I seem to have made it my mission in life to watch every spy movie ever made—an unrealistic goal, but it has the feel of truth. I will especially endeavor to cover the seventies, because it’s easily my favorite decade of cinema, that distinctly transitional period between the classics and the blockbusters, the conservative and the progressive, the conventional and the experimental.
So yeah, occasionally that means I have to watch something like Telefon (1976), which is dingy, obvious, and not particularly interesting—except, occasionally, by accident. Telefon kicks off when a rogue Soviet agent named Nikolai Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasance) starts creating havoc in the United States by activating sleeper agents from a decommissioned, secret initiative. These agents, planted decades earlier, are programmed to carry out suicide missions of guerrilla warfare against the U.S. in the event of a greater conflict; Dalchimsky has singled-handedly decided to turn them loose. The Sovet espiocrats in Moscow are determined to put a stop to this without alerting either the U.S. or their own superiors, who were unaware of the program. To that end, they ship Major Grigori Borzov (Charles Bronson) to the United States to quietly deal with the problem.
Telefon is exactly as cheesy as it sounds, and has little going for outside of a slick Lalo Schifrin score that makes it feel like a Mission: Impossible episode. Bronson is stiff and unlikable as the “hero,” while Pleasance is a cipher of a villain. Indeed, the only characters worth getting invested in are the two main female characters: Borzov’s American contact Barbara (Lee Remick), a plucky double agent, and brilliant intelligence analyst Dottie Putterman (Tyne Daly). Both of these characters manage to pull of that unique seventies trick of being more well rounded than many female characters of modern Hollywood, even as they throw the unconscious sexism of their era into sharp relief. (For reasons invisible, Barbara of course falls for Borzov, while Putterman is so pleased to be sexually harassed by her boss that she celebrates by typing a cheer into her computer.) The dialogue is basic, the thrills nonexistent, the ending anticlimactic. Unless you’re curious to see how easy a Canada-to-America border crossing was in the mid-seventies, or wish to be amused by the villain’s desperate search for a road map at a gas station so he can find his next target, there’s not much to steer you toward Telefon, a spy junkie’s laundry-folder.