In Telefon (1977), Dalchimsky — a rogue Soviet intelligence agent, furious that the Premier wants talks with the US — goes to America to reactivate sleeper agents, sending them on suicidal sabotage missions. Moscow responds by assigning Major Grigori Borzov to eliminate him, and teams Borzov with their female agent, Barbara.
Telefon combines the conspiracy theory story, the spy movie, a detective story (hunting down a ruthless psycho), and an action thriller, with a hint of romance thrown in at the end. Borzov is the classic dangerous foe who is effectively working for ‘us’ to stop a nuclear war.
The sleeper agent (which has been explored from the Soviet viewpoint more recently in the US TV series The Americans), presents a sympathetic portrayal of the Russian hero and his female accomplice. Their adversary, Dalchimsky, is a classic psychotic madman who must be tracked down and stopped, by any means possible. Dalchimsky is the creepy monster hiding in plain sight, an unassuming — but ruthless — middle aged, bald headed man in a business suit.
The story is punctuated by a series of sleeper agent reactivations, each of whom have been brainwashed to carry out sabotage against a strategic installation. These agents are ‘awakened’ by receiving an eerie phone call with a line of poetry read out by Dalchimsky. This brings them into an immediate trance-like state whereby they compliantly carry out their mission. The story plays on the paradox of seemingly ordinary Americans — a car mechanic, a housewife, and a bankrupt helicopter pilot — suddenly turning into deadly Soviet killers. Sleeper agents are classic enemy imposters from within. There are echoes of The Manchurian Candidate here, and other brainwashing based spy stories. These plots play to irrational fears of apparantly ordinary people suddenly acting out of character and doing terrible things. The fear of the enemy within has parallels to contemporary concerns about terrorist cells, with ‘normal’ people capable of switching into callous mass-murderers.
Telefon hints at the unpleasant work Barbara must carry out to achieve the mission by ‘neutralising’ one of the sleeper agents. To keep the audience sympathetic, we don’t see the man’s actual death. As this is a mainstream Hollywood production there’s a suggestion that ‘life is cheap’ in the spy world, but the reality of this is glossed over. The nod to ‘grittiness’ is necessary to differentiate it from the silliness of something like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 – 1968).
Borsov threatens to kill Barbara early in the story — to prove to the audience how dangerous he is — and yet she still falls for him romantically. In the end, Borsov and Barbara develop a mutual trust, but their relationship is never convincing, feeling more like a convenient end of story wrap-up: a crowd pleaser. They turn their backs on both the American and Soviet spy agencies: this 70s cynicism contrasts to the rebellious late 60s optimism of the counterculture. It belies a lack of faith in institutions echoed in Three Days of the Condor (1975) and The Bourne Identity (2002), and an affirmation of the power of the individual.
Telefon is a celebration of dedication and teamwork that leads to romance, and an escape from ‘the system’. It’s also a warning — the dangers of secretive government agencies, black operations, governmental accountability, and the enemy within.