Wednesday Editor’s Pick: The Telephone Book (1971)

by on January 19, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Jan 25 at 7:30* at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with producer Merv Bloch


Janus Films’ Brian Belovarac is the brains behind this ultra-rare screening of this ultra-obscure relic of the 1970s underground, directed by the mysterious Nelson Lyon – an early SNL scribe most famous for accompanying John Belushi on his last night on the town.
Belovarac will interview producer Merv Bloch, the creative force behind the marketing and specifically the trailers for countless films iconic films through more than three decades – including The Tenant, Flashdance, Goldfinger, Ragtime, Cabaret, Hannah and Her Sisters, Thief, Heaven Can Wait, Terms of Endearment, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Friday the 13th, An Unmarried Woman, Shadows and Fog, HUD, The Warriors, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Elephant Man and Marathon Man. Stay tuned for an upcoming Alt Screen interview with Bloch.

Meanwhile, Steven Puchalski for Shock Cinema:

Far from the usual X-rated oddity, this is a mind-roasting chunk of NYC-lensed, experimental sexploitation, aesthetically akin to such raucous, counterculture assaults as DePalma’s Hi Mom and Greetings. Directed by Nelson Lyon and shot in black-and-white, this doesn’t make a lick of sense, but always displays a singularly skewed, comic vision, sprinkled with now-familiar faces. Laugh-In regular Sarah Kennedy stars as the blonde, cupie-doll-voiced Alice, who has a lonely life and groovy furnishings (just check out her American flag bedspread). That changes after a trenchcoated, faceless stranger rings her up with an obscene phone call which is so inspiring that she considers it “a work of art.” As his calls become more frequent, she becomes more receptive, and decides to track down this desirable phone pervert. Along the way, Alice meets a pre-Space 1999 Barry Morse as stag-film-star Har Poon, who’s auditioning naked women and ends up in a bed full of squirming limbs; Roger C. Carmel (Star Trek‘s Harry Mudd) as an exhibitionist degenerate who pays Alice to tell him dirty stories; and William Hickey (Prizzi’s Honor) as Alice’s first sexual conquest, whose 12-inch tentpole won’t go down, and only Alice can relieve his frustration. The supporting cast also includes a young Jill Clayburgh as Alice’s best friend, Warhol-relics Ultra Violet and Ondine, plus [Capt.] Arthur Haggerty (Home Movies) as a D.A. Eventually, Alice encounters this object of desire, who wears a pig mask and describes his descent from astronaut candidate(!) to aural phone-sex deviant. Played by velvet-voiced Norman Rose, he provided voice-overs for gigs like Jabberwalk, Destroy All Monsters, and ironically enough, commercials for NY Telephone. Unfortunately, we never hear all of his seductive handiwork, even as we see it working its wonders on everyone from a high school cheerleader to an ancient old broad. If this wasn’t disjointed enough, the story is broken up with scripted ‘confessions’ from random fetishists (including Dolph Sweet), who describe their own obsessions. Unlike most avant-garde efforts of the time, this (happily) never takes itself seriously, but still overflows with gleefully pretentious visuals. That’s never more apparent than in the final minutes, when the movie bursts into vibrant color, mixing extremely lewd animation with Alice’s ultimate gratification. Less X-rated for its bare-flesh than for its raunchy conversations and deviant attitude, this is an impossible to categorize, lovably out-to-lunch artifact.



The rough gem of the Midnight Movies series, The Telephone Book is everything you could ask for in cult exploitation: an X-rated, not-so-seamless blend of art-house style and grindhouse subject matter (dominatrices and orgies and Warhol cohorts, oh my!). After Alice gets a call from the perverted “John Smith,” she tries to find him in the phone book, then face-to-face. Black Christmas may have cemented “telephone terror” as a modern horror trope, but The Telephone Book is shamelessly trashy and way more fun.


Phil Hall for Film Threat:

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the infamous X-rating from the MPAA was evenly shared by mainstream movies (including the Oscar-winning “Midnight Cowboy” and Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”) and less ambitious pornography. The porno eventually edged out the classy flicks to take exclusive domain of the X-rating. However, during this period there was one little film which actually wore its X-rating while resting in both camps. Nelson Lyon’s independently produced “The Telephone Book” was the rare film which enjoyed the eroticism of the porn genre, yet featured a sense of style (it was shot in an artistic black-and-white that was uncommon for 1971) that rose it far above the standard cheapie pornographic offerings. As with most hybrids, it failed to find an audience and eventually flitted off into a tragically undeserved obscurity.
Much of the joy in rediscovering “The Telephone Book” is its rich sense of humor. The film is frequently punctuated by a variety of narrators who share their respective sexual fixations and fetishes with the audience. Clearly the most memorable of this nutty bunch is William Hickey as a man who awoke to find his manhood stuck in a permanent erection. As he lies in bed and blithely describes the various inconveniences created by this anatomical surprise, he casually and inadvertently rests a magazine atop the blanket-covered member…as if he was dropping the periodical on a coffee table without even realizing his actions. Hickey keeps an innocent eye contact with the audience, though it is obvious the audience is not staring back at his eyes.
Writer-director Nelson Lyon helmed “The Telephone Book” as a kinky vaudeville revue. When Alice’s obscene phone caller boasts that his talents could seduce the President of the United States and the entire First Family, he suffixes his claim that he would not try it because “I have no political ambitions.” There is also an animated sequence which comes happily out of nowhere and nearly steals the proceedings.“The Telephone Book” is a fascinating effort whose obscurity is baffling and quite sad. If any curio of the 1970s is in need of a second look, it would have to be this film.



