Friday, August 7, 2009

Film Review: TELEFON (1977, Don Siegel)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, Lee Remick (THE OMEN), Tyne Daly (THE ENFORCER), Patrick Magee (CLOCKWORK ORANGE), John Mitchum (DIRTY HARRY, Bob's brother), Robert Phillips (THE KILLERS, THE DIRTY DOZEN), music by Lalo Schifrin.
Tag-lines: "They'll do anything to stop... TELEFON. The operation that can trigger 51 human time bombs!" From the trailer: "The next time your phone rings, how do you know it won't be YOUR turn? You'll never know... until you see...."
Best one-liner: "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep. Remember. Miles to go before I sleep."

TELEFON makes good on the promise inherent in its title: it is full of telephones. It's a high-tech thrill ride from an era when using a dot matrix printer was a high-tech thrill ride, and that is my favorite kind of high-tech thrill ride.

The plot is this: a Soviet madman (a bug-eyed Donald Pleasence, nefariously lurking in the shadows) decides to unleash the top secret program TELEFON. It's full of agents so deep undercover, they don't even know they're agents- until someone recites a Robert Frost poem (printed above under 'best one-liner') which transforms them into automotons who commit ridiculous acts of sabotage. Wanting to avoid World War III, Patrick Magee (doing some SERIOUS eyebrow indicating)

Magee: always understated.

sends in the KGB's top man- Bronson– to shut Pleasence down. Which means Bronson's gonna be 'undercover' in the USA for the majority of the movie, which means that he only has to do a Russian accent for his very first scene (in Russia), which is a real good thing for all involved.

Bronson classes up Moscow significantly.

Don Siegel directs TELEFON with a sort of playful flair that begins with the very first credit- the hand-scrawled declaration of "A Siegel Film." Compared to his 1973 film, CHARLEY VARRICK (which admittedly at times did possess a certain dark humor), TELEFON is downright lighthearted. With all of its imposing modern edifices, bold primary colors, bureaucractic comic relief, and creative critique of modern communications, one almost gets the idea that this is what it would be like if Jacques Tati were ever to direct an action film. But Siegel facetiously delivers on all of the necessary tropes: Parking deck shootout? Check. Cars blowing up? Check. A patient being assassinated in a hospital? Check. Computers that constantly tell you the probability of events happening? Check. Explosions? Check, check, and check. And Lalo Schifrin puts together a pretty bumpin' 70's soundtrack (much like his work on DIRTY HARRY) to accentuate all of this cross-country spy madness.

Now this was the only feature film collaboration between Siegel and Bronson, and it's a shame there weren't more (though Bronson appeared as a "Thug" in the Siegel-directed pilot episode of 1954's THE LINEUP, and Siegel produced the 1966 show THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES, an episode of which featured Bronson). Maybe it had to do with the (possibly imaginary) Bronson vs. Eastwood rivalry (which I intend to do a full write-up on, soon) and the fact that Eastwood was Siegel's usual go-to guy. Rumor has it that Siegel was insistent on Bronson shaving off his mustache for the film. Bronson's retort was, "No mustache, no Bronson." And Siegel's got Bronson tooling around here with a .357 Magnum- Dirty Harry's gun. It's hard to tell if Bronson resents it or not. Or if maybe his character, Major Grigori Borzov, resents it. Or, maybe Borzov's undercover "acting" persona, the American 'Greg,' resents it. There are a lot of layers to this performance.

Bronson charms a lady with effortless wit and pizzaz.

There is some hilarious Cold War dialogue here, and I'm pretty sure it's intentionally tongue-in-cheek. During a harrowing scenario: Soviet #1: "God help us." Soviet #2: –"God?" Wowww. Later, a Russian agent enters a shitty motel room and wryly observes "What we do in the name of socialism!" And it's mind-blowing when we find out the method for the order by which Pleasence is picking the sleeper agents off of the 50-person list– he's spelling out his own name via the first letter of each agent's hometown. Not only is it head-scratchingly absurd (and reminiscent of TWIN PEAKS' Killer BOB and his fingernail messages), but it leads to an incredulous Bronson exclaiming in that unnerving fashion of his (see "It's MY CAR!" from DEATH WISH 3) that "He's writing his name across the country!"

Bronson vs. Pleasence.

This all leads up to a finale that involves, and I shit you not: a honky-tonk Texas bar, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, some Texas rangers, a player piano, strangulation, a cyanide capsule, and a rattlesnake getting its head blown off in slow motion. All of these things converge in under five minutes, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't amazing.

The rattlesnake explodes.

Yet another brilliant film from Don Siegel (and thus more fodder for Tarantino– note his repeated use of the same Frost poem in DEATH PROOF; also see: CHARLEY VARRICK's influence on PULP FICTION), and yet another solid Bronson actioneer. It hits just the right notes, and somehow manages to turn a Cold War paranoia piece into a vague exercise in cheerful cultural healing. Bravo, Mr. Siegel.

-Sean Gill

1 comment:

Jason said...

"TELEFON makes good on the promise inherent in its title: it is full of telephones."