Telefon (1977)

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.

The Director
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 Writers
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 …

The Stars
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).

Telefon (1978)
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

*****(3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Amnesia, Cold War, Espionage, Los Angeles, Moscow, Scene of the crime, Spy movies, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Telefon (1977)

  1. le0pard13 says:

    A great look at a fine vintage 70s Bronson action thriller, Sergio. B-picture is right, but it does retain the era’s charms. I do miss Don Siegel’s work (I teed up his ‘Charley Varrick’ back in September. Also, don’t forget he performed a fine cameo in Eastwood’s directorial debut, ‘Play Misty for Me’ (1971). Well done.

    • Thanks Michael, very kind. Yes, he’s great as the barman dispensing wisdom in Eastwood’s debut (I think he sponsored his DGA card). I’m quite glad he didn’t end up directing Bronson in low budget Cannon movies int eh 80s though – for me his career pretty much ended with Escape from Alcatraz, which did reasonably well at the box office for such a downbeat movie (it was never going to be a monster hit) and recalled one of his best 50s movies of course, Riot in Cell Block 11.

  2. Sergio – Fine review here for which thanks. I’ll confess to not being a Bronson fan. That said though, it sounds like he’s well-placed here. And I like the era.

    • Thanks Margot – Bronson clearly had his limitations as a thespian but he is susprisingly humorous in some of his portrayals. Having said that, I don’t care at all for the Death Wish series and pretty much all his films from the the late 70s onwards were variations on that (with a few notable exceptions).

  3. Colin says:

    That’s a pretty fair assessment Sergio. I like the movie a lot, perhaps because of the programmer feel rather than despite it.
    I also appreciate the way the politics was essentially sidelined to allow the focus to remain on the thriller elements. It’s probably one of the last memorable works by Bronson, Remick and Siegel.
    Regarding Siegel, I have a piece on one of his much earlier movies prepped for tomorrow as it happens, I haven’t seen Jinxed but I like almost all his stuff – I even have a soft spot for Rough Cut and would buy it in a heartbeat were it ever released on DVD.

    • Looking forward to reading your piece Colin – I was actually thinking that Telefon kept reminding me of The Big Steal weirdly in its combination of road trip, people pretending to be somebosy else, mismatched investigative male-female duo who aren’t sure they can trust each other etc etc. Telefon is a film I like and must have seen several times on TV over the decades but it is surprisingly slowly paced in some places it seemed to me, which really surprised me. You are the first person I have ever heard say nice things about Rough Cut! Bet you’re nice to tray animals too …

      • Colin says:

        I saw Rough Cut sometime in the 80s when BBC2 ran a season of Burt Reynolds movies, I think on Sunday nights. Anyway, I just enjoyed the daftness of it all and Reynolds, Down and Niven made a great trio.

        You’re right about the pacing of Telefon, something I’d forgotten and kind of untypical for Siegel.

        I guess there are some parallels to be found in The Big Steal now that you mention it. I’ll be looking at The Verdict though.

        • Excellent – have you ever read the original novel by Israel Zangwill, ‘The Big Bow Mystery’? As I recall The Verdict is actually pretty faithful. Really look forward to reading your review. I seem to remember watching Rough Cut on the Beeb to – I hope it wasn’t over 20 years ago. I do love caper movies … Now, pop quiz – how many Lesley-Anne Down clips can you recognise from this online tribute (apart from Rough Cut):

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    This is filled with my favorite actors from that time. Loved Lee Remick. Pleasance was a great villain. But I didn’t see it because I could never stand Charles Bronson. He just took me out of a movie. Maybe by now, I’d be over it.

    • Thanks Patti. When it comes to Lee Remick it really was love at first sight for me, even if she usually got cast in somewhat odd roles at times. I quite like Bronson in several of his films but I do know what you mean and he did make a lot of trash – on the other hand he was also in lots of decent movies including his signature Westerns The Magnificient Seven and Once Upon a Time in the West and he was also a decent Wolf Larsen in the TV-Movie version of The Sea Wolf for instance.

      • le0pard13 says:

        Bronson had a number of unexpected gems, at least for me. From Noon Till Three and Rider in the Rain worked with and against typecast. Of course, some of his typical stood out, too, like Hard Times and White Buffalo. James Garner said in his autobiography that Bronson could be hard to work with, if you let him run over you (of course, Garner’s style wouldn’t let that happen). And let’s not forget how good he was in the stellar ensemble WWII film, The Great Escape.

        • One gets the impression that he could be a bit on the grumpy side though the fact that he got along so well with such jocular Brits as J. Lee Thompson and Michael Winner must suggest a softer side I would have thought. I’ve not seen Rider in the Rain which certainly sounds unusual. Thanks for the suggestion I’ll see about chasing that one up.

          • le0pard13 says:

            I picked up the R2 disc of Rider in the Rain myself as it’s a film not available on this side of the pond. Let me know what you think of it, Sergio. Thanks.

          • Will do Michael, thanks very much – looks like the most recent release here has both the English and French-language versions, which certainly is intriguing and Clement made several very decent movies too.

  5. I’m a long-time fan of Don Siegel’s work. David Denby, in his new book DO MOVIES HAVE A FUTURE?, mentions that Clint Eastwood learned a lot about directing from Don Siegel.

    • I’m sure Denby is right – certainly the kid of compact economy is more associated with Siegel than his other mentor, the flamboyant pop-art maestro Sergio Leone. His book certainly sounds like a good read – thanks again George.

  6. Skywatcher says:

    I first saw this movie advertised in an edition of Moviegoer that was on sale in my local Odeon cinema circa 1977, and wondered what the chances were of getting to see it. Zero, as it turned out, as I have gone four decades without viewing the film. It’s never been shown on Brit TV as far as I know, and isn’t available on DVD or the net over here. I live in hope, though.

    There’s an episode of THE NEW AVENGERS called HOUSE OF CARDS, where brainwashed agents are activated by a disgraced Soviet masterspy. It looks like a rip-off until you realise that the episode was broadcast about a year before! There does seem to have been a fascination with brainwashing at the time.

    • Bad luck Skywatcher, it’s definitely worth a look. There is a European region 2 DVD release (click here) and the US release, a double-bill with St Ives, is region free and easy to get and even cheaper (click here). Although definitely not the first, Richard Condon’s branwashing spy novel The Manchurian Candidate does cast a long shadow over these, no question. Before The New Avengers, writer-producer Brian Clemens had tried out another clever variation on it for his episode of the UK 1970s anthology Thriller (not the US Karloff series) entitles ‘An Echo of Theresa’ (YouTube has it but I shan’t link, but search under the title and it turns up immediately in its entirety)/

  7. Sergio, this is a very fine review of a film I’d seen many years ago and your thorough analysis helped revive memories of TEFLON, at least some of the scenes as I recall. I have liked Bronson in most of his films that I have seen though he did seem to be stereotyped in his “second lead status” in movies like THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Following your post, I revisited his filmography and was surprised to find the number of TV series he’d acted in, none of which I have seen, though I wonder if it had any measurable impact on his film career. I have never been a great fan of the DEATH WISH series in spite of its vigilante theme, though I’ve seen all of them on Bronson’s account. I’ll always remember him for saying little in his films. Lee Remick, I’m afraid, is a faded memory, and I hope to reverse that.

    • Thanks very much Prashant – it’s a very episodic movie so it is just the kind of experience one is only likely to remember in chunks. Lee Remick is just one of those slightly off-centre actresses who had a lot more to offer than good looks but she tended to co-star in films but get the lead on TV. She is wonderful as the equivocal wife in Anatomy of a Murder and in Days of Wine and Roses is very convincing as the tragic woman dragged into alcoholism by her husband who is then left behind when he alone is able to pull himself out of it. And of course she was the very unfortunate Mum in the original version of The Omen
      Lee Remick

  8. John says:

    Charles Bronson as a young man was a very interesting actor. As he got older he got craggy and unintelligble and often veyr dull, though oddly I did see a few of his movies (THE MECHANIC, BREAKHEART PASS, DEATH WISH). Go figure. Even I mystify myself sometimes. I saw TELEFON on TV back when I was a kid and remember nothing about it. Probably I wanted to see it because of Donald Pleasance — such a great villian in all the British horror & crime movies I loved as a kid. I saw the name Don Siegel and immediately thought: he directed that great movie with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, and Ronald Reagan (!) – THE KILLERS. Not even a passing mention in the paragraph about Siegel’s work. But you are forgiven. :^D

    • Hello John, thanks for all that. The Mechanic is highly entertaining as I recall in a, er, mechanical way and I bet is more fun in its nuts and bolts than the recent overblown-looking remake. Speaking of which, I do like Siegel’s version of The Killers but I just clustered it into the fact that he spent most of that decade in TV rather than movies although of course it did get a release when it was deemed too violent for the first ever TV-Movie of the week. Incidentally, ever noticed how most of the music is cribbed from Henry Mancini’s score for Touch of Evil?

