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Telefon is a 1977 spy film directed by Don Siegel and starring Charles Bronson, Lee Remick and Donald Pleasence.[1] The screenplay by Peter Hyams and Stirling Silliphant is based on the 1975 novel by Walter Wager.

Telefon poster.jpg
theatrical poster
Directed byDon Siegel
Produced byJames B. Harris
Screenplay byPeter Hyams
Stirling Silliphant
Based onthe novel by
Walter Wager
StarringCharles Bronson
Lee Remick
Donald Pleasence
Music byLalo Schifrin
CinematographyMichael Butler
Edited byDouglas Stewart
Distributed byUnited Artists (United States/Canada)
Cinema International Corporation (international)
Release date
  • December 16, 1977 (1977-12-16) (U.S.)
Running time
102 minutes
CountryUnited States


After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union planted a number of long-term, deep-cover sleeper agents all over the United States, spies so thoroughly brainwashed that even they did not know they were agents and can be activated only by a special code phrase. (The phrase is a line from the Robert Frost poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", followed by the agent's real first name.) Their mission was to sabotage crucial parts of the civil and military infrastructure in the event of conflict.

More than 20 years pass, and the Cold War gradually gives way to détente. Narrowly escaping a relentless purge of old Stalinism loyalists, Nikolai Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasence), a rogue KGB headquarters clerk, travels to America, taking with him the Telefon Book which contains the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all the sleeper agents. He starts activating them, one by one. American counterintelligence is thrown into confusion when seemingly ordinary citizens blow up what were formerly top secret facilities that have since become relatively inconsequential, and then commit suicide.

The KGB dares not tell its political leaders, much less the Americans, about its negligence in not deactivating the spy network. KGB Major Grigori Borzov (Charles Bronson), who is selected for his photographic memory, memorizes the contents of the only other copy of the Telefon Book. He is then sent to find and stop Dalchimsky quietly, before either side learns what is happening, which would greatly embarrass the KGB and possibly even start a war between the powers. Borzov is given the assistance of only a single agent, Barbara (Lee Remick), planted in America years before.

Eventually, Borzov realizes the method behind Dalchimsky's pattern of attacks: he has chosen the agents by the first letters of their American hometowns, "writing" his own name in sabotage across America. Using that information, Borzov is able to anticipate Dalchimsky's next chosen sleeper agent, and locate and kill Dalchimsky.

However, there are a number of twists. Barbara has orders from the KGB to assassinate Borzov once he succeeds, to get rid of a dangerous loose end. In addition, she is a double agent actually working for America. When she informs her American superior, Sandburg (Frank Marth), he also tells her to kill Borzov, so she will retain the confidence of the KGB. However, Barbara has fallen in love with her would-be target. She informs Borzov, and together they blackmail both sides into leaving them alone, holding the threat of the remaining Telefon agents over their heads.




MGM bought the film rights to the novel in October 1974.[2][3] The novel was published in April 1975. The New York Times called the novel "a doozie of a thriller".[4]

Peter Bellwood was the first writer. Then Peter Hyams wrote a script. Hyams says Dan Melnick then head of MGM told him he wanted Hyams to write and direct, but his last film Peeper had flopped and Hyams said "he knew there was no way he was going to let me direct it." They did like the script but brought in Richard Lester to direct. Hyams rewrote the script for Lester, who then left the project and Don Siegel came on board. Hyams would leave to make Capricorn One and Stirling Silliphant rewrote the script.[5][6]

In August 1976 it was announced Don Siegel would direct and Charles Bronson would star.[7] Siegel had directed Bronson in TV in the late 50s and said "I wanted to do this one because of Bronson. I think we would make a natural team."[8]

Bronson's wife Jill Ireland often worked with her husband and Bronson said the female lead was "perfect for her" but he did not insist and Lee Remick was cast instead.[9]


Principal photography began in January 1977.

Some of the film was shot in Finland, which doubled for Russia. A magazine in the Soviet Union ran an article critical of the film, claiming it aimed to stir up trouble and demonised the Russians. Don Siegel denied this saying the film was "pro Russia and pro peace."[10]

"I have to face the fact the story is cockamamie at best," said Siegel. "So I've been particularly painstaking to give the movie a feeling of authenticity."[8]

The city skyline depicting Houston, where part of the story line occurred, is actually that of Great Falls, Montana, where the majority of the film was shot. During filming, the crew had to order two truckloads of snow needed for one of the scenes, because the chinook winds in the area took away snow they had. They were trucked from the mountains. Filming in downtown Great Falls was also included. The exploding building in one scene is actually the controlled demolition of the old Paris Gibson Junior High School. The explosion scene was filmed on February 20, 1977. The present day Paris Gibson square was undamaged, but the explosion started roof fires on a couple of nearby houses that were quickly extinguished by city firefighters hired by the movie company on stand by.

