Built around a fun premise but suffering from humdrum execution and lifeless leading performances, this Cold War thriller plays with the provocative notion of “sleeper” agents, international operatives brainwashed into acting like normal people until exposure to code words triggers their lethal training. Specifically, the story begins when KGB bad guy Nicolai Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasence) leaves the U.S.S.R. for America and brings along the codebook for a program called “Telefon.” Activating long-dormant killers who wreak havoc on U.S. targets, Dalchimsky is an anarchist bent on provoking a war. In response, Soviet overlords send KGB tough guy Major Grigori Borzov (Charles Bronson) to America, where he goes undercover to track down and stop Dalchimsky. Tasked with aiding Borzov is a Russian mole living as an American, codenamed “Barbara” (Lee Remick).
Based on a novel by Walter Wager and written for the screen by highly capable thriller specialists Peter Hyams and Stirling Silliphant, Telefon should work, but the casting is problematic. Bronson is so harsh and stoic that it’s hard to accept him playing the romantic-hero rhythms of the Borzov role, and while it’s a relief that the leading lady isn’t Bronson’s real-life bride, Jill Ireland, who costarred in a large number of his ’70s movies, Remick seems highly disconnected from Bronson; any hope of chemistry between the leading characters probably ended the first time Bronson and Remick played a scene together.
Another problem is that the film’s director, Don Siegel, was slipping into decline. After his respectable career in B-movies enjoyed a huge late-’60s/early-’70s boost thanks to a vibrant collaboration with Clint Eastwood, Siegel was apparently suffering health problems by the late ’70s. (It’s long been rumored that Eastwood did a lot of the directing on Siegel’s next picture, 1979’s terrific Escape from Alcatraz.) Whatever the cause, however, the result is the same—Telefon feels more like a generic TV movie than a big-budget feature, thanks to flat acting and perfunctory camerawork. So even though the twisty story has a few enjoyable moments, and even though Pleasence is weirdly beguiling as always, watching Telefon becomes a chore by the time the plot gets contrived toward the climax.