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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Telefon’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you have to cringe at how folks in the past simply expected the women to clean up the mess…

Telefon (1977)
Distributed by: MGM
Directed by: Don Siegel

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep…

If your high school English class didn’t beat out of you any feelings for one of Robert Frost’s more famous poems, this movie will finish the job…

We open in what we’re told is Moscow (Finland, actually), where we see a squad of KGB agents decked out with black coats, karakuls, and Kalashnikovs, deploy from the back of a van. Their objective is to bring into custody their target, Nicolai Dalchimsky, but the leader of the operation Colonel Malchenko (Alan Badel) is told by the Dalchimsky’s mother (Ansa Ikonen) that he’d left, with no forwarding address.

Malchenko relays this to his superior, General Strelski (Patrick Magee), fearing that they are too late. Which, we see as the action moves to Denver, is exactly the case:

Watching as Harry Bascom (John Mitchum) goes from local character to international pawn is Nicolai Dalchimsky himself (Donald Pleasence), who placed the phone call and observed what happened after reading the man the lines of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” that made him commit an act of terrorism.

(Insert pervy folks who just like to watch joke here…)

This act of terror is followed by two subsequent such actions. These come to the attention of the CIA’s counterintelligence unit, where analyst Dorothy Putterman (Tyne Daly) brings up the fact that just before these sleeper cells hit, that a number of Soviet hardliners have met unfortunate ends over a very short period of time, suggesting that the USSR has done some “house cleaning” in the name of détente.

The members of the Soviet regime that purged the hardliners would like to keep coexisting with the west, and call up Major Grigori Borzov (Charles Bronson) for a briefing that does a great job of laying out the plot for the film:

https://youtu.be/v1L1_5pkalo

Brozov is met when he gets to the west by his contact, codenamed Barbara (Lee Remick). She has orders to do everything asked of her by Brozov as he carries out his mission, to eliminate Dalchimsky and all the assets of Operation: Telefon. Because Broznov has a photographic memory, he can track down the sleeper agents without risk of any intel falling into enemy hands.

His handlers at the KGB note in passing back in Moscow that that makes their agent only the third copy of this data, and give voice in conversation how their minds are following the same thinking behind Benjamin Franklyn’s quote, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Which, they mention, is in the orders they’ve given to Barbara as to what she must do when Brozov finishes his mission…

Barbara has second thoughts about what she must do, and relays her reservations about this to her handlers… in Langley! For Barbara is a mole, a double agent who works for the USSR and passes on all intel she can to the Americans, who tell Barbara that to keep her cover, she has to kill Brozov.

Which means that both the Russians and Americans are keeping tabs on this KGB agent, who’s sent to America to kill Russian agents posing as Americans, as well as the member of the KGB who is going to trigger all these fake Americans…

Yeah, it gets nuts quickly here…

Here, however, the idea doesn’t work as executed.

We’re told that these assets have been in the States for 15 years, none of them possibly activated by accident or suspicious if their subconscious bothered them a little if their programming slipped.

Which might be easy to ignore, except that their caches that they collect for their missions are (a) still in working order after all this time, and (b) are placed in structures and locations right at hand that weren’t built until after the agents were placed in the US. (One of them has his cache in the parking lot of a hotel, the location being the same one we see in The Towering Inferno in fact, which was built less than five years before the film came out…)

In terms of realism, the biggest problem is in the casting. There is just no way anyone could ever confuse Charles Bronson with a Russian, especially at this stage in his career where the producers would hire him more for his persona being a box office draw than his ability to assume a character. In all fairness, we never got an American or British leading man believably playing a Russian character during the Cold War, whether it’s John Hurt, Sam Neill, Harrison Ford, of Sean Connery (twice), but of all of them, Bronson is the least convincing of the set.

We’re also never convinced that Bronson and Remick’s characters could have anything beyond a cold working relationship, even though they both develop feelings for each other that complicates things. According to Seigel’s autobiography, Remick was supposedly terrified of working with Bronson, and the way Brozov treats Barbara through the film suggests that Remick may have had good reason to be scared. (As written, though, even Bronson’s wife at the time and occasional co-star Jill Ireland might not have made audiences believe that there was a connection made between the two characters.)

Speaking of characters, a modern viewer looking back at the film might be confused why the film had to go on for as long as it did. They’d wonder why there were two females who did most of the work to unravel Operation: Telefon, yet were relegated to supporting the men around them. Barbara, for one, we’re told is an impressive agent who can play the CIA and KGB against each other, and can even kill a target without hesitation. She’s able to do in this film everything Charlize Theron does in Atomic Blonde, except act on anything on her own without a man telling her what to do.

And then we have Dorothy. Daly’s analyst is a whiz with what few computers the CIA had in 1977, probably the only computers in US intelligence at the time. She can also do a lot of cross-check and recall for essential clues without relying on the clunky ancient hardware we see, showing phenomenal analytical skills that’d make Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan look like a sleepy toddler. Take away the dismissive bosses above her and have her head the section, she could have probably rounded up all the Soviet deep assets by herself twenty minutes before the film ended.

But, that would have required that this was a sensible scenario, and Siegel acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times that “the story is cockamamie at best.” Whether this would have worked better if directed by Peter Hyams, who did the screenplay from the novel and originally wanted the gig, or Richard Lester, who was briefly offered the pic, is questionable. Siegel does pretty well with what he had to work with, despite the (literal) character flaws. Nice touches include small pauses in the middle of scenes that we find out later were moments the CIA was photographing characters, and having Lalo Schifrin provide a score that works well to give context as to who’s involved in which action.

There’s a few interesting ideas offered here, probably more than a film that needed Charles Bronson at the height of his draw to be greenlit would normally have. The hardcore Bronson contingent are likely the only ones today who’d want to remember this film from the détente era with little understanding as to how to actually reprogram people.

All the same, though, just to be safe, maybe we should avoid Frost for now and read more Alexander Pushkin…

 

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