At his most accomplished, Otto Preminger has always been a smoothly controlled, objective director. The fluid, straightforward assurance of movies like "Laura," "Anatomy of a Murder" and "Bunny Lake Is Missing" put the ideal finishing touch on fundamentally attractive ingredients: well-written scripts and well-chosen casts. Preminger isn't an original or distinctive stylist, but he once had the ability to fuse the collaborative components that went into slick Hollywood storytelling.

The uninterrupted decline in Preminger's work from "Hurry Sundown" in 1966 to the listless movie version of Graham Greene's "The Human Factor," opening today at the K-b MacArthur, probably reflects a breakdown more in judgment than in filmmaking technique. On the set and in the editing room, Preminger's methods may be identical to what they were when he was supervising hits. What he appears to have lost is the knack of selecting and then enhancing his material.

"The Human Factor," for example, seems exquistely written but treacherously threadbare Greene. The author's style doesn't emerge through the filters of Tom Stoppard's foreshortened screenplay and Preminger's monotonous direction, which keeps the exposition at such a low energy level that the scenes feel instantly depleted.

Stripped of its literary distinction, Greene's account of a traitorous British intelligence officer named Maurice Castle seems an alarmingly maudlin apology for a feckless protagonist. Nicol Williamson, always a washout when cast in masochistic roles that minimize his forceful or sardonic talents, is a maladroit choice as Castle. Bland and limp, he makes Castle seem like even more of an infuriating patsy for lending his services to the KGB, supposedly out of undying personal gratitude to a Communist lawyer who assisted him when Castle's future wife -- a black South African involved in radical politics -- was wanted by the authorities.

Castle's interracial marriage seems the only remarkable aspect of a conventional government career and staid private life. His romantic and conspiratorial adventures in the field are depicted in flashback. When introduced to us, Castle has been back in London for several years, quietly supervising a small office devoted to analyzing intelligence reports from the southeastern corner of Africa. He lives with his wife, Sarah (played by a striking, delicately elongated Somali model called Iman), and their son, Sam (later revealed to be the product of Sarah's romance with an ill-fated black radical shortly before meeting Castle) in suburban Berkhamstead, where Greene himself grew up.

Through a Soviet informant, Castle's superiors have been advised of a leak somewhere in the African section. To guard against future indiscretions and put the house in order, a new security officer, Col. Daintry (Richard Attenborough), is assigned to investigate.

Suspicion falls not on Castle, regarded as a diligent plodder and devoted family man, but on his young associate Davis (Derek Jacobi), a restless, lovesick bachelor. We're asked to believe that Castle is a high-minded sort of traitor, driven into defecting by the perfidy of his own side -- reflected first in the elimination of Davis, and then in the revelation of a secret security arrangement with the South African government so distasteful that he feels duty-bound to notify the KGB, quaintly convinced that only this form of tattling will avert disaster and save innocent African lives.

Greene's indulgent view of Castle's political naivete becomes ludicrous in the stilted context of Preminger's movie, which obliterates all traces of irony or subtlety in accounting for motivation. As embodied by Williamson, Castle seems a pathetic chump rather than basically decent, conscientious chap whose good intentions happen to take on a melancholy treasonous complexion.

In the film Castle looks like an appalling fool when his doubts about enlisting as a double agent -- "Maybe your communism isn't real communism" -- are answered to his apparent satisfaction by a recruiter who replies, "It's real communism, all right." Feeble rationalizations seem to satisfy him at every decisive point. Confiding his problems to loyal Sarah, Castle is assured, "We have our own country -- you and me and Sam -- and we've never betrayed that."

What sublime nonsense! Although Greene envisions Castle as a sentimentally forlorn figure -- safe at last in the Soviet Union but separated, perhaps permanently, from his beloved family -- he never seriously questions the assumptions that lead Castle into treason.

Castle's sincerity evidently lets him off the hook morally: Treason is an unhappy side-effect of an otherwise exemplary humanitarianism. Indeed, it seems rather unsporting of Castle's superiors to make a fuss about things since most of the information he's passed has been unimportant.

The discrepancy in Greene's political value system may originate in a kind of inverse snobbery. He's very alert to class snobbery within the British Secret Service. And in the process of exposing and condemning it, he takes a relatively benign view of Soviet espionage -- which may have its opportunistic side, but nevertheless is presumed to attract all the idealists.

Preminger has attracted a cast of considerable distinction, although no one is in a position to rise above the stultifying atmosphere he now imposes on every shot and scene, Jacobi is particularly impressive in his first movie role since coming to prominence for his marvelous impersonation of Robert Graves' Claudius. In fact, he probably would have been a shrewder choice as Castle.

Attenborough, John Gielgud and Richard Vernon are also admirable as assorted Secret Service types. A Dutch actor, Joop Doderer, stands out as a South African espionage chief, and so does Ann Todd in a brief appearance as Castle's mother.

As the villainous Dr. Percival, a British Secret Service Mengele experimenting with exotic death potions, Robert Morley seems a greater miscalculation than Williamson's Castle. Morley's persona has ripened in a way that makes it impossible to contemplate him as an evil genius without getting tickled. A humorous interpretation isn't really desirable in the circumstances invented by Greene, even if you think it serves him right in the long run.

Despite the dubious elements of his story. Greene went through the motions of telling it with characteristic literary finesse. It's become sadly apparent that Otto Preminger doesn't have a style distinctive or entertaining enough to fall back on. Evidently, he struggled to get. "The Human Factor" made, but he was always fighting a losing battle against his own fading intuition.