Review: Telefon

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Charles Bronson—who plays a Soviet KGB agent in Telefon—is introduced to us in the act of coaching a Russian boys’ hockey team. “How do you make sure you are the first one to hit the puck?” he asks them rhetorically. The answer is, Don’t watch your opponent, and certainly don’t watch the referee (“If you see him drop the puck, you don’t see the puck”), but “Keep your eyes on the ice.” These words to live by are one statement of the code of the Don Siegel independent (and they might do for the maverick director himself), the man at odds with society who has been the central figure of virtually all his films. Whether it be the independent-as-cop (Dirty Harry, Madigan), the independent-as-crook (Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry‘s Scorpio), the independent-as-cop-and-crook (The Verdict), or the independent as social maverick trying simply to assert his identity against the encroachment of enervating social and political forces (The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hell Is for Heroes, The Beguiled, The Shootist), Siegel’s anti-hero has always commanded our respect as one who walks the middle ground between equally attractive, equally destructive extremes.

It’s easy to see, then, why Telefon must have had some interest for Siegel. It’s the story of a KGB colonel who has to seek out (in America) a defecting Russian intelligence official (Donald Pleasence) who has taken to alerting and activating Soviet agents planted during the Cold War-agents who have lived in the United States under American identities, secured by the fact that even they don’t know they are espionage agents, having been programmed by drug-induced hypnosis to respond to a key phrase by carrying out a suicidal sabotage mission. Not only does the story’s premise resonate interestingly against memories of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it also places its central figure in the no-man’s-land between the CIA and the KGB, both of which, ironically, want the same things: the death of the destructive defector, and then the death of the colonel. That middle ground is further twilighted by the fact that the colonel is accompanied by another KGB agent (Lee Remick) who is also a CIA agent, and who has orders to kill him when he has killed the defector. To make matters even more interesting, she has fallen in love with him—or has she?

It’s hard to see how such a promising film could have emerged so utterly bland, so devoid of peaks and valleys. Telefon comes out as just another spy story, told with little or no sense of involvement, certainly no suspense, and minimal advantage taken of the moral ambiguity inherent in the story itself. At the end of the film, Colonel Borzov and his co-agent Barbara Taylor shout defiance in the face of both the KGB and the CIA, and drive off to a motel, there to consummate their romance while affirming their independent hold on what they know is critical espionage information. But, despite the optimistic nod to romance and independence, even a fool can see it’s a situation that can’t last long. With both agencies wanting Borzov dead, it’s not likely he and Barbara will live happily ever after for more than a few weeks.

Some enthusiasm in the project is displayed in Siegel’s and cinematographer Michael Butler’s use of some exciting camera angles (including a dramatic worm’s-eye reverse-track of a Soviet guard’s advancing boot at the very beginning, and some vertiginous overheads of Houston architecture in the middle section) and some noisy shock cuts, together with a computer motif in the titles and in the CIA’s trackdown procedure, all of which seem to indicate an initial concept of integrated style for the film. The ultimate depthlessness of the film may have something to do with Stirling Silliphant, virtually all of whose screenplays have been marked by shallow characterizations and pedestrian plotlines. The witty originality that characterizes the best work of co-scenarist Peter Hyams (e.g. the delightful made-for-TV private-eye spoof Goodnight, My Love) is nowhere in evidence. Telefon also has the look and feel of a film that has been over-edited—a suspicion that seems confirmed by its short running time (and, locally, its initial release as the top half of a double feature with a recent loser, Return of a Man Called Horse). But if the film’s been over-cut, it may be a blessing in disguise, since Bronson’s and Remick’s wooden performances could scarcely have brought more depth and interest to their characters in the excised scenes. If I seem to want to blame Telefon on anybody but Don Siegel, it’s because his career has shown him always to be a careful, meticulous filmmaker. His riveting attention to the minidramas of the suddenly activated sleeper agents and their uncomprehending families and friends is a reminder of the kind of intensity that marks a good Siegel film throughout. It’s all too scarce in Telefon. And what about the painfully visible boom mike breaking into the top of the frame in the CIA office scenes? It’s pretty clear that Siegel—or somebody—wasn’t watching the ice this time.

TELEFON
Direction: Donald Siegel. Screenplay: Peter Hyams and Stirling Silliphant, after the novel by Walter Wager. Cinematography: Michael Butler. Production design: Ted Haworth. Editing: Douglas Stewart. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Production: James B. Harris.
The players: Charles Bronson, Lee Remick, Tyne Daly, Patrick Magee, Alan Badel, Donald Pleasence, Sheree North, John Mitchum, Roy Jenson.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.