general with NATO who offers to give Kinsdale an extended leave of absence to get over his loss ("Wouldn't you rather go home?" "What home?". Ouch.) Kinsdale tells the general he'd prefer to stay in Naples and throw himself into his work and his commanding officer just backs down and leaves. The general isn't a complete idiot, though--he asks Janice, another computer worker at the facility, to run a computerized psychological profile on Kinsdale to predict how he's going to take the life-shattering psychological shocks that he's had to absorb recently. Janice says she'll get right on it and walks off to do just that.

The next we see of Kinsdale he's watching a computer-controlled war game on a gigantic WarGames style big board; a simulated nuclear war is going on with a body count in the tens of millions and NATO wants to know what's likely to happen to their command structure and troop strength once the mushroom clouds start sprouting all over southern Europe. If everything goes the way the computer says it will, Italy will be fine after World War III. When Kinsdale leaves the simulation room he runs into McAllister, who says he cheated and sank the Soviet fleet early so that things would wrap up sooner. Here's hoping NATO doesn't decide to rattle any sabres based on those war game results, then (although the general does notice the "Soviet" fleet was uncharacteristically sloppy in the game, he doesn't seem to think anything is up).

Back in their work space, Kinsdale and McAllister use their mainframe to try and figure out what the chemical samples in the assassin's hair mean. If you like avocado-colored mainframes and microfilm readers, this section of the film will be a real treat for you. I was amazed that the hideous color schemes of the mid-Seventies extended to the military industrial complex, myself. McAllister uses a computer named "Nine Eleven" to work on the hair sample problem; whoever it was that killed Kinsdale's family was a white male with red hair and the chemical composition of the pollutants in the hair tonic match the filthy, filthy air in New York City. So now there's an avenue to backtrack--if the computer experts can assemble a list of people who traveled to Naples from NYC they can start working their way through the list and eliminate the bad matches. When they've got their much smaller list, they can start investigating more thoroughly (or just start shooting, if Kinsdale doesn't want to waste time or has gone completely around the bend).

McAllister also figures out that he can cross-check the results that Nine Eleven is giving him by breaking into the draft records for anyone on the list (to see who has an rH-negative blood type) and pokes through the airline manifests from LaGuardia or JFK to Naples as well. Now that we all know what Google is and what it does, none of this seems particularly amazing, but in 1975 it had to look exactly like Big Brother rifling through the lives of a thousand people to find the one that Kinsdale is searching for. In a matter of seconds, Nine Eleven and McAllister have found two matches for the age, hair color and blood factors who have come from New York City to Naples and Kinsdale goes off to look for one of them.

Kinsdale finds the first guy rather quickly, who turns out to be a married man from New Haven who used false paperwork to get to Naples on a package tour; he and his wife fess up instantaneously and Kinsdale stomps off, since he may have found some penny-ante wrongdoing but nothing at all that he's actually interested in. (Also, especially given the coincidental name of the computer that McAllister used, I'm amused at how shoddy the airlines' security apparently was for their international flights.) Janice drops by as Kinsdale is doing more work trying to find the other red-headed man that seems to be his family's killer, and works the conversation around to the fact that she programmed a psych profile for Kinsdale and wants to talk to him about it. During this brief conversation Janice says she's willing to make her own psychological-profiling software and her programming talents available for Kinsdale's vengeance quest, as long as he "won't take any unreasonable chances".

So far Kinsdale has been an astonishingly methodical man on a mission, so Janice probably doesn't have anything to worry about. I'm also intrigued by the way this movie works with the required "the system cannot work to help you" plot points that later vigilante movies used with abandon. Kinsdale is using the resources of The System in order to track down the killer, and the people who work with him in The System have lined up to help him. Hell, I'm pretty sure Janice is going to falsify her results so the general stays away from the planning and research sessions that both she and McAllister will be holding with Kinsdale.

Kinsdale agrees not to take any unreasonable chances, but you and I know he won't consider a suicide mission unreasonable if he can strike back at his family's killers. Oh, and Janice hands her psych profile over to McAllister, saying she's worried about the path that Kinsdale's on. McAllister looks worried as he starts to peruse the report as well, but before that plot thread advances any farther the scene shifts abruptly to a junker van with three stern people in it (two men, one young woman). The woman gets buzzed in through the security gate, saying she's the one who called about a child care job. She also lets half a dozen men in jumpsuits and skis masks into the house; the housewife is shot dead before she can get through a scream and the men spread out to look for whoever else is home.

