Based on the novel by Walter Wager, Telefon (1977) has aged pretty well because it’s about the hunt for a rogue agent out to create an international upset between two superpowers (the U.S.S.R. and America), with the leaders of both countries oblivious to the subterfuge leftover from a prior Soviet regime.
Although it feels like a vintage Cold War drama transposed to the seventies, Telefon is basically a cat-and-mouse game with Soviet agent Charles Bronson tracking rogue Donald Pleasence to America, and Bronson’s assistant Lee Remick (fresh from The Omen) asking more annoying questions than necessary, leading us to believe she has other motivations or may be working for another party.
Scenes with the U.S. and Soviet secret service are the weakest links in the film, and one gets the impression their relevance was pared down to bare plot essentials by screenwriters Peter Hyams and Sterling Silliphant to make room for Bronson’s character, letting him to deal with the film’s big decisions, and exacting his own reactive/proactive measures, as Pleasence continues to call up sleeper cells, speak a code phrase, and trigger another human time bomb.
Towards the film’s center one also starts to grow weary of the repetitive time bomb scenes; even the spy agencies admit they’re useless targets, because what’s being blown to bits are all de-classified U.S. Military installations. That realization also compels Bronson to re-examine his target as an aggrieved aparatchik, and once he hones in on the next poor bastards destined to get a phone call from Pleasence, the drama shifts to a more linear chase that’s further intensified by Remick’s loyalties, and secret orders to kill the other when the mess has been cleaned up.
The lack of romance is smartly dealt with by having Bronson spurn Remick’s teases and sometimes vapid banter, so while there’s no big romantic scene, Remick’s character is given some effective moments when she has to prove to Bronson she can be just as cold and nasty.
The eventual confrontation between the hunters and the rogue agent probably read a bit awkward on the printed page, but director Don Siegel uses his flair for montage to craft a clever sequence where the camera focuses on Bronson’s coordination of hitting his deadly target without uttering a word of dialogue. The resulting montage is a beautiful dance of nuances that sets into motion the necessary steps to get Bronson to reach Pleasence before another human time bomb is ignited.
Telefon is also a road movie, much in the way Alfred Hitchcock had his leading men and tagalong women running across America in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959), and we get plenty of on location material in the country’s dustier states as well as some gorgeous architecture. The film’s look is blazing seventies, but it’s rendered attractive by emphasizing subdued colours and geometric patterns, as well as the angular concrete architecture of the era – the most notable being a great chase in San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency Hotel (partly used in The Towering Inferno), and fascinating locations like a modernist house resting on top of a barren rock outcropping.
Lalo Schifrin’s score is fairly minimalist, and the composer emphasizes colours and recurring patterns rather than overt themes (although he saves a formal theme for the end credits).
The supporting cast is uniformly good (if not trapped in fairly blah roles), and it’s nice to see veteran character actors Alan Badel and Patrick Magee playing snotty KGB strategists, and Tyne Daly (John and Mary, The Enforcer) in a small (and ultimately irrelevant role) as a computer geek.
Director Siegel would make one more tight thriller, Escape from Alcatraz (1979), before stumbling with the dull Rough Cut (1980), and his last film, the appropriately titled Jinxed (1982).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan