Call for sleeper agents

Bronson sent to put down the Telefon

Published: Nov 03 2013, 01:01:am

Thursday, January 19, 1978.
TELEFON. Written by Peter Hyams and Stirling Silliphant, based on the 1975 novel by Walter Wager. Music by Lalo Schifrin. Directed by Don Siegel. Running time: 102 minutes. Mature entertainment with the classifier's warning: some violence.
IT'S NICE TO BE RIGHT. Few things are quite so satisfying as being able to say (with quiet but justifiable pride): I told you so.
    Almost 10 years ago [June, 1968], I reviewed a Ken Russell film called The Billion Dollar Brain. It was a spy thriller, the third in the Harry Palmer series produced by Harry Saltzman.
    At that time, Saltzman was at the peak of his success. The Canadian-born film-maker had created both the James Bond and Palmer pictures for an apparently spy-mad audience. He seemed to have his finger firmly on the public pulse.
    My favourite character in Billion Dollar Brain was a rascally old Russian colonel named Stok, a role played with Khruschevian expansiveness by Oscar Homolka. Since he had it all over the brooding Palmer (played by Michael Caine), I looked forward to his eventual return.
    "The colonel seems ready for a movie of his own,'' I wrote at the time. "Perhaps innovator Saltzman (is) preparing his public for a new development, a Soviet spy hero."
    Welcome Major Grigori Borzov (Charles Bronson), agent of the KGB and the hero in Telefon. Detente must be real, for the Soviet spy hero has finally arrived.
    His sponsor is not producer Saltzman, but the near-legendary director Don Siegel. The man who created such urban action classics as Coogan's Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1972), both with Clint Eastwood, now gives tough guy Bronson one of his best roles ever.
    The current film offers espionage fans a breathless update on The Manchurian Candidate (1962). We learn that in the wake of the 1960 U-2 incident,
Soviet security forces shipped a small army of agents into the U. S. under the collective code name "Telefon." Each was provided with the identity of a recently deceased American.
    Although each one has a bombing mission to perform in the event of war, they were all convinced under drug-induced hypnosis that their American identities are real. When the film opens, these "deep cover" agents have been living quietly for more than 20 years, unaware that a call could come at any time to activate their post-hypnotic marching orders.
    Those orders will come from Nicolai Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasenee), an unreconstructed Stalinist who has fled to the U.S. with the Telefon file. He's determined to undermine detente by triggering the deep-cover bombs. Grigori Borzov is the man assigned to stop him.
    Siegel, a master of the action genre, always delivers a tightly paced thriller. Here, he also provides atmospheric delights. When we first meet Borzov, for example, he is coaching a boys' hockey team in Leningrad.
    He is whisked off to the KGB's Moscow headquarters. These are located in a magnificent 18th-century palace, a building full of shadowy formality and beribboned uniforms. The CIA, by contrast, is housed in an ultra-modern office complex, a bright and spacious place where the loose-limbed spy masters look more like advertising executives than serious spooks.
    Siegel doesn't waste any time getting into his story. Borzov's mission is prompted by the fact that Dalchimsky has already activated three agents.
    The CIA  is  confused. Military bases that are either obsolete or have long since lost their strategic significance are suddenly coming under attack.
    The KGB Is embarrassed. The Soviet security chiefs never got around to telling successive members of the Politbureau about Telefon, and they would prefer to deactivate the plan without ever telling them. Borzov will have to go it  alone, his only assistance coming from an American-born Russian agent named Barbara (Lee Remick).
    Bronson, who has played everything from Indians to Irishmen, here gets a chance to   explore his Eastern European origins. The Lithuanian-American actor provides Siegel with a restrained, believable performance. Siegel, in turn, backs him up with a well-chosen corps of great character actors.
    At the KGB, sinister Patrick Magee and sensitive Alan Badel are the men who created   Telefon and send Bronson along to disconnect it. At the CIA, cheerful bureaucrat Frank  Marth enlists pert Tyne Daly (Clint Eastwood's ill-fated partner in The Enforcer) to try and figure out what the hell's going on.
    Although the Peter Hyams-Stirling Silliphant script concentrates on fast-paced action, it manages to incorporate an idea troubling many a politician in both this country and the United States. When the professional security men arrive at the point where they  have more in common with one another than with their leaders, do they become a threat to the state?
    The idea is there, but Siegel is too good an entertainer to dwell upon it. His Telefon   prefers to deliver the goods. It was made for the adventure market and serves it very well indeed

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1978. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In 1978, with Quebec separation a very real possibility, such questions were in the air. Where did the loyalties of our secret services lie? How would the United States react to the disintegration of its neighbour to the north? What was going on in the shadow-world of the intelligence gatherers? That was then, and the defeat of the Quebec "sovereignty-association" referendum in May, 1980, put the issue to rest for a time. Today, we confront new questions as citizens face the reality of life in a surveillance state, the apparent result of the events of September 11, 2001. Last week, U.S. spymasters appearing before a Congressional committee did not seem at all contrite about their excesses. That we know about their activities at all has to do with the whistle-blowing rank-and-file operatives (Private Bradley Manning and NSA contractor Edward Snowden, among others) who shared a different set of loyalties, having more in common with one another than with their distant leaders. Telefon was based on a 1975 novel by Walter Wager (1924-2004), whose pulp fiction also inspired such films as Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977) and Die Hard 2 (1990). In common with the best genre writers, his stories were based on powerful real-world ideas.