One thing I really miss about mid-Cold War espionage movies is the sound of teletypes chunking away as titles show up on the screen. If you're nostalgic for that CHNK-CHNK-CHNK-CHNK noise I can recommend today's movie unreservedly. And last week's too, for that matter. There's something dehumanizing and awful about that particular sound, the clattering of mechanical appendages carrying out a task they don't actually comprehend and can't refuse. And yes, dear reader, that's a metaphor for the threat in this week's movie...
The film starts in Moscow, where a small battalion of either Soviet army or KGB types--or maybe both working together--raids a surprisingly large apartment looking for someone named Dalchimsky (two things of note: first, I don't know if the apartment, which is spacious and rather opulently furnished, is supposed to signify Dalchimsky as an important man under threat from even more important men or if it's just like an apartment in a sitcom, where an unemployed actor can afford six gigantic and well-furnished rooms in Manhattan; second, Soviet Bloc construction materials can make you look like a complete idiot if you manage to put your foot completely through the door rather than just kicking it open like you tried). Dalchimsky isn't home, and he apparently lives with his aged mother, which signifies "big giant nerd" to me know--anyone who was paying attention to American culture in 1977 care to tell me if that was the case then? A general in charge of the "we should totally grab this Dalchimsky guy" operation opines that he's fled in advance of the raid on his home, and that God help the USSR if he carries out his plan. Which is a bit of a tipoff about how bad things are--I'm sure a dutiful Soviet general wasn't supposed to want divine aid in the case of catastrophe.
And then things get a little disjointed. A pay phone at an auto repair shop in Denver rings and when a garrulous mechanic in his late fifties or early sixties named Harry Bascomb answers it, he hears a cultured voice reading a brief Robert Frost selection to him and commanding him to remember; then his eyes go dead. He plods out of his garage like a zombie and instead of giving a lap dance to Kurt Russell he wedges a heavy footlocker on the front bumper of his wrecker truck, drives a considerable distance with no human expression on his face, and suicide-charges into a National Guard base, demolishing the main buildings there completely and charring his truck and himself beyond recognition. A reaction shot of Donald Pleasence witnessing the carnage means that however bad this looks, it's got to be even worse than the viewer can imagine. If Ernst Stavro Blofeld has shown up to see the carnage, it's an unquestionably bad thing.
Meanwhile, at the headquarters of the CIA, an analyst played by Tyne Daly (and named Futterman--I can only hope that Dick Miller's inebriated snowplow driver from Gremlins is her uncle or something) uses some totally boss 1970s keyboards and display terminals to compile a list of two dozen hard-line high ranking Stalinists who died suddenly from causes as varied as car accidents and ice-floe mishaps. And as they're looking over this particular nugget of data, another operative brings them another piece of the puzzle--Harry Bascomb died more than two decades ago, which of course brings up the question of exactly who it was that successfully carried out Operation Vroom Vroom Boom in Colorado.
And then a late-middle-aged charter helicopter pilot in Florida arguing with his wife gets a phone call from Donald Pleasence, walks away from his spouse with no reaction to her increasingly strident efforts to get his attention, retrieves a heavy footlocker and is blown out of the sky in his own whirlybird by the Navy as he attempts to make a kamikaze run on a communications base, followed by Donald Pleasence attempting some kind of Benny Hill cosplay in an electronics store, disappointed to watch the news coverage of the failed suicide run. And right after that, he finds a pay phone and makes another call to some poor son of a bitch in Akron, Ohio (the home of Devo).
Meanwhile, back in Russia, Charles Bronson is coaching a youth hockey game. He's summoned to KGB headquarters to get a briefing about the terrorist attacks in Colorado, Florida and Ohio (revealing that his character is a major in the KGB rather than simply an athletic supporter) and at the end of the briefing the office's chai wallah is told that Cleopatra says there will be snow from the west. The tea boy pulls out an (empty) gun, points it at everyone in the room and dry-fires a few times, then sticks it in his mouth and pulls the trigger until he is physically removed from the room by a couple of burly guys. It turns out the KGB started with dozens of agents that were familiar with the United States and subjected them to courses of drug-assisted hypnosis that overrode their personalities and memories, making them genuinely believe that they were the people their cover identities were supposed to be. One trigger phrase turns them into ardent Second Amendment enthusiasts and another sends them on a suicide run to destroy a target that the USSR wanted taken out in the case of war with America, either conventional or nuclear. The operation was code-named "Telefon", for the device that would set off either a murder spree or a calculted act of terrorism. Bronson's operative asks, as you would, when the deep-cover infiltrators were brought back out to the Soviet Union.
