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Telefon (1977)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

TELEFON (1977)

Starring: Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, Lee Remick, Tyne Daly, Patrick Magee

Written By: Peter Hyams, Stirling Silliphant, Walter Wager (novel)

Directed By: Don Siegel

The Shot

A solid tale of intrigue headlined by Charles Bronson, Telefon is a rarity worth finding: a Cold War flick where the KGB agent is the hero.

The Highball

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Red cheese for social(ist) gatherings.

Pairs Well With...


It’s what happens when Russian specialists come to America and do their thing.

“The things we do in the name of Socialism!”

Telefon is a Cold War era gem that somehow managed to get lost in the dust storm of time: a Hollywood film about a KGB agent whose job – on orders from the Soviet government, mind! – is to prevent a series of attacks against the United States.

That’s right, folks: the KGB agent is the hero.  (I don’t think I need to spell out just how rare a thing that is to find in a movie made during the middle of the Cold War.  The USSR news agency Izvestia condemned it anyway, of course.)  Bonus: said heroic KGB agent is played by reliably understated badass Charles Bronson, whose unique brand of quiet intensity brings immediate gravitas to the character while also keeping him accessible to the target audience of 1977 America and making it easy for said audience to accept him as the good guy.  (As a major Bronson fan myself, I’ll say that this role stands as one of my favorites of his.)

Bronson’s stoically heroic KGB agent is pitted against an egotiscally insane rogue KGB agent (what; you didn’t think the Soviets wouldn’t still be the bad guys somehow, did you?) played by Donald Pleasence, whose unnerved portrayal strikes a fine balance to Bronson’s own work.  It needs to, because while the nature of his character’s menace is fascinating – he holds the key to activating 51 Soviet “sleeper” agents ready to commit sabotage missions throughout the United States – the execution of that menace can only be seen as deeply flawed by anyone who gives more than a moment’s thought to the proceedings.  But then again, the movie wouldn’t even be possible if the villain wasn’t such a narcissist (for otherwise, the villain could have won within an hour of arriving in America), so I’m willing to give that gaping plot hole a pass.

Bronson’s KGB hero gets a sidekick in the form of a turncoat American played with an air of happy amusement by Lee Remick.  Many who comment on Telefon describe her portrayal as off putting and out of place, but I find it to be a fun contrast to not only Bronson’s performance, but also to the stark intensity of the story overall.  It also sets up what has to be the creepiest kill in the movie; I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that it wouldn’t be nearly as effective if not for the setup of Remick’s bubbliness early on.  If only the script would have allowed things to stay platonic all the way through the end credits… Hollywood conceits for the loss.

Speaking of losses… a lot of screen time is devoted to a silly and ultimately pointless subplot involving a CIA computer analyst played by Tyne Daly.  One suspects this to be a holdover from the Walter Wager novel upon which Telefon is based, but in this screen adaptation, it is a complete waste of time that breaks up the otherwise outstanding atmosphere generated our heroes’ efforts to chase down the bad guy (and the horrible things said bad guy does in the meantime).  It is indeed that one glaring flaw that prevents me from being able to call Telefon anything better than “good,” and I suspect that it has played no small part in the overall marginalization of the film in the catalog of Cold War classics.

That’s a shame, really, because imperfect though it is, I do consider Telefon to be an essential stop on any cinematic tour of the Cold War era.  The novelty of its KGB hero and the spot-on portrayal of said hero by Charles Bronson make for a compelling one-two opening draw, but the interesting story (minus the aforementioned superfluous subplot) and wonderful direction by Don Siegel give it staying power, and make Telefon well worth adding to your permanent library.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, May, 2015

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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