This adaptation of the 1975 spy novel by Walter Wager has a great central gimmick and features the unlikely pairing of granite-faced action hero Charles Bronson and high-class beauty Lee Remick under the take-no-prisoners direction of Don Siegel. It often plays like across between The Manchurian Candidate (brainwashed killers triggered by a secret verbal cue) and the disaster-cum-conspiracy movie aesthetic of the era, cross-cutting between the heroes’ international exploits and several self-contained episodes of destruction caused by Donald Pleasence’s rogue agent. But the film also take risks by having Bronson and Remick play KGB operatives – and they’re the good guys! Not bad for a movie released a decade before Glasnost …
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“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.”
– from Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
This is a film that relies mostly on a busy plot and several action set-pieces to keep you on your toes and it would be a shame to spoil too much of the narrative – for make no mistake about it, this is a B-movie through and through and the less you know, the better, because pretty much all that is good about it is there on the surface only. It has a decent budget, an action star at the height of his success and a great director – but remains at heart a gimmick thriller, moving from one explosive set-piece to another.
It is all about a villain (Pleasence) hell-bent on creating chaos for no very good reason and two agents set to stop him with little at stake personally except the urgency of the job at hand. That really is it as it otherwise eschews much in the way of characterisation or moral complexity, except a generally cynical approach to the world of espionage that dispenses with easy notions of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ (well, it was the ’70s after all). This is actually pretty important so that Bronson is never for a moment considered what he normally would have been in such a movie – an enemy agent on foreign soil. This is achieved in a number of ways, mainly by making those in charge of the spies on both sides equally culpable in their generally disregard for the value of individual human life and by having the only people our heroes kill be agents who were involved in suicide missions anyway. It’s more than just a slippery slope ethically speaking of course but the movie is very smart in not making this apparent until the end credits have rolled thanks to its non-stop action and its very attractive leads.
“Have you ever seen drug-induced hypnosis?”
“I think I just did.”
So, the basic premise finds the KGB in a desperate attempt to avert WW3 when one of its clerks (albeit a high-ranking one) goes AWOL with a list of sleeper Soviet agents who have all been living in America deep under cover for the last 15 years. All of them have been brainwashed to undertake suicide missions against military targets once primed with the use of a special phrase based on Robert Frost’s famous poem (yes, maybe they should have picked a less well-known poem to, you know, avoid unexpected results at a poetry recital let’s say or while watching jeopardy on TV …).
Bronson is the general from the KGB with a photographic memory who, having memorised the top-secret details of all the agents, is sent to the US to stop the carnage with the aid of local operative, a super perky Remick. How many agents will Pleasence trigger before our ‘heroes’ manage to stop him – and as his choice of which sleepers to awaken appears to be random, how can they find him in time? And will Remick manage to penetrate through Bronson’s steely and exterior and find the man within? It’s a decent enough a premise and it does pretty much sum up the whole movie. The finale, the only scene in fact shared by all three leads, but is otherwise strangely low key and a bit of a damp squib after several spectacular explosions and incidents involving helicopters etc. being little more than a barroom brawl.
This is a film that rounded off a truly golden period for Don Siegel, the former Warner Bros wunderkind who graduated to being one of Hollywood’s top action directors. By this stage he was literally signing his name on screen as ‘A Siegel Film’, in the style if Howard Hawks. Unusually, in this film the credit appears over a tight close-up of the director’s own face, which must be something of a Hollywood first.
Siegel had graduated from editing second unit, special effects and dynamic montages to making mainly thrillers and westerns starting just after the end of the Second World War, with notable excursions outside the action and adventure genre including the science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Elvis Presley vehicle, Flaming Star. He spent most of the 60s working in TV but there was a massive career resurgence from the end of the decade with the combined 1968 hits of dour police drama Madigan starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda and the first of his many collaborations with Clint Eastwood starting with Coogan’s Bluff followed by Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970), The Beguiled and biggest of all, Dirty Harry (both 1971). Walter Matthau starred in Charley Varrick (1973), Michael Caine in The Black Windmill (1974) and John Wayne gave his last and certainly one of his greatest performances in The Shootist (1976). His career pretty much peaked there though – Telefon was a box office disappointment while a final Eastwood movie, Escape From Alcatraz (1979) was perhaps a little too ambiguous for major success. The Burt Reynolds caper movie Rough Cut (1980) was a disaster from which writer Larry Gelbart had his name removed, while the least said of the little-seen Bette Midler movie Jinxed (1982) the better.
