A Movie A Day #175: Telefon (1977, directed by Don Siegel)


Across America, strange things are happening.  Seemingly ordinary, middle-aged citizens are, without explanation, attacking formerly top secret government facilities.  The attackers are from all different walks of life.  One was an auto mechanic.  Another was a priest.  There was even a housewife who, after blowing up a power station, committed suicide with a poison pill that the KGB stopped issuing a decade ago.  Before launching their attacks, each one of them received a phone call in which a Russian man recited a poem by Robert Frost.

The Americans may not understand what is happening but the Soviets do.  Immediately after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the KGB planted sleeper agents across the United States.  They hypnotized and brainwashed the agents so thoroughly that they no longer remember that they are agents.  The Frost poem was the trigger designed to activate the agents, all of whom were meant to attack what were then valuable parts of America’s infrastructure.  With the arrival of détente, the program was abandoned and the sleeper agents were simply left behind in the United States.  But now, a former hardliner (Donald Pleasence), is activating the agents one by one.  Because he has a photographic memory, KGB colonel Charles Bronson is sent to the United States to track down and kill Pleasence before the United States discovers the truth about what is happening.  Lee Remick, as an American KGB agent, is assigned to work with him but is also ordered to kill him once the assignment has been completed.

That Telfon is one of Charles Bronson’s better post-Death Wish films is largely due to the presence of Don Siegel in the director’s chair.  As a director who specialized in intelligent genre films and who helped to make Clint Eastwood one of the world’s biggest stars with Dirty Harry, Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled, and Escape from Alcatraz, Don Siegel was the ideal director to bring out the best in Bronson.  Like St. Ives, Telefon features Bronson in an uncharacteristically cerebral role.  For once, he spends more time analyzing clues than he does shooting people and Bronson is surprisingly credible as a man with a photographic memory.

As directed by Siegel, Telefon is almost a satire of the type of violent action films that Bronson usually made for directors like Michael Winner. In Telefon, both the bad guys and the good guys are equally clueless.  All of the KGB sleeper agents are dumpy and middle-aged and the film continually emphasizes that they’ve all been brainwashed to attack targets that are no longer strategically important.    Donald Pleasence, playing one of his raving villains, wears a blonde, Beatles-style wig for much of the film.

Though the ending is a let down, Telefon is still one of the best of Bronson’s late 70s films.

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