"You must admit it's ironic, the KBG sending you to protect the American Establishment," says Yankee accomplice Lee Remick to Soviet secret agent Charles Bronson late in "Telefon," a new espionage melodrama at several area theaters.
This line says a lot, since it reflects the movie's uncertainty about whether the audience has been witty enough to appreciate the filmmakers' little detente-in-spired joke of casting Bronson as a Soviet spy trying to prevent a renegade colleague, Donald Pleasence, from provoking World War III with acts of sabotage in the United States.
The real problem is that the filmmakers lay out this story blueprint so doggedly that the audienfe is invariably 25 pages of expository chitchat ahead of them. Following "Telefon" is about as thrilling as being kept on hold for the better part of the day.
The title refers to a telephone-activated sabotage network supposedly by the KBG back in the early '60s. If worse came to worst, about 50 agents long since submerged in ordinary American identities and walks of life could be triggered into carrying out strategic acts of sabotage in the manner popularized by "The Manchurian Candidate" - hearing a code phrase that compels them to obey hypnotically implanted commands.
There's a tension-eliminating goofiness about the premise from the outset. KBG biggies Patrick Magee and Alan Badel turn to Bronson, the superspy with the photographic memory, because they don't want to 'fess up to Brezhnev; assuming the Telefon project had become obsolete, they didn't tell him about it. As a matter of fact, it probably is obsolete, they didn't tell him about it. As a matter of fact, it probably is obsolete. Pleasence can't retarget the human missiles he activates. In the first of these suicide missions we're invited to see a Denver gas stateion owner blow up what used to be a Chemical-Biological Warfare storage depot.
Upon his arrival Bronson is contacted by Remick, an American liaison who rivals Pleasence as a candidate for instant liquidation in my book. Supposedly assigned to assist Bronson, she immediately begins to henpeck him prattle and demands for equality. But the filmmakers have a surprise up their sleeves, eventually played with no flourish, that they think explains her presumptuous conduct.
In my naive way, conditioned by so many years of stories in which characters with apparent affinities were brough together and clues were systematically followed up, I kept expecting Bronson to be matched with the likable woman on the premises, a brainy CIA researcher played by Tyne Daly (who also brought an ingratiating note of humanity to the last Clint Eastwood vehicle. "The Enforcer"). I still see no compelling reason why the paths of the American office worker with the fabulous memory and the Russian field operative with the fabulous memory shouldn't cross.
The script credited to Peter Hyams and Stirling Silliphant tends to inspire unintentional mirth at least from the moment one hears the ominous code phrase - a passage from Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Still, they have a way to go before matching the editorial writers at Izvestia, who handed the film company a publicity bonus when "Telefon" was shooting in Helsinki, which doubled for Moscow.
The Izvestia salvo couldn't have been wilder: "It is obvious that the film has a provicative character. Its purpose is to stroke up a psychosis against the Soviet Union in western countries. . . The wires from this 'Telefon' lead back notorious western intelligence agencies which use every dirty method in their anti-Soviet activities."
Director Don Siegel joked that he expected to be summoned to the Kremlin and awarded a decoration after the movie came out.
He can dream, but no one will be pinning decorations on him for the quality of "Telefon." If anything, Siegel's style of direction seems to be slowing to an irreversible plod.