Cute, perky blonde actress Sarah Kennedy, who really does bear a striking resemblance to Goldie Hawn, makes her debut in this 1971 film, the only directorial offering from future Saturday Night Live writer Nelson Lyon. Shot on location in New York City and on stark black and white film stock, the story begins when a squeaky voiced eighteen year old woman named Alice (Kennedy) is hanging out in her apartment one night – nothing really too out of the ordinary is going on, she’s doing some exercising and looking at the pornographic wallpaper that decorates the place. Eventually her phone rings and she gets the most amazing obscene phone call of her life. She quickly falls madly in love (or lust?) with him and makes it her mission to track him down. After all, it’s not often that a girl gets to experience something as intense as that phone call, and as Alice notes, he had class.
The only problem? Well, his name. John Smith (Norman Rose). Do you have any idea how many John Smith’s there are in New York City? Probably note, but let’s just assume it’s a lot. That’s a pretty safe assumption. This doesn’t stop Alice from tracking down as many John Smith’s as she can though – she’s bound and determined to find him. Along the way our intrepid heroine runs into all manner of perverts and weirdos. First up is a