Sitting at the intersection of underground filmmaking and commercial sexploitation, Nelson Lyon’s film is a unique slice of cult cinema.
The Telephone Book is a genuine curio. Sitting somewhere between sexploitation, arthouse cinema and the underground, it’s hardly surprising that the film bombed when first released. But time is a great healer, and what was a commercial failure in 1971 can now be seen as a fascinating time capsule, hailing from the time just before X-rated movies went hard and the experimental world of Warhol’s Factory succumbed to the commercial realities of the new decade. As such, it sits with a whole bunch of equally indefinable, counter-culture movies that emerged around the same time. Not one thing, not the other, it is what it is.
The concept of the film is simple: impossibly cute hippy chick Alice (Sarah Kennedy) – who lives in a thoroughly groovy apartment decorated on the walls and floor with porno shots from Screw Magazine – receives an obscene phone call that is so potent, she describes it as a “work of art”. We’ll have to take her word for it, as we don’t hear the calls. She’s determined to track down the caller, who tells her his name is ‘John Smith’ and that she can find him in the phone book. And so Alice sets out to discover her very own grubby wonderland as her search brings her in contact with fading stag film star Har Poon (Barry Morse), kinky analyst Roger C. Carmel, a predatory lesbian and a mugger before the object of her desires – who has been following her progress somehow, phoning her during these unsatisfying encounters – turns up at her apartment wearing a creepy pig mask. Played by voice artist Norman Rose, he tells her of his decline from astronaut to obscene phone caller, and turns down her demand that he fuck her, explaining that he can only function as a talker, not a doer. Scattered between these scenes are direct-to-camera confessions from dysfunctional obscene phone callers (male and female) and the film ends with an explicit animated sequence that takes the movie from black and white into colour.
The film mixes scatty comedy with a somewhat bleak story of sexual alienation – no one seems to have a normal, functional and satisfying sex life in the film. The mix of familiar names and faces is rather odd – Morse did this between The Fugitive and Space: 1999, Carmel is best known as Harry Mudd from Star Trek and the supporting cast include Jill Clayburgh, Dolph Sweet, Arthur Haggerty and William Hickey as a man with a permanent erection. Kennedy is a Goldie Hawn-alike (and would eventually end up as a replacement for Hawn on Laugh-In), with a squeaky voice, oodles of charm and no qualms about disrobing, all of which makes her a lot of fun to watch, and the film also features appearances from Warhol superstars Ondine, Ultra Violet and frenetically go-go dancing Geri Miller. Unfortunately, an appearance by Warhol himself was cut from the movie and is now lost – that alone would’ve probably given the film more street cred at the time.
The film’s X-rating (and UK ban) are probably more to do with the surprisingly frank language and the full-on nature of the closing cartoon that the actual sex scenes, which feature extensive nudity but no explicit content – certainly, they are tame by modern standards. But the general theme of the film and the crudeness of some of the dialogue would probably still raise eyebrows today with more mainstream audiences. Not that it is ever likely to be seen by those people. But fans of cinema’s more experimental, oddball efforts will probably find much to enjoy in this overdue revival. As an example of what ‘adult cinema’ (in the broadest use of the term) could have been, this kinky fairy tale is pretty sensational.