      • John says:

        Didn’t know that about the music score of THE KILLERS. Good ears! I saw the remake of THE MECHANIC and liked it until the entry of Ben Foster’s character. Then it became grotesquely violent and heartless. There is a car chase towards the end with absurd stunts and gorey deaths, several brutal beatings that go on far too long, and enough explosions to make Jerry Bruckheimer happy for the rest of his life. Compare this kind of movie making to THE DRIVER which also had brutal violence but had a morally compromised central character who was striving for a kind of redemption. The men in Simon West’s remake are empty killing machines. Jason Statham is turning into the Bruce Willis of the 21st century. The guy needs to lighten up and turn down the testoterone level and make a comedy. Or something.

        • It will be interesting to see what Statham is like as Parker (the first time, I think, where the ‘Richard Stark’ anti-hero has been given the same name as in the books) bit I agree, there is potentially a bit more to him thanks to a decent sense of humour and it would be good to see him get out of the action-hero rut. Disappointingly, the new adaptation of William Goldman’s Heat in which he is due to star is no longer being directed by Brian DePalma but by … Simon West.

  9. Skywatcher says:

    I do find Charles Bronson movies something of a guilty pleasure. Whilst he wasn’t the most versatile actor around, he was a bit better than some of his detractors suggested. In the first DEATH WISH movie he does make the change from enlightened liberal to cold-blooded vigilante fairly believable. As the series got progressively sillier, these sorts of subtleties were lost very quickly, but the first film does make an attempt to be something other than simply an action movie. Unlike a lot of much prettier modern day actors, Bronson and stars such as Lee Marvin did at least manage to look like they might be able to handle themselves in a fight.(I’m not a fan of the books, but the idea of Tom Cruise as hulking 6 feet 5 inches Jack Reacher starts me laughing even to think of it). I also remember Bronson doing something completely off the wall in the early 90s when he played the journalist who wrote the famous ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’ newspaper article. He managed to do a film where he didn’t beat up or kill anyone for the whole movie, and did it pretty well. The 70s were perhaps the last time when beaten up older men could be action heroes, and now that I’m looking beaten up and older myself I do appreciate this.

    • I agree that Bronson had genuine star quality and had enough charisma and ability to be more than a one-trick pony. He is very good in the first Death Wish film and I just wish that the film were less detestable in its imagery – I actually like several of Michael Winner’s early British films but a lot of his later films are callous and heartless and I just could not get past the attack on the wife and daughter in the first film (and I don’t believe I’ve ever watched it uncensored either). Clearly it was meant to shock but to me it always seemed gratuitous. I think the comparison with Marvin is just right (I would add Mitchum maybe too) as men who had seen a lot of life before becoming actors and brought that with them. Cruise is obviously not the character as described int he books (I’ve only read one and it didn’t go well I’m afraid) – I do think the trailer looks pretty good actually, to my surprise as I am not really a Cruise fan.

  10. piero says:

    Great movie Telefon: is one of those movies that you never get tired of seeing, because it is built very well. A little like “The Tamarind Seed” by Edward Blake. Even then there was a couple of great actors, and many characteristics famous around. And even there a history of espionage.

    • Grazie mille – Telefon did seem to be on TV in Italy a lot when I was growing up but Bronson was always an even bigger star in Europe than in the US.Probably true of Omar Sheriff and Tamarind Seed too – I’ll be reviewing the latter very shortly.

  11. piero says:

    “The Tamarind Seed” I’ve seen it do not know how many times, and every time I see it, I focus attention on a particular that I had not considered previously. The history I know by heart. I remember the final scene, memorable, with Jack Loder (Anthony Quayle) who delivers to Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) an envelope that contains only a tamarind seed: she still has in mind the fire that devastated the bungalow and killed Colonel Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif). Then he says one thing and the two review on a green meadow in the mountains. She does not believe his eyes and they embrace the each other. I’m an incurable romantic, what can I do?

  12. Pingback: St. Ives (1976) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

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