I’ve posted about The Telephone Book in the past, but over the holiday weekend I found myself passionately extolling its virtues to two friends of mine and since it’s now on Netflix streaming, I wanted to revisit the topic. I’m super enthusiastic about this film, a real evangelist for it. It’s fucking amazing and one of the most hidden of all cinematic “hidden gems.”
I’ll start by pointing out that one of the rarest, least seen cult films of the 1970s, something virtually impossible to see until a few years ago is now being pumped into the homes of each and every Netflix subscriber like it was running water! What a wonderful world we live in! So if you have Netflix, burn one and watch this tonight, trust me you won’t be sorry…
For well over a decade, really closer to two, I wasn’t sure that The Telephone Book even truly existed. I first read about the film in Bill Landis’ insanely great Sleazoid Express fanzine sometime in the mid-1980s. The striking image from the film that I saw there, a man wearing a disturbing pig mask sitting beside a naked girl in a bathtub… stood out. “What the fuck is this?” I wondered looking at this defiantly weird picture. Whatever it was, it was clearly really… sick, but in a good way! An underground film from 1970 with a plot about an expert obscene phone-caller and a few stray Warhol superstars? Not to mention gorgeous pint-sized Betty Boop-ish Laugh-In player Sarah Kennedy in the buff?
I made it my mission to see this film.
But even living in lower Manhattan and having access to the biggest film nerds and best video rental stores in the country—many that had large selections of rare cult films and VHS bootlegs—I could still never seem to be able to get my hands on The Telephone Book.
And you never heard of any screenings of it anywhere. Ever. This elusive film was never mentioned in any of the books on cult movies. The only place I ever read anything about it was Sleazoid Express, but all I saw there were a few stills and a brief description written in a burst of Bill Landis’ distinctively manic prose. Ultimately, I began to wonder if maybe it was kind of a hoax that Landis was playing on his otaku readership. [“You ever see The Telephone Book?” “Oh man, I love that film!” “Oh really..? PSYCH!”]. Then I read another reference to it (I suspect this might’ve also been in another fanzine called Slimetime) saying that Andy Warhol himself was actually supposed to be IN the film.
There was no reference anywhere to The Telephone Book in any book I’d ever read about Andy Warhol and, trust me, I have all the major Warhol books practically memorized.
So like I say, I semi-concluded that this was a practical joke being perpetrated by one of the world’s all-time greatest film snobs. All of this was before I had access to the Internet, of course. And then I saw a reference to the film’s writer/director Nelson Lyon (a name I realized I also knew from him being the co-producer of William Burroughs’ Dead City Radio album) in Mr. Mike : The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous, Dennis Perrin’s 1998 biography of the infamous National Lampoon and SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue.
Then a friend of mine said he’d had actually seen the phantom film on LA’s Z Channel when he was in his teens.
So The Telephone Book was a real film. It obviously existed, but there seemed to be no way to get see it, or to track it down. Apparently it was just one of those things that was in some sort of indefinite legal limbo and ultimately, I think 38 years passed between theatrical screenings of The Telephone Book. Lyon’s film got an even rawer deal than Jodorowsky’s El Topo or Holy Mountain…
Eventually an IMDB entry appeared for The Telephone Book, but try as I might, I was never able to find it on a torrent tracker. Nope, in a world where NOTHING is rare anymore—as long as it can digitized—I could never get my mitts on it. I even had a pristine copy of Jack Smith’s Normal Love on my hard drive long before I ever clapped my eyes on The Telephone Book, for some perspective.
Finally, after, I don’t know, maybe 15-20 years of me really wanting to see this film, my good friend Chris Campion visited Los Angeles a few years back from Berlin and brought me one of THE BEST GIFTS OF ALL TIME (at least as far as I am concerned and I’m a guy who is really hard to buy for): a deluxe German boxed set of The Telephone Book from Hello Film with a DVD, a glossy book and a reproduction of the movie poster seen above.
Fuck yeah! At long last I would now get to see The Telephone Book! It was like Christmas day and I was ten years old again and had just (literally) been gifted with an X-rated movie. Would it be a major disappointment, like the film adaptation of Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy, another film I waited so patiently to see?