The original screenplay was penned to Peter Hyams, responsible (as writer and director) for some of my favourite pulp and genre movies of the 70s and 80s including Capricorn One (1978) and Outland (1982) and who has also written several other episodic chase movies including The Hunter (1980) starring Steve McQueen, The Star Chamber (1983) featuring Michael Douglas and the Gene Hackman remake of Narrow Margin (1990).
Siegel had the script re-written by Stirling Silliphant (he shares on-screen credit with Hyams who, according to some sources, was in fact originally in line to direct the film) who took himself pretty seriously. Best-known for many, many teleplays for Route 66 on TV and his Oscar-winning script for In the Heat of the Night, after the 60s he mainly worked on such commercials pics such as The Towering Inferno (and several other Irwin Allen disaster movies), the third Dirty Harry film, The Enforcer,as well as the Shaft movies starring Richard Roundtree. Incidentally, as in The Enforcer, Tyne Daly has a nice supporting role in Telefon as a cute CIA computer genius. One suspects that it was his experience with disaster flicks that came in handy here as well as maybe re-tooling some of Remick’s dialogue. Not sure who was responsible for the tag scene which is supposed to tie everything up at the end – it does, in a superficial way, but it certainly relies on the skipping of what most would have thought were several necessary steps in the development of the lead character’s relationship to get there …
Charles Bronson, a busy supporting actor in the 50s and 60s slowly graduated to second lead status in the likes of The Dirty Dozen by the time Sergio Leone effectively made him the star of Once Upon a Time in the West in the equivalent of the Clint Eastwood role from his previous spaghetti westerns. Bronson would star in several European thrillers and Westerns before becoming a major Hollywood star with Michael Winner’s nasty but hugely successful vigilante flick Death Wish in 1974, which pretty much set the seal on his screen persona of the next quarter of a century as a strong, silent and violent avenging righter of wrongs.
Lee Remick, like Bronson, had been in movies since the 50s but had become a leading lady very quickly with the success of Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, leading to important roles opposite the likes of Steve McQueen, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra though often in kooky or somewhat remote roles, reflecting the cool and refined side to her character despite sensational good looks and a real gleam in her eye. She found better leading parts of TV quite often – this film turned out to be one of her last movies as a glamorous leading lady and she’s great in it, whether chiding Bronson for not having made a pass at her (what self-control the man had) or standing up to her bosses when they ask her to do things she finds morally indefensible.
The supporting cast, which is excellent by the way, really doesn’t interact with Bronson and Remick – Alan Badel and Patrick Magee gets a couple of scenes together with Bronson to set up the mission back in Moscow (actually shot in Helsinki in Finland) but otherwise only share scenes with each other; Tyne Daly’s scenes are all at CIA headquarters at Langley; and Pleasence just drives across America on his own to initiate the next bit of carnage. His role is pretty limited, essentially performing a simple phone call (literally ‘phoning in’ the performance – sorry, had to be done …) to a fairly anonymous batch of agents, with the exception of former 1950s starlet Sheree North who perhaps gets the best episode as a suburban housewife who drops everything to blow up a military installation and then kills herself with a cyanide capsule with only the slightest pause.
It is typical of the international thriller style of the times to have all these elements so fragmented as we follow several parallel planes of action, but here it does have a distancing effect, creating an episodic style that, deep down, almost feels like it misses having the commercial breaks to bridge the shifts in narrative POV. All the characters spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone, which of course makes sense as this is the movie’s raison d’être, but it does emphasise the distance between characters, which tends of course to defuse some of the dynamism by making the events frequently occur by ‘remote control’ as it were. Which is what keeps this entertaining adventure movie firmly in the B-movie camp. For a detailed look at Telefon, and one that chimes pretty much with my own view too, see the smart and funny things that John Cribbs and Christopher Funderburg have to say on this movie over at The Pink Smoke.
DVD Availability: Released in the US on a DVD double bill with another superior Bronson thriller, St. Ives, to be reviewed here shortly, it offers a nice transfer which retains the essential softness of Michael Butler’s cinematography (filters are used for almost every shot, not just for Remick’s closeups).
Director: Don Siegel
Producer: James B. Harris
Screenplay: Peter Hyams and Stirling Silliphant (from the novel by Walter Wager)
Cinematography: Michael Butler
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Charles Bronson, Lee Remick, Donald Pleasence, Tyne Daly, Sheree North, Patrick Magee, Alan Badel