Back at NATO's computer room, Nine Eleven has intercepted a communique (or generated its own alert; the dialogue isn't particularly clear) that something's going to happen related to the Kinsdale family murders that day by eight PM local time; footage of the terrorists shooting three bound and gagged children is intercut into this sequence. The teletypes in the computer room wake up and start printing just as Kinsdale turns around to look at them, and the next thing we know he's using his NATO card to get into the gated house and start asking questions about what happened (so even though he's investigating outside the law and far beyond the limits of the rules, he's using the tools of that system to facilitate his efforts again). A helpful embassy worker named Edmonds says that a six-person American family has been variously shot, beaten and strangled to death.

Edmonds is shaken to his core about what happened to this family, and refers to "that poor bastard in Naples" while reflecting on the crime wave that's claimed almost a dozen politically targeted lives by now, not knowing exactly who he's talking to. Kinsdale gets put into the amazingly ironic position of getting the embassy worker to calm down so that his tirade doesn't draw more attention (and expose Kinsdale as being at the scene illegally). He's steely and determined enough that he doesn't crack, even when the children's bodies are taken out of the house, but it's a near thing and George Kennedy sells the hell out of his mental state in the closeup he gets.

Edmonds is out drinking to forget with the person he thinks is an American investigator (he thinks he's drinking with "Frank Evans"). While he's rattled and liquored up he drops a little information on the investigator, also lamenting that every law enforcement agency works on their own, which creates gaps in their knowledge that the terrorist are currently exploiting. Since he hasn't been able to find the other red-haired man on his own, he drops the man's name on Edmonds, and the jump cut to the CIA looking at surveillance photos of Alexander Baldwin Taylor suggests that Edmonds' phone is bugged or that he gave the information over instantly--which he probably should have, but it still looks rather hinky. Maybe it just two the murders of two American families to get all the different agencies to decide to play nice with each other.

Taylor's a disaffected radical rich kid who dropped out of UC Berkeley and went to Italy with 300 grand in cash; it's presumed that he's using this money to finance the killings, but at least at this point nobody can say with any confidence what he's trying to accomplish with the murders. Inspector Lupo, sitting in on the briefing, wants to know why none of the Italian law enforcement agencies were told about the radicals in their midst (and he's got a point). The CIA officer in charge of the briefing gets told off pretty effectively, but he also says that he's following orders from his political structure just like Lupo is. He does at least sketch out what Taylor's been up to and points out that the ringleader of the killings wants to see himself as a "political messiah", giving orders and causing death financed by his banker father's wealth. He's also been linked to a second-in-command named Hamshari, but at least according to Edmonds nobody knows where Hamshari is or what he's up to at this point.

I swear my totally legitimate download of the film is missing a scene somewhere in here, because while he's still at the bar, Kinsdale calls McAllister to tell him about a letter sent to the President of the United States with a terrorist threat to kill American families in the Mediterranean every three days starting on a particular date. The letter writer wanted ten million dollars and a bunch of political prisoners / terrorists released from jail and didn't get what he wanted; now two families are dead and a third somewhere in the region is going to die in less than 72 hours. He gives Alexander Taylor's name to McAllister and tells his colleague to check various datbases to try and find Taylor and predict his cell's next target, but even Nine Eleven can only do so much in such a short timespan.

Kinsdale busts out some social engineering moves next, going to an airline branch office and telling the woman there that he's the computer expert from company headquarters and he needs to work on their new logic circuit. It works perfectly (because computer experts looked like George Kennedy in 1975) and he gets to work on their system, calling McAllister and hooking the airline computer up to Nine Eleven back at NATO headquarters. It's not quite as tedious as watching John Carradine do light appliance repair in The Astro-Zombies but it's not the most interesting thing the movie's shown us so far, either. While in a live text chat and simultaneous phone call with McAllister, Kinsdale sets the parameters of their searches to try and track down Taylor and Hamshari. They wind up just delivering exposition about Hamshari Junior to each other (he's the son of the Professor Hamshari that Taylor knew at Berkely) more than anything, though.

While the computer experts are working together, Lupo visits Edmonds at the embassy and finds that the "Frank Evans" the Foreign Service man talked to was a tall stocky blonde American man, and it certainly looks like Kinsdale is going to be in some serious hot water very soon. And McAllister has some more bad news for him--the special computer searches and programs they're running as a special project are eating up a noticeable amount of resources at NATO, which is conspicuous, which will get them both fired once the right people realize what they're doing. Not only that, but Kinsdale gives the least convincing "Right!" in human history when McAllister asks him if they're going to give their data on the terrorists that are killing American families to the police once they've tracked down the active cell. Kinsdale isn't the only one running a special program, though, and McAllister points out that Nine Eleven sees only an 8% chance of Kinsdale successfully killing the terrorists once he's got them identified and makes his move. It's the cold green text telling him that he's 92% likely to fail that shakes Kinsdale more than anything--he accepts that he would have tried to murder the killers, but he wasn't imagining that he'd have a one in twelve chance of doing it successfully.

While in an elevator with McAllister, the penny drops and Kinsdale realizes that the ads for nanny services in the "Daily American", a newspaper catering to Yankees working in the area, is one more hugely significant clue. His family placed one, the other murdered family placed one, and he calls the one he sees in that day's classifieds back (using more social engineering and pretending to be from the ad department at the paper, checking up to see if the classified got any responses) to find who he thinks the next victims are going to be. Now that he knows where the killers are going to strike, he strides out of the elevator and directly into Lupo's line of sight. Which makes some sense--there's still forty minutes to the movie's running time and if Kinsdale just told the cops and the Italian version of the FBI what to do, the film would be over and he wouldn't get his revenge. He peels out in his station wagon and Lupo's driver follows in a comically tiny Italian cop car. Lupo's driver looks like a skinnier Nick Frost in a couple shots, so that's neat. But even in Naples, a car chase is just a car chase, honestly. And though there are plenty of near misses, there aren't any crashes and Kinsdale even stops for a red light during the thrilling action sequence.

If you liked the car chase, you'll dig it even more when Kinsdale ditches his Brady wagon and runs off on foot through the streets and then into a building, with Lupo in pursuit. Plenty of shots ensue of George Kennedy going up and down stairs and he does manage to elude the cops by hopping backyard fences. So that happened. Kinsdale makes his way to the family's house from the nanny ad and pulls a gun on the father to get Aldo the handyman inside. Ironically, the family thinks he's an intruder and a criminal and the phone rings before Kinsdale can explain himself; the NATO man shoots the phone in order to go back to his conversation with the family. He just about manages to explain that the Gerardi family is in danger for being Americans before a car pulls up outside and the front doorbell rings. It's the woman from the "nanny agency" but thanks to Kinsdale (and Aldo, who shoots from an upstairs balcony and clearly isn't in the mood for this terrorist shit) the criminals are force to flee. Oh, and the woman dropped her purse when she beat feet so there's another avenue of investigation to pursue. It's great that Kinsdale had a partial victory--he's on the right path, and saved some lives even if the terrorists are all capable of attacking someone else in another three days. Their current "attack the people who need help taking care of kids" plan is probably going to be abandoned as well. It's a damn site better than anyone else has done fighting the criminals so far.

Kinsdale goes to Janice's apartment, and finds out that 1) the cops are searching for him everywhere, and 2) she's loyal enough to him to let him couch surf at her place regardless. And over at the terrorists' hideout, Hamshari says that they have to have been betrayed somewhere, so he's taking control of their operation and they're going to do something new and fast to show that the Murder Brigade can't be stopped even if they can be frightened away by a middle-aged dude with a pistol.
The next morning, McAllister is over at Janice's place when Kinsdale wakes up. He points out that Kinsdale might have broken their pattern and frightened the group off, but they'll change their methods now. Not only that, but if Kinsdale had actually called the cops and gotten them to work with him, the entire cell could have been captured. Now there's another innocent family at risk because of Kinsdale's recklessness and he absolutely refuses to see how much he's in the wrong. He also says he's not going to work to get the killers jailed so they can become underground heroes and ransomed out by another group of terrorists, which does make some sense. And he traces the cell to their location thanks to some stuff in the young woman's purse that was dropped at the scene. There's a bankrupt cafe and coffee bar that they hang out at, and Kinsdale spots their bullet-pocked van when he sneaks in.

Taylor notices that he's being followed by an angry American man in a borrowed VW beetle and runs for it; Kinsdale hits him with the car and gets into a startlingly vicious hand-to-hand-to-switchblade-to-shovel-to-length-of-chain fight with the man. Kinsdale winds up on top at the end of the fight, but an old Italian lady saw the fight and screams for the police as he stumbles away from the aftermath of the two man war. Kinsdale goes back to the cafe / hideout only to find that none of the other terrorists are there; he also sees that they kept his daughter's plush toy from the very start of the narrative as a trophy and he cradles it in his arm, holding a gun in the other hand. It's a bizarre and affecting tableaux and something that I never would have expected to see in an action movie.