The Houston scenes were shot on a Hollywood backlot, while the interior of the Houston Hyatt Regency was portrayed by 5 Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, California - the location which was also used in The Towering Inferno.

The scenes with fires and explosions at a rocket engine test site were filmed at Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the mountains northwest of Los Angeles.

According to director Siegel, actress Lee Remick was terrified of Charles Bronson, and when asked to touch his face during a scene, responded, "I don't dare. He'll bite me!"[11]

As parts of the film were shot in Finland, there are several cameo appearances by Finnish movie stars, most notably Ansa Ikonen.[12]


Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "Though there are action sequences in 'Telefon,' they are never sustained, and the screenplay only occasionally comes up with witty substitutes for the missing plausibility. However, to describe 'Telefon' as synthetic is to take it more seriously than it's taken by anyone connected with it."[13] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety called the film "pleasant escapism" with a story that "runs its interesting if predictable course until fadeout romantic clinch as the stars tell their respective employers to let them live in peace somewhere nice and idyllic, which by this time is really asking too much of audiences."[14] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 3 stars out of 4 and wrote that it "is by no means a great picture — just solid action held together by a string of explosions. In other words, it's a good movie to eat popcorn by."[15] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called the film "a sleek diversion that hasn't much more to it than a routine TV movie."[16] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated, "The real problem is that the filmmakers lay out this story blueprint so doggedly that the audience 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."[17] Richard Combs of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "This dismal attempt to ring some changes in the spy genre—the protagonist is a KGB agent, his mission is to preserve East-West cordiality—is fatally undercut both by its surprisingly lukewarm plot and unengaged characters and by the fact that its updating is already out of date, Russian-American détente having sprung many leaks."[18]

"It was a typical Siegel film," Siegel said later. "It made absolutely no sense. I did the film because basically I'm a whore."[19]

The film currently holds a score of 33% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 12 reviews.[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Variety film review; December 14, 1977, page 12.
  2. ^ 'Telefon' Will Be Filmed by MGM Los Angeles Times 25 Oct 1974: g22.
  3. ^ News of the Screen: Jane Fonda Busy With 4 Projects A Time to Die' To Be Dramatized M-G-M Buys Rights To Espionage Book By A. H. WEILER. New York Times 27 Oct 1974: 63.
  4. ^ Criminals At Large By NEWGATE CALLENDAR. New York Times 13 Apr 1975: 272.
  5. ^ "Interview with Peter Hyams Part One". Money Into Light. August 2016.
  6. ^ Bettencourt p 1
  7. ^ FILM CLIPS: 'Telefon' to Link Bronson, Siegel Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times 30 Aug 1976: f7.
  8. ^ a b Movies: Reacting to a Ringing Sensation in 'Telefon' Mills, Bart. Los Angeles Times 19 June 1977: n12.
  9. ^ Run silent, run deep Mills, Bart. Chicago Tribune 28 Aug 1977: h24.
  10. ^ Jeff Bridges Piling Up Credits Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times 14 Feb 1977: d9.
  11. ^ Siegel, Don (1993). A Siegel Film. Faber & Faber. pp. 419–433. ISBN 0-571-16270-3.
  12. ^ Saarikoski, Tuula. Ikonen, Ansa: Tähtiaika (in Finnish). Helsinki: Weilin+Göös. p. 19. ISBN 951-35223-1-8.
  13. ^ Canby, Vincent (December 17, 1977). "'Telefon': Spies With Ants in Pants". The New York Times. 19.
  14. ^ Murphy, Arthur D. (December 14, 1977). "Film Reviews: Telefon". Variety. 12.
  15. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 23, 1977). "'Telefon' rings true as a spy action thriller". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 2.
  16. ^ Thomas, Kevin (December 16, 1977). "'Telefon' Less Than Meets the Eye". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 25.
  17. ^ Arnold, Gary (December 17, 1977). "'Telefon': Dialing for Spies". The Washington Post. D7.
  18. ^ Combs, Richard (March 1978). "Telefon". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 45 (530): 55.
  19. ^ DIRECTOR SIEGEL IN RETROSPECTIVE: SIEGEL RETROSPECTIVE Desser, David; McGLYNN, DON. Los Angeles Times 26 Oct 1980: o39.
  20. ^ "Telefon". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 22, 2019.


  • Bettencourt, Scott. "Telefon" (PDF). Film Score Monthly.

External linksEdit