They weren't. And, unfortunately, the Telefon program started long enough ago that none of the current political leaders--in the Soviet bloc or the West--know anything about it. It would be a diplomatic and political suicide pill for the USSR to admit that they'd salted America with living Svengali bombs, and the KGB wants the problem solved before the Premier or the President figure out exactly what is going on. If the Americans find out first, it could potentially lead to global war in retaliation for the program and the bombings, while it's merely the KGB officers' heads that will roll if the Politburo figures out the extent of the problem. Either way, it's up to Major Grigori Borzov to neutralize Dalchimsky and destroy the Telefon directory so that no trace of the operation remains in America. Dalchimsky stole one of two copies of the list of Telefon spies, so Bronson is allowed to take temporary possession of the remaining book while in the Kremlin. He's aided by one interesting personal quirk--Borzov happens to possess a complete photographic memory, so by reading the Telefon list that the KGB still has, he turns his own brain into the third codebook. And, of course, no matter how smart the CIA is they still can't read minds so there's no hard evidence of Telefon to be retrieved if Borzov botches things badly enough to be discovered and then captured alive.
And now the pieces fall into place for the viewer, if not the CIA characters still working on the puzzle. Dalchimsky has a list of the Telefon subjects and knows the code phrase to turn them into mass murderers, and Bronson sneaks into the country via the Canadian border with fake papers and a deep-cover agent played by Lee Remick posing as his wife to provide assistance with his mission. And as things tend to happen in movies, the people forced by circumstances to portray themselves as lovers start out bickering and end up genuinely falling for each other, at least a little bit.
With all the pieces now on the board, the movie divides its time between scenes of Pleasance triggering suicide bombers via remote control and the destruction that results each time, Bronson and Remick investigating and trying to figure out where and when the next attack will occur, and the CIA brain trust inching closer to the truth as Futterman turns out to have a memory as expansive as Borzov's, though she's much more suited to research and logistical coordination than field operations. None of which is going to matter all that much in the end for our hero, as it turns out that the KGB considers the operation finished when the third Telefon book has also been destroyed, so Borzov will be pitted against his own masters to save his life after he saves the world...
I didn't mean to find two movies in a row that feature low-key odd couple romances between people forced together in romantically entangled cover identities, but I did. Odd, that. And it's true that Charles Bronson doesn't make much of a romantic lead in this movie. But it's still fun to watch him work, putting the pieces together to anticipate Dalchimsky's moves and figure out ways to get closer to him physically when hampered by having to work undercover. It also doesn't help things that the Telefon spies are scattered all over the country and that in America, nobody needs travel permits to move around within the national borders. Just cash (and in pre-World Trade Center attacks America, there's a totally understandable lack of security checkpoints at the airports). And as Dalchimsky realizes he is being shadowed, the pace of his own efforts increases.
One thing to watch for when you're giving this film a spin is the shots of people pressing keys on a keyboard or switches on a slide projector (or display terminal, or telephone keypad, or coffee-attendant-summoning button). There's a consistent running gag of sorts where the movie shows the full process of people operating machinery, where the press of a button brings in someone who will be providing a refreshing beverage and the use of a trigger phrase turns him into a mindless homicidal berserker. The film appears to be gently reminding the viewer that even without KGB chemical hypnosis, there's a lot of people who get a stimulus and give a predictable response.
Second, it was remarkable to me to watch the film's treatment of American life. The Soviet human time bombs are a bunch of standard-looking people--auto mechanics, housewives, fisherman and the like. One of them is apparently facing bankruptcy (in a capitalist system, there's some winners and some losers and the results are built into the system; but the movie could have shown the doomed pilot as someone rich and successful just as easily as someone who can't keep his head above water). One is a priest, which is another kind of career path that wouldn't exist in the Soviet society. It's entirely possible that the undercover Telefon subjects would be able to live long and happy lives with nothing more serious than a parking ticket if Dalchimsky never calls them. In a way, it's showing the strength of the American ideal, that anyone can come here and get at least a shot at success and happiness (though now that I'm thinking about it, every Telefon subject we see is white).
Lastly, I thought the movie's treatment of Borzov's photographic memory was extremely well handled by Don Siegel and by the screenwriters. Borzov isn't an instant super genius capable of figuring things out instantly, he's just someone who doesn't have to take notes when studying and can piece things together eventually if he gets enough information. This is what allows him to defeat Dalchimsky in the end (oh, like Bronson was going to lose in an action movie from 1977). Unlike the Telefon spies or the tea attendant at the KGB, Borzov is in full possession of his mind, and his free will allows him to anticipate what's going to happen, to plan, to improvise and to use his intuition to not only outsmart Dalchimsky but to figure out the signal of Dalchimsky's plan buried in all the noise of panic and dread that the suicide attacks (and the penalties of Borzov's failure and success).