Michelle Clifford for Sleazoid Express:

The Telephone Book is one of the undiscovered great films. Stylistically, it combines the best of Antonioni’s sexually tinged ennui without becoming overlong; the best of the narrative deconstruction of Godard without the hostility towards the audience; the best of the eroto-political statements of William Klein without the cinematic inertia. As Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist enraptured American moviemakers and critics, Bertolucci himself was studying The Telephone Book. He lifted key scenes and concepts from it for Last Tango in Paris. At the heart of both films is the fulfillment of a woman’s anonymous encounter with a sexually charged older man. Apart from tackling such heady concepts as pornography and profanity, The Telephone Book also pre-dates Erica Jong’s concept of the zipless fuck.
The Telephone Book is a classic of American sexual alienation in the cinema. In essence the film is a fairy tale, a fable where the obscene call is the magical power, the spell of the wizard. The power and control impulse and the questing for erotic transcendence really amounts to a death wish.
Mr. Smith personifies anonymity as power; Mr. Smith is pervert as hero; his impulse his power; he uses the phenomenal art of the obscene phone call to control and destroy his victims. He’s impotent, so the power of the call is his sex drive. He wants to make himself totally anonymous and has power to probe into the intimate minds of people. In Mr. Smith’s world, desire leads to pain, torture and death. Sexual obsession is all in the service of love; love kills; love is this abstract word sentimentalized it’s actually deadly.


“My mother never let me smell her pants…”

Clifford also recounts the involvement of Norman Rose, the most recognizable voice in the film:

In an exquisite casting stroke and equally outstanding performance, voiceover king Norman Rose plays John Smith. Rose has been the omnipresent masculine voice behind car companies, banks and other mega-industrial giants in radio and TV spots. Rose has also done such diverse dubbing jobs as Pinnochio in Outer Space, a Belgian cartoon to the six-hour Russian art house epic War and Peace. Rose is the Manchurian Candidate of voiceovers; you could believe he hypnotizes people for the government. As it subtly has been throughout the movie, the specter of war is in Smith’s story. It’s a political statement without Godard’s didacticism and William Klein’s still photos brought to life.
Rose recalls that, “When I read the script originally, I had done some work for one or two of the guys producing. Commercials, narrations..And I read the script and I absolutely flipped. I thought it was absolutely a brilliant script. I’d never met Nelson Lyon before. I met two people that were associated with him And they asked me if I wanted to do it, And I said yes. So then we went into production.

“The filming wasn’t terribly long. I wasn’t on the set for more than a week. Those speeches are very long. I had to accommodate them. I don’t remember whether they put up a teleprompter, or cards or what. I had to try to use them as much as I could. They sprang a surprise on me and it’d be a different days work from the one we had scheduled. But nonetheless I still loved the play and the part.


“I was very heavily into doing commercials then at the time. I had as an account, New York Telephone for the agency of Young and Rubicam. It never occurred to me, but I guess that was one of the major reasons that they chose me to do The Telephone Book. Of course I think it would have been incredible if they let me remove the mask at the end. It would have been endlessly shocking, I think.

“I was fired from the telephone account by being in The Telephone Book.”


Bloch himself reflects on the film, for The Wrap:

In New York I recall, on a number of occasions, seeing people in the audience for “The Telephone Book” just bolt out of the theater during some unbridled, racy moments in the film. By the time the movie was over, hardly anyone was left in attendance.

Most of the mainstream film critics found “The Telephone Book” offensive and dismissed it as a vulgar attempt at humor.

The New York critics gave it scathing reviews because it was such an assault on middle-class morality at the time.

The L.A. Times called it “Brilliant. Hilarious. Savage. Daring. Bizarre.” The Herald said it was “a crazy 90 minutes of fun. Wildly, uproariously funny — its humor starkly original, its style marvelously nonsensical and lots of nudity.”