While Kinsdale's waiting at the terrorist hideout, Lupo goes to NATO headquarters and gets a quick demonstration of Nine Eleven's capabilities when it shows him his own dossier and background. It's the easiest way to demonstrate to the detective exactly how much Kinsdale has figured out, but the general shows up just in time to tell McAllister just how deep the shit is that he's in for inviting a civilian into the restricted computer room. McAllister decides that he's in for a penny so he might as well go in for the full pound and confesses to his commanding officer that he and Kinsdale were using NATO resources illegally to track down the terrorists, and succeeded. (Lupo:  "A very elaborate vendetta, General." The general, numb with shock about what he's just been told:  "What?" Lupo:  "A kind of vengeance." The Stupid Chief gets to be the comic relief even in a movie as somber and technically focused as this one.)

McAllister gets a call from Kinsdale while the general and Lupo are in the computer room, and he's numb and tired--he killed Taylor, yes, but that hasn't done anything to bring his family back. Instead, he's just baffled that he doesn't know what to do next and fatigued beyond endurance as he waits in the hideout. The general asks Kinsdale to surrender to the police, and let the military and political structures help him out. Kinsdale hangs up the phone and slams his hands down on the arms of the chair where he's sitting in frustration (and the movie remembers that he got stabbed in the hand, and he's in an amazing amount of pain because he hit the chair. Right after he goes to clean the wound off he gets accosted by the two CIA guys from much earlier in the story, who snag his ID and want to know what an American computer expert is doing in the gang hideout.

While all this stuff is happening, the gang has broken into the official NATO comissary that caters to the Americans living in Italy and are hiding out waiting for it to open so they can take a bunch of hostages, which they do. Kinsdale stumbles across a clue that lets him know that's where the terrorists are and heads off to see if he can beat those 23:1 odds laid down by Nine Eleven and take out the criminals. By the time any official police or military response takes place, the hostages will be as good as dead, but maybe Kinsdale can get there in time to do something. By the time he arrives at the comissary there's a police and military cordon (that he drives through in a stolen car). He also drives straight through the front of the store and takes out one of the terrorists, then goes all Good Guy With a Gun on the remaining ones in the market. It's not a complete NRA fantasy; he gets shot more than once as he works through the terrorists and it's thanks to the screenwriters more than his tactics that none of the hostages are killed. The last shot of the film is his devastated face (cut off by bad framing), showing that even though Kinsdale's "won" in the end, he has nothing left in his life. No family, and sure as hell no job after all the illegal shit he pulled in his vengeance quest.

I don't really know what I was expecting when I snagged this movie as my Petroni Fide selection; I was expecting something goofy and Cannon Studios appropriate when I read the synopsis but instead I got to see something that doesn't always take the protagonist's side, and that presents his grief as a raw wound that is not healed at the end, even though Kinsdale set out to do exactly what he wanted to do. And I got to see a nicely underplayed part from George Kennedy, which was a great little bonus. I'm sorry that it took his death for me to even find out this movie existed but it serves as a tribute to his undeniable talents as an actor (and hopefully will show up on Netflix or disc soon so other people can check it out as well).

The other Celluloid Zeroes have actually met the deadline for the Petroni Fide roundtable, and their entries in tribute to George Kennedy can be found here:

Cinemasochist Apocalypse lets itself through a side door to check out Uninvited.
Micro-Brewed Reviews records a lucid dream while watching Nightmare at Noon.
Psychoplasmics checks its boarding pass courtesy of The Delta Force.
Web of the Big Damn Spider gets tailored for a six-sleeved Strait-Jacket.


  1. This actually sounds pretty good, but then I have a consistent, unhealthy affinity for revenge movies.

    The rational part of me would be incensed that the hero was fucking up a legitimate investigation and putting more people in danger while trying to get someone to put him out of his misery.

    1. It's that rare vengeance movie that shows how little the protagonist gains when he kills the man behind the terrorist plot. And it's low-key and slow enough that it seems more realistic than any of the Liam Neeson punch-and-shoot movies. Assuming that Kinsdale lives through his injuries at the end, his security clearance is gone, he's merely getting fired if he's LUCKY, and his family is still gone. He just looks weary at the end, not triumphant. I think you'd like it just as a non-cartoonish revenge movie, honestly.

  2. I've read that the Zucker brothers wanted Kennedy for Airplane!, but he was already contracted to do more Airport movies, and,understandably, the studio didn't want him to be in a parody of the series he was starring in! Though Lloyd Bridges go the role instead, so it wasn't a disaster, so to speak.

    1. I guess the "George Kennedy called them up to ask why they didn't want him in the parody" version is a better story, but it ain't the true one. That's too bad.