Sunday 6 May 2012

Movie Review: Telefon (1977)

A cold war thriller, Telefon has many of the necessary elements to deliver a taut experience, but falls somewhat short on overall talent and budget. The result is a clever but vaguely disjointed action movie that lurches forward in fits and starts.

Rogue Soviet KGB officer Nikolai Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasence) escapes an internal purge against hard-liners and lands in the United States. With his career in tatters, Dalchimsky sequentially activates Soviet sleeper agents programmed through hypnosis to unleash explosive suicide attacks on US military installations. The agents are awakened by receiving a telephone call and hearing a key passage from Robert Frost's poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Unfortunately for Dalchimsky, the targets were selected in the1950s and are now largely irrelevant, resulting in much embarrassment in Moscow and bemusement at the CIA. Major Grigori Bortsov (Charles Bronson) is selected by the Soviet leadership to travel to the US and put a stop to the mounting carnage. Borstov teams up with American double agent Barbara (Lee Remick) and they attempt to track down and eliminate Dalchimsky, with Barbara also tasked with ensuring that there are no loose ends left at the end of the mission.

Echoing themes from The Manchurian Candidate, Telefon does not lack for creativity. The script is based on Walter Wager's book, and it presents an intriguing premise of deep cold war vestiges coming back to destabilize the world when superpower relations are starting to warm. But everything about the movie is just a bit off. The script flirts too often with plastic dialogue. The relationship between Borstov and Barbara creaks instead of smouldering, neither Bronson nor Remick cut-out for the flirting agent role. And Pleasence is dripping with just a bit too much crazed evil, allowing some of the comic Bond villain Blofeld persona to creep into the role.

Despite the shortcomings, there is plenty of entertainment on offer. Director Don Siegel moves the action along briskly, Telefon never sagging in intensity. When Bronson is not asked to spar with Remick, he does what Bronson does best: smoothly slicing through the mayhem to get to his target, thinking on his feet and executing with efficiency. Tyne Daly, Alan Badel, Patrick Magee, and Sheree North maintain interest in the minor roles. And the scenes of sleeper agents completing their suicide assignments have become more unsettling with the passage of time and the preponderance of suicide bombers as routine weapons in actual global conflicts.

Although it may lack some of the glitz and polish of other thrillers, the action is honest and the execution professional. Telefon may not be the quickest to pick up, but it answers the call.

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