The film opened at the Vogue Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and became a must-see film for several months.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Steve Martin, who told me “The Telephone Book” was one of his favorite films of the ‘70s. Subsequently, I also learned the film was considered a source of inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango In Paris.”


Variety was scandalized:

If there are enough steady filmgoers among the nation’s obscene telephone callers, or those interested therein, then this cinematic sex-slant of producer Merwin Bloch and writer-director Nelson Lyon may find a sufficient market to give them a profit. Otherwise, it’s more likely to make a fast trip into film oblivion. It isn’t that much talent has been wasted on this looks at oral voyeurism (at least, notmuch is displayed), but trying to replace visual obscenity with supposedly sexually stimulating conversation by having one sick male spend most of a film talking dirty to one sick female is hardly the generally accepted idea of entertainment.

The only thing good about the picture is an old Helen Morgan recording of “Give Me Something To Remember You Buy,” sung over the titles. Even she is probably spinning in her grave.

David Moninger in a thorough article for Criminally Unknown:

Producing The Telephone Book out of the NY offices of Rosebud, Merv was juggling locations, money and time. Working for big name clients like Kubrick late into the night, and trying to keep The Telephone Book from going off the rails. I’m not sure how well Nelson and Merv remember the actual making of the picture. Fueled by various substances, ambition, ego and genius. The memories vary…. and the memories fade….. people on ledges, people walking off the film, starts and stops… everyone at the breaking point… madness…drugs… and the result…A work of art… a beautiful… twisted… misanthropic American masterpiece.
That it got made is madness, that it still exists is a miracle.
It starts out as a beautiful….hysterical….picaresque….. urban “Candy”, every Coutard like shot more beautiful than the last, Sarah as mesmerizing and beautiful as anyone you’ve ever seen, indescribable, darker and darker, it spins out of control, and hooks you deep with a 30 minute Norman Rose monologue, that puts Pinter and Beckett to shame. I remember looking over at the person i was watching it with, to see if they were as mesmerized as i was, they were, both of us silent, leaning forward, literally sitting on the edge of our seats. Wondering what the hell had just happened and where could this possible go? Like all great movies, it went where it had to go, someplace we’d never been before. After that 30 minute monologue, the film ends with a 12 minute animated “fork in the eye” A final FU to the audience, a punch to the gut destined to piss off audiences and send them angrily out the back exits.

“Varied memories” be damned, the first two parts of a recent Q&A in LA with Writer/Director Nelson Lyon, Producer Bloch, and Animator Les Glasse:


The blog Video Updates certainly promises some fun:

Normally I make no bones about spoilers, but after seeing this film with no foreknowledge other than the tagline/premise, half the fun was wondering what the hell the movie was going to do next. So if you take my word for its awesomeness, and feel like there is a strong chance you might track down your own copy, then read ahead with caution. Not that the “plot” is full of twists and turns, or even makes much in the way of sense; it just adds another couple layers of weird to the proceedings. By the midway point, the director could have started splicing in footage of the Nuremberg trials reenacted with Martians and I wouldn’t have been surprised.


As does Steve Carlson for Blog Critics Video:

You ever see a film that makes you think, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore”? Of course you have. We all have. That’s commonplace. Much rarer than that sensation, though, is a film that makes you believe that not only do they not make ’em like this anymore, but they may have never made ’em like this to begin with. That’s the world in which The Telephone Book inhabits. It’s a product of the ’70s New York City underground-cinema movement, but watching it is like stumbling across a transmission from another planet.


Carlson continues:

The film’s preoccupation with sex masks an understanding of how people actually view dirty movies — alone. There is a slight strain of melancholy trickling through the knockabout fun. The choice of obscene phone calls as this film’s modus operandi speaks to the idea that, for all the sex that’s going on, nobody actually talks to anyone anymore. (This is actually explicitly stated in a riotous sequence between Alice and a porn star making his comeback film; the man says his film will speak the the condition of modern man, and when Alice presses him to define this condition, he responds with, “Fucked up. Unable to communicate.”) The psychiatrist, a man paid to listen and understand, has no interest in Alice’s words except to get himself off. A woman Alice meets in the park doesn’t say two words to her before taking her home for power-tool play. Her friend (played by Jill Clayburgh!!) never really cares what Alice has to say, not even when she mentions that she doesn’t want to make calls at her apartment because her apartment makes her suicidally depressed. She even reveals that, despite being young and attractive, her sex life is more or less completely masturbatory and that she prefers reading dirty books to personal interaction.
So yeah, The Telephone Book is pretty great. It’s funny and freewheeling and, despite the serious thematic material I’ve brought up, it’s never self-serious or pretentious. Movies like this are what makes this hobby so enticing — it’s like having a secret movie all to yourself that you can’t wait to share with the world. It’s a rarity worth finding.


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