The Telephone Book Is X-Rated Art


In “The Business of Pleasure,” the sixth chapter of his book Killer: Autobiography of a Mafia Hit Man, the late, eponymous underworld assassin “Joey” discusses the typically threadbare plots of pornographic films and how their producers—himself included for a time—got around the sticky little legal requirement that skin films have “socially redeeming value” by making sure there was some semblance of story to break up the rumpy-pumpy:

Maybe for suspense they gotta find a bed.

Just when you think the term “major rediscovery” has outlived its usefulness, you come across a way-out trip of a movie like The Telephone Book. This odd, odd, odd—did I mention it’s odd?—1971 feature was rated X upon its release, due not to any visibly hardcore live-action activity, but to the freakishly kooky, Robert Crumb-like animated sequence that figures in the climax—pun intended—of this otherwise softcore satire.

The story is about as basic a yarn as mobster Joey would employ—the difference here is that the paper-thin plot is backed up by genuinely legitimate acting, intellectual humor, terrific production values on a tiny budget, and the kind of vital irreverence that defined the explosion of underground art in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The film, conceived by writer/director Nelson Lyon as a provocative work with “something to offend everyone,” involves a pretty New Yorker named Alice (Sarah Kennedy), who becomes obsessed with finding out the identity of the man who got her engines running with the world’s wildest obscene phone call. The caller invites Alice to locate him by giving her only the slightest of clues—that his name is “John Smith.” Determined to satisfy her erotic curiosities, our heroine decides to go name by name through the telephone book until she locates the right Mr. Smith.


If this seems like an unusual decision for a “normal” person to make, we’re well-prepared to accept it since we see that Alice has wallpapered her apartment with dirty pictures. Then there’s that American flag bedsheet. The enormous breast decoration on the wall. The chirpy voice. Yes, this chick is a wild child.

Alice’s quest leads to comically erotic misadventures that bring her into contact with a cast of supporting characters played by a surprising roster of name talent: Jill Clayburgh, Roger C. Carmel, Barry Morse, and William Hickey are among those who appear in the sexcapades…but we’re not talking about your average blue movie content; the film is very much Andy Warhol-inspired in every way, a mod and alienating exploration of debauchery that also rings up small parts for Warholians Geri Miller, Ondine, and Ultra Violet.


(Warhol himself agreed to participate in a cameo for a pseudo-“intermission”: He was filmed seated on a chair eating popcorn…and eating some more…and then eating some more…but the pop art icon was ultimately edited out of the film and that tantalizingly mundane footage has unfortunately been lost.)

Spoiler alert: Alice finds Mr. Smith. He wears a pig mask and speaks with the Voice of God—kind of literally, because the role is essayed by renowned voiceover artist Norman Rose, whose employers at AT&T promptly dropped him from their ranks following the film’s release. Reasonably or no, they felt the film might injure their reputation, fearing the voice of their own television advertisements would now scandalously become synonymous with dirty phone calls.


But…back to our story and the man in the pig mask: Once he and Alice are in each other’s company, a decidedly baroque conversational dance begins between them, until Alice implores the man who so turned her on over the telephone wire to pleasure her in the flesh. In the meantime, they discuss…well, they discuss sex, outer space…it’s kind of a blur to me now; there’s so much delicious weirdness to take in during The Telephone Book. There’s narrative interruptus with hilarious, fourth-wall-breaking confessionals by “reformed” obscene callers. There’s Morse’s Groucho glasses during an orgy of 10 women to one man; there’s Hickey afflicted by a permanent state of arousal; there’s the hair-washing in the bathtub; there’s Jill Clayburgh’s glorious eyes…

And then there’s that color sequence and the cartoon. Holy cow.


In the audio commentary of the Blu-ray/DVD, producer Merv Bloch cites the French New Wave, Brian De Palma, Godard, John Cassavetes, and author Terry Southern as various influences on the film. It’s all there to behold, and I’d add Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen to the mix as far as I’m concerned. It’s also something of a direct forerunner to Spike Lee’s brilliant Brooklyn indie debut She’s Gotta Have It.

I’m finding it difficult to crack the most colorful (or at least most clever) way of saying I watched most of The Telephone Book in slack-jawed amazement…but maybe that simplest way of saying it is the best. Calling the film a major rediscovery, to my mind, isn’t an exaggeration at all. After it flopped at the box office—too dirty-minded for art house devotees, too pretentious for the raincoat crowd—it vanished for decades. Now that the film has reappeared, I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t become a popular staple anywhere cult films are celebrated.  

The script is a merry thing of acid wit and ribald shock. There’s marvelous monochrome cinematography and a playfully strange music score; frankly, this movie might still be considered ahead of its time. It retains more bizarre ambition than most “serious” films that focus on sex or erotic content.

Whether The Telephone Book is an “arousing” movie is something you’d clearly have to answer for yourself. It didn’t serve that function for me, and I wasn’t disappointed for that. It certainly tickled me, so I guess I could say it was titillating.


It’s also one of the few discs I felt needed an almost instant replay with the audio commentary turned on. Time’s precious these days to me, and I just don’t normally partake of the “special features” much anymore. This time, it was a must. And the commentary with producer Bloch is an unusual beast, too; there’s not so much attention paid to illuminating specific moments in the film as they unfold, which I’d originally wanted—but once I settled into Bloch’s style of free-flowing anecdotes, I was again mesmerized.

Leading actress Sarah Kennedy is related to the Kennedys. The writer/director was blamed for the death of John Belushi. The producer, chiefly an advertising man, was responsible for working on such highly recognizable campaigns as the ones for Chinatown, Raging Bull, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture—he hired Orson Welles to do the trailer narration…

This kind of thing just goes on and on. The behind-the-scenes stories are as riveting as the film.

Yes, I’m saying you should watch this dirty movie. Open up The Telephone Book. It’s a blast, man.