Moscow, early January, and the Soviet authorities are clamping down on the Stalinists in an attempt to thaw the Cold War - not that this makes the powers that be much more liberal. Yet one of the officials their operation is designed to take out goes missing when they send soldiers over to dispose of him, and nobody seems to know where he has gone. Soon they will know: Nicolai Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasence) has escaped to America, though not to defect. He has the details of some 51 Soviet agents in that country, so secret that even they don't know they are agents - or, for that matter, human time bombs...
It's an indication of how daft Telefon is that it relies heavily on the Hollywood version of hypnosis to keep its plot moving steadily forward, and such is that faith in the practice that here it can induce its victims to not only commit suicide, but murder and cause untold mayhem as well. On the other hand, it's an indication of how skillfully and briskly this is handled by director Don Siegel that you're happy to accept any amount of absurdity when he can keep the tension ticking over, exploiting the concerns between East and West which were still very much valid at the time this was made.
What Dalchimsky is planning is to take those deep cover agents and use them to spark World War Three, but in a pleasing touch he's a couple of decades out of date with his targets. The agents have been in place so long that they have made lives for themselves as everyday Americans, oblivious to the deadly intentions of their bosses who have almost forgotten about them until they begin to, say, crash a truck full of explosives into an army base. A base which no longer holds the target, needless to say. Their missions are set off by a telephone call where Dalchimsky recites them a few lines of a Robert Frost poem, acting as the trigger to send them on their dangerous way.
But wait, I hear you ask, isn't this supposed to be a Charles Bronson movie? Worry not, for he is in this even if he doesn't appear until the film is twenty minutes in, and even then his screen time is surprisingly limited. Siegel was a fan of Bronson, and had the confidence to see that his character need not be present for the entire running time if we knew he was out there somewhere, tracking the menace to society down, although he does not pull his gun until the final half hour. So this is not your usual vehicle for the star, but he does make a pretty good KGB man although a Russian accent doesn't seem to have been of great importance to him.
He's undoubtedly a more convincing agent than his partner when he reaches the U.S.A., one Barbara, played by Lee Remick with such sunny disposition that Bronson's Major Borzov tells her to stop being so cheerful. But then, I suppose the ones you would least suspect of being an agent are the ones doing their jobs the most effectively. Anyway, they make a curious couple as they hunt down Dalchimsky, and some of the best sequences have him contacting the unwitting killers (including housewife Sheree North), followed by their attempts at causing chaos. Somewhat unnecessary are the parts with a seriously understaffed C.I.A., where boffin Tyne Daly taps away at her supercomputer to work out where the danger will strike next - these really come across as padding as they have little bearing on the outcome. So if this is no Manchurian Candidate, it is a neat and novel Cold War suspense item if you can suspend your disbelief, and even if you cannot, it's still enjoyable. Music by Lalo Schifrin.