The film's middle section is dragged down by repetitive bomb scares. Dalmichimsky is working from outdated intelligence so his targets are all de-classified U.S. Military installations. Once Borzov realizes the pattern and hones in the next target the action shifts to a more linear chase that‚(TM)s further heightened by Barbara‚(TM)s loyalties. But the ultimate showdown is deflating because beyond some silly disguises Pleasence's Dalmichimsky is never built up to be a threat.
Director Don Siegel uses his flair for montage to craft a his action sequences without dialogue. "Telefon" is a road movie, much like Alfred Hitchcock's "Saboteur" and "North by Northwest" had their leads criss-crossing America here we see plenty of seventies architecture including San Francisco's Hyatt Regency Hotel (used in "The Towering Inferno") and a modernist house resting on top of a barren rock outcropping.
The supporting cast is uniformly good (but trapped in underwritten roles), and it‚(TM)s nice to see veteran character actors Alan Badel and Patrick Magee playing snotty KGB strategists, and Tyne Daly in a small (and ultimately irrelevant role) as a computer geek.
Trivia note: The poem that activates the Russian sleeper agents was used by Quentin Tarantino in "Death Proof" as the lines Jungle Julia has her listeners recite to Butterfly. The lines are an excerpt of the poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. "The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep."
Telefon is an entertaining Charles Bronson vehicle - nothing more, nothing less. It lacks brains, it's a tad slapdash and it's an extremely predictable affair, but it's quotable and thoroughly enjoyable as well. With renowned action director Don Siegel at the helm (best known for the first Dirty Harry), Telefon is packed with nail-biting suspense and exciting eruptions of action, all the while threading together an engaging plotline (though it's nothing too deep). With the focus primarily on narrative velocity rather than compelling drama, this is a very serviceable spy thriller supported by an intriguing premise.
The story involves a communist zealot known as Dalchimsky (Pleasance) who plots to sabotage dťtente by activating deep-cover agents in the United States. Said agents were planted by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War but were never utilised, and are primed to execute suicidal missions to blow up key military sites on telephonic phone cue. Military intelligence officer Major Grigori Borzov (Bronson) is recruited by the Soviets to eliminate Dalchimsky before his actions trigger World War III. Oh, and Grigori is accompanied by an American agent named Barbara (Remick). With the continuing political conflict and military tension between America and Russia in the late '70s and throughout the 1980s, it's kinda heart-warming to witness a movie released in 1977 which features a Russian agent and an American agent working side-by-side.
At its most basic level, Telefon is pleasant escapism. The script was penned by the screenwriting duo of Sterling Silliphant and Peter Hyams, based on the novel by Walter Wager. Though the story is considered by some to be beyond the realms of reality, the driving force behind the plot (i.e. activating agents using drug-induced hypnosis) isn't as far-fetched as some of the actual schemes concocted by the overzealous CIA and KGB during the Cold War. The script's only weak spots are in the characters and the construction of events. Initially, Grigori and Barbara are hostile towards one another. An audience would expect these two to somehow end up together, and we get that pay-off, but it seems merely perfunctory rather than natural. Granted, it's probably unreasonable to expect a beautifully-written relationship in a film like this. But if said relationship is unmotivated and naff, then there's a big problem.
Here's the major problem with Telefon: it's entirely without a satisfying final act. At about a hundred minutes in length, the film is fairly long considering the '70s action-thriller pedigree. And during these hundred minutes, there's a lot of building up with very little pay-off. Walter Wages' novel contained an excellent climax which could've become an effective action set-piece in this screen adaptation, but alas the film fizzles out with a whimper. The demise of the main villain is underwhelming, and the story is wrapped up irritatingly quickly. In all likelihood, budget constraints prevented a big climax from being lensed. It's disappointing, to say the least.
Director Don Siegel handles the action competently, but this is not among his best efforts (a few terrific set-pieces notwithstanding, there's some pretty dull filmmaking on display here). Lalo Schifrin also provides a fantastic score which suitably amplifies tension during key scenes. As for the acting...not unlike the sleeper agents of the picture, the stoic Charles Bronson gives a strong impression of deep hypnosis throughout. During his career, Bronson rarely acted - he simply inhabited a film with his particular presence, which frequently played off his infamous Death Wish persona. Donald Pleasence fares a lot better as the main villain of the film. He oozes menace, and is especially sinister while uttering a few lines from the particular Robert Frost poem which triggers a sleeper agent. Lee Remick's performance is impassive, and she's an absurd love interest for Bronson. Also in the cast is Tyne Daly who's embarrassing as the overexcitable CIA computer expert (hilariously, the computers she uses literally have a brain of their own) and whose role feels at once redundant and underdone.
Bronson enthusiasts will almost certainly find a lot to enjoy about Telefon - it's a fun spy thriller with Bronson in Russian Death Wish mode. The film was later parodied in The Naked Gun, and Tarantino used the "trigger" phrase ("The woods are lovely, dark and deep...") in his 2007 movie Death Proof.
Nice thriller...Neat twists!