The Telephone Book (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: She likes obscene calls.

            Due to the recent death of writer/director Nelson Lyon on July 17th I felt it was time to dig up my old copy of this bizarre underground cult flick and give it another view. I stated in another review I made about this film that I considered it The Gone with the Wind of underground moviemaking and I still stand behind it. The film is hampered by its low budget and black and white photography, but I was impressed with it creative camera angles, editing, set design and music. Lyon showed a genuine vision and made the most out of what little resources he had. Even the content, which could be seen as pornographic by some, is presented in such a quick paced and diverting style that it becomes engaging and amusing.

The basic premise deals with Alice (Sarah Kennedy) an over-sexed young blonde living alone in an apartment with walls lined with wall paper that has hundreds of pictures of people in various sex acts. One day she gets a call from an obscene phone caller and she falls in love with him because it was the ‘most sweetest and most beautiful dirty call’ she had ever received and although she had received other obscene calls in her life this one ‘had class’. She becomes obsessed with meeting the man. He tells her that his name is John Smith and that he is ‘in the book’.  She goes through the telephone book to call him up, but because she lives in New York City she realizes there are a lot of John Smiths. The rest of the film deals with her encounters of all the various John Smiths that she meets as well as her climatic meeting with the real John Smith and the very weird conversation that she has with him.

The film’s structure is basically made up of a lot of vignettes all dealing with various forms of perversity. Some famous character actors appear in cameos and some of which prove to be quite outrageous and funny. Barry Morse best known for playing Lieutenant Gerard in the 1960’s TV-series ‘The Fugitive’ has one of the film’s best moments playing Har Poon ‘the greatest stag movie actor of all-time’. He has a scene where 10 naked ladies, at least that is how many I was able to count, all jump on top of him and begin sucking on his various body parts. There is Roger C. Carmel as a psychiatrist who enjoys exposing himself to ladies on a subway train, but when Alice decides to do the same thing in return he becomes shocked and repulsed. Character actress Lucy Lee Flippan makes her film debut here as a ‘reformed’ obscene phone caller who describes how when her husband was away at work and her kids where at school she would call up men at their jobs and talk dirty to them while masturbating  with a banana. There is also William Hickey playing a man suffering from a permanent and incurable erection.

The best appearance though comes from Norman Rose famous for narrating many films. Here he appears wearing a mask of a pig and playing the actual obscene phone caller. He describes how he calls 4 different women a night every week of the year except for two when he goes on vacation to ‘get out of the grind’. He also explains how he has perfected his obscene phone skills to the point that he could seduce the president of the United States if he wanted to, but doesn’t because he has ‘no political ambitions’. The conversation gets weirder including telling Alice about his foray into becoming an astronaut while he seductively washes her hair, but Lyon’s use of imagery during this segment keeps it interesting and even memorable. My only complaint would be that I wished he had taken off the mask so we could have seen what he really looked like.

The film ends with an eye popping animation segment dealing with a giant headless naked woman who squats down and has sex with a sky scrapper that needs to be seen to be believed. This is also the only part of the film that is in color.

Despite the fact that it was all done on a shoestring budget and with no character development I had few complaints although I didn’t understand how the obscene caller was always able to call up Alice and get a hold of her even when she was not at home and at someone else’s place. This was of course before cellphones, but I suppose demanding logic from a film that otherwise revels in the absurd would prove futile. The film did not do well on its initial run, but was rereleased in 2011 to much more positive reviews both here and in Europe. Through word of mouth it is expected to gain the cult following it deserves and maybe eventually a DVD or Blu-ray release.

Kennedy is delightful in the lead, but her appeal may depend on one’s personal tolerance. She looks and acts almost exactly like Goldie Hawn and was her replacement on the ‘Laugh-In’ show when Hawn left to concentrate on her movie career. I enjoyed Kennedy’s giddiness and child-like enthusiasm to all the perversions around her, but her voice sounds like she has sucked in helium and could prove annoying to some.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 24Minutes

Rated X

Director: Nelson Lyon

Studio: Rosebud Films

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray 

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