Friday, September 3, 2010

Quickies: TELEFON (1977)

Movie fans who revere the 1970s as a golden age of filmmaking often condemn Star Wars and similar effects-laden blockbusters for bringing about a great dumbing down of cinema from the decade's lofty standard. But George Lucas can't be blamed for a film that came out the same year as Star Wars, and was certainly in the works before that one was released, but is as dumb an A picture as the Seventies served up, despite the direction of Don Siegel, a reputed master. Telefon is dumb even by our debased standards. It has an interesting premise, making a KGB agent in America the hero of the story, but Charles Bronson sleepwalks the character through the film. He's sent by his superiors to take out a rogue agent who has, for inscrutable reasons, decided to activate sleeper agents who'd been planted in the States fifteen years earlier. Luckily for him, and bad for world peace, all these sleepers can be activated by the same trigger phrase, a couplet from Robert Frost. We see these sleepers abandon jobs, homes and families to go on kamikaze runs against targets that we're told are strategically obsolete. We never know enough about any of the sleepers to care about their fates, and the irrelevance of their missions makes their attacks unsuspenseful. The danger, we're told, is that World War III might start if we Americans find out that this wave of crazy attacks are actually a Soviet plot, but there's never any suspense over whether we'll catch on, because apart from early computer geek Tyne Daly, the Yanks are idiots. Nevertheless, Bronson feels pressured to discover a pattern to the villain's apparently random sequence of wake-up calls in order to end his spree before we catch on to it. In this he's aided by ruthless Commie spy Lee Remick, a woman who has killed before, we're told, though Remick's silly performance doesn't match the profile. She has a hidden agenda or two to heighten the theoretical suspense, but her real role in the film is to nag Bronson about everything, from the necessity of secrecy to the propriety of murder, and thus win his love. Their quarry is Donald Pleasance, who regrettably abandons early on the Elton John wig that was the most interesting aspect of his character. You'll recall that I mentioned stupidity earlier. Well, here it is: Pleasance the relentless Russian has picked his sleepers and his targets as a way of writing his name, acrostic-style, across the United States -- in English. I may have spoiled Telefon for those who haven't seen it, but if you ever have a chance to see it (as I did on TCM last week) and don't, you'll thank me.

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