Monday, October 17, 2005

TELEFON (1977) - Don Siegel

Pronounced “telle-fahn” in Russian, though they might as well have stuck with “Telephone” since nothing else in this movie remotely even passes for Russian anyway -- especially Charles Bronson.
The plot is potentially intriguing Cold War schmaltz, sort of a Manchurian Candidate knockoff by way of the Ukraine. A renegade Russian expatriate Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasance) has been letting his fingers do the walking, calling up deep cover Soviet sleeper cell agents in America and “activating” them over the phone with a few choices quotes from Robert Frost. Once activated, the Russian agents revert into a post-hypnotic state propelling them on suicide missions in which they commit various terrorist acts. Worried that these acts will bring about a nuclear war once the Americans discover ex-Russian agents are behind them, the Kremlin dispatches their best agent Major Borzov (Charles Bronson) to round up the sleepers and take out Dalchimsky with a little help from a female agent already in America (Lee Remick).
Can you buy that? Don’t worry, neither could I. At first, I was ready to roll with the premise. It’s far-fetched but intriguing, especially in this day and age. But the sheer fact that Bronson’s playing a Russian was a big hang-up. I couldn’t get past it. I kept waiting for the BIG REVEAL that he was a deep, deep cover American agent working the Kremlin. But it never came…and neither did the intrigue.
For one, the terrorist acts the Russian sleepers were committing were not well thought-out or devastating. One involved a small explosion at a pretty-much non-operational Army base and another a reactivated housewife blowing up what I think was some kind of oil repository. When Bronson finally figures out why Pleasance is committing these acts by spelling out the first letters of the deceased agents’ names, it’s the lame evil-madman revelation: “Dalchinsky’s spelling out his name across America!”
Yeah, and it’s spelled B-O-R-I-N-G. I don’t know if it would have helped if Bronson would have attempted a Russian accent here. That could have made matters worse and stretched the believability even thinner. As if my patience wasn’t worn thin enough by the cloying Bronson-Remick love connection that took up most of the proceedings. You kind of expect Bronson to be a one-note mass of stone in a movie -- that’s what he’s good at and that’s what you hire him for. But it just doesn’t work here, and Remick is absolutely atrocious.
As for Siegel, I unfortunately can’t make any excuses. This is definitely not one of his best efforts. There’s only one phrase that’s appropriate here -- “phoning it in.” Or would that be “fahning it in”?

1 comment:

Jordan said...

I've always kinda wanted to see this. I think now I'll skip it. Are there, at least, some wild costumes? Groovy 70s architecture? Big-ass 70s computers?