It didn’t disappoint in the least! Existing in a monochromatic Devil’s Triangle with the corners being Robert Downey Sr.‘s Putney Swope, straight-up 42nd Street sexploitation fare and William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, The Telephone Book is pretty damned amazing. It also reminds me visually of Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses, made the year before. The Telephone Book was everything I wanted it to be and more.
Oscar-nominated actress Jill Clayburgh
The Telephone Book was originally going to star Genevieve Waite, the actress wife of “Papa” John Phillips, but Waite failed to show up for the first day of shooting and the production was halted while they looked for a new actress, auditioning both Diane Keaton (who balked at the required nudity) and Jill Clayburgh (who also declined the lead role, but did appear in the film). Eventually Sarah Kennedy was cast and she’s great—perfect—as “Alice,” the squeaky-voiced giggling sex kitten who optimistically sets out through the sleazy NYC underworld, to find the man responsible for a life-altering obscene phone call.
The script, written by Lyon, an advertising guy who was apparently known (affectionately) as “Captain Smut,” is a straight-up Candy wanna-be, but it’s a successful one I must say (and WAY better than Christian Marquand’s dreadful movie adaptation of Candy, even with all of those huge stars). Lyon was (very) obviously a huge Terry Southern fan and would later work with the great comic novelist and screenwriter when both were writers on SNL.
The plot is relatively straightforward, a damaged middle-aged man who is unable to perform sexually has perfected the “art” of making obscene phone calls so good that, if he wanted to, he “could seduce the President of the United States.” (Nixon at the time, of course!) His randomly dialed dirty call happens to catch Alice at a low point in her life, and his filthy monologue (which we never hear) stirs wild passions within her. Alice decides that she must find him and her search takes her to porno movie sets (where she meets “Har Poon,” a retired sex thespian making a cumback played by The Fugitive‘s Barry Morse), sees her meeting a pathetic flasher (mustachioed character actor Roger C. Carmel, best known for his role as intergalactic con-man Harcourt Fenton Mudd in Star Trek) and a man with a perpetual hard-on, William Hickey (the ancient Mafia don in Prizzi’s Honor) before the caller finds her.
The role of the caller, “Mr. Smith,” in a stroke of absolute casting genius was played by THE voice-over artist of the era, Norman Rose—you’ve heard Rose as the voice of “Death” in Woody Allen’s Love and Death and he was also the voice of the National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata” spoof. Rose was “Juan Valdez” on the coffee commercials and hilariously, he was also the voice of Young & Rubicam’s TV spots for New York Telephone (now Verizon).
There is a marvelous, surreal quality to hearing THAT voice spoken from beneath a pig mask. Any other voice and the film would not nearly have been as strong, but luckily producer Merv Bloch, like Lyon, was an ad exec, had hired Rose several times and he was game for the quirky/dirty role (even it it meant he would later lose his New York Telephone contract).
The, ahem, climax of the film takes place when Alice and Mr. Smith get into adjacent telephone booths for some auditory hanky panky. Here The Telephone Book goes from high contrast black and white (the film was shot by Gordon Willis protégé Leon Perer) to color animation and something akin to the dirtiest scene ever from a Ralph Bakshi film (or this, you can see why I like it so much) as the viewer strongly gets the gist, shall we say, of what is going on in the call. As the masterfully-baited Alice falls asleep, spent in orgasmic bliss on the floor of the phone box, Mr. Smith exits her life for good.
Andy Warhol did in fact shoot a cameo for the film, eating popcorn and staring straight at the audience for an “intermission” that was eventually cut.
The film was savaged by the critics in New York, especially Judith Crist who absolutely hated it and was not a success.
The Telephone Book was put out last year in a spiffy new Blu-ray release by the movie mavens at Vinegar Syndrome, and as mentioned earlier, it’s also streaming online at Netflix.
Here’s an essay from Sleazoid Express written by Michelle Clifford, who has tirelessly promoted this unjustly neglected sleazy cinematic gem.
Below, Cinefamily’s trailer for The Telephone Book.