The Films of Don Siegel: Telefon
In this 1977 spy thriller, a rogue KGB agent Nikolai Dalchimski (Donald Pleasance) steals a secret book containing the names of operatives hidden all over America. They have been part of a deep cover Russian offensive called Telefon (Russian spelling of Telephone) which was a new mind control experiment that was set up during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When certain lines from a poem by author Robert Frost entitled “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening” are repeated to the agents, they are psychologically triggered to proceed with attacks on different civil and military targets across the United States as a pre-strike before a possible US/USSR war. This also can be done over the phone, hence the name.
When the Russians find out about Dalchimski they realize their failure to de-activate the sleeper agents years earlier is a very dangerous and embarassing situation to say the least. They swiftly employ the help of Maj. Grigori Bortsov (Charles Bronson) who possesses a photographic memory. He is given the only other Telefon book in existance to memorize before he leaves for his mission in America to track down and kill Dalchimski. Bortsov is given one contact in the US, Barbara (Lee Remick) a beautiful woman who acts as his wife. She immediately begins to complicate things upon their meeting due to her fiestiness. Bortsov doesn’t know that Barbara is in fact a double agent that has been hired to kill him after their mission is completed. Meanwhile, CIA Headquarters at Langley begin investigating the random attacks with the help of an expert on counter-intelligence Ms. Putterman (Tyne Daly) who is like a walking encyclopedia of historical facts.
While Dalchimski continues his reign of call-in terrorism, Bortsov and Barbara do their best to try to apprehend him and figure out the method to his madness. They finally discover a consistency in the list that Dalchimski is using to choose the agents he contacts: they are the first letters of the names of their hometowns.
Director Don Siegel delivered another highly exciting thriller with Telefon which could be considered his own version of The Manchurian Candidate, another classic that dealt with militaristic mind control. It should be noted that Siegel had previously worked in the espionage genre once before with his 1974 film The Black Windmill starring Michael Caine. This project also gave him a second chance to work with Charles Bronson who he had collaborated with on some TV projects a decade or so earlier. Telefon was especially effective in the build up of its suspenseful action sequences in which the sleeper agents carry out their programmed terrorist attacks through various methods. Donald Pleasance (who had been in The Great Escape with Bronson) is excellent as the puppetmaster of destruction Dalchimski, recalling his earlier role as the evil mastermind Blofeld in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967).
FURIOUS FILM TRIVIA
– When Borzov encounters Immigration on the Canadian border, the agent asks about his citizenship and birthplace, to which he responds, “American, from Pennsylvania”, Bronson’s true birthplace.
– Director Don Siegel asked Charles Bronson to shave his trademark mustache off for this movie. Bronson replied, “No mustache, no Bronson.” Siegel said in his book ‘A Siegel Film: An Autobiography’, “I felt that inasmuch as Bronson wore a heavy mustache in Russia, it would help his disguise if he had no mustache when he arrives in Canada. However he didn’t want to shave it off.”
– While shooting in Helsinki, a young Renny Harlin was there watching Don Siegel and Charles Bronson working. After seeing two big Hollywood names working, he announced to his friends that he is going to be a film director.
– The braided wedding bands worn by Charles Bronson and Lee Remick are the same as those worn by Walter Matthau and Jaqueline Scott in Charley Varrick which was also directed by this film’s director Don Siegel.
– The Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening poem gimmick was later used by Quentin Tarantino in his 2007 thriller Death Proof. This time to help his character Stuntman Mike get a lapdance.
– Reportedly, during filming, star Charles Bronson didn’t want to kiss actress Lee Remick in the scene at airport. Bronson said that “When my wife meets me at an airport, we never kiss.” Director Don Siegel asked Remick to kiss him anyway and Remick replied, “But, Don, I don’t dare. He’s liable to hit me!” The airport greeting scene went ahead and made Don’s day.
– An on-set dispute occurred whilst filming at San Francisco’s Hyatt regency Hotel. Charles Bronson was directed to walk to a black tape mark when exiting a glass elevator. According to director Don Siegel, Bronson exclaimed: “You don’t have to show off by telling me how to get off an escalator!” Siegel then did the quiet moment director-actor thing with Bronson, walking away for a quiet chat. Siegel explained that the tape was there so as to retain the aesthetic looking glass elevators within the shot frame. Apparently, Siegel threatened to walk off the set but actor and director shook on it and the shot was completed