LIST CANDIDATE: THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971)

AKA Hot Number

DIRECTED BY: Nelson Lyon

FEATURING: Sarah Kennedy, Norman Rose

PLOT: An oversexed girl encounters stag film producers, perverts and lesbian seductresses as she searches Manhattan for the obscene phone caller who has stolen her heart.

Still from The Telephone Book (1971)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The last twenty minutes. Up until then, The Telephone Book is a mildly absurd pre-hardcore sexploitation comedy with art-scene pretensions; a long confessional monologue from a pig-masked pervert followed by a surreally obscene, obscenely surreal animated climax launch it into a different stratosphere of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The Telephone Book is a sex comedy dirty enough for David F. Friedman but avant-garde enough for . In its seedy black and white universe, subway flashers, lesbian predators, and nymphomaniacs exist alongside surrealism, social satire, and cameos from Warhol superstars Ultra Violet and Ondine. It’s a strange mix but it generally works; there’s enough flesh and vulgar humor for the heavy-breathing crowd, and just enough wit and artistry to give the adventurous arthouse patron an excuse to keep watching. Young Alice lives alone in a room wallpapered with porn, with a giant breast hanging from her ceiling and an American flag as her bedspread. She’s exactly the kind of sexually liberated girl who, according to early 1970s understanding of female sexuality, might be turned on by a dirty phone call; and indeed she is, for she gets a random ring from “John Smith,” the self-proclaimed greatest obscene phone caller in the world. The first part of the movie, which starts strong but soon bogs down in repetitive sex sketches, involves Alice going on an odyssey through the phone book to locate Mr. Smith. The search immediately lands her in a fleshpile with ten other nude lasses at a stag film audition; later exploits bring her in contact with a sleazy psychiatrist who’s both exhibitionist and voyeur and a lesbian pick-up artist who sends Alice into a vibrator-induced trance. The girl’s erotic adventures are interrupted by confessionals from various members of an Obscene Phone Callers Anonymous support group, and by Ondine narrating while a naked man lies on his desk. Skinny Sarah Kennedy is a game nympho with a voice pitched somewhere between Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop, but although she’s more than cute enough in a girl-next-door way, she doesn’t have the sex goddess quality that would put the movie over-the-top erotically. In the final reels the emphasis shifts from Alice to Smith, the obscene Lothario, who shows up at Alice’s apartment wearing a pig mask to hide his identity. Smith, played by dulcet baritone Norman Rose, sounds like a radio pitchman (Rose was in fact a voiceover artist), and has an interestingly precise erotic delivery (“…now, run your right hand over the previously described area…”) His appearance marks a big shift in the movie, taking it from mildly loopy sexcapades into totally alien erotics. He delivers a long monologue describing the origin of his X-rated calling career, while his porcine face spins in a black void, fetishistically juxtaposed beside various disembodied body parts supplied by Ms. Kennedy. This is all a teasing lead-in to the film’s startling climax; John won’t physically make love to Alice, but they can stand in side by side phone booths and swap dialogue so profoundly filthy that it can only be expressed symbolically with animation that looks like something a thirteen-year old might have doodled in his notebooks after reading a copy of Screw magazine. The film goes to color and we watch a parade dirty pictures consisting of nesting phalluses, a lusty couple with tongues for heads, and a lady/robot hybrid who makes explicit love to a skyscraper. Some things just have to be seen to be believed; that’s The Telephone Book‘s biggest selling point. As a funny movie it doesn’t completely work, nor is it a hit as a sexy movie. As a weird movie, though… well, that’s another matter.

The producers actually shot footage with but it was cut; the unused footage was later lost after the movie flopped and faded into obscurity. Nelson Lyon went on to write for the early years of Saturday Night Live, but his career ended after he was involved in the speedball binge that ended with John Belushi’s fatal overdose.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like a more explicit variation on Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s Candy… it’s clear that Lyon also drew inspiration from the surreal dreamscapes in Lewis Carroll’s books.”–Budd Wilkins, Slant Magazine (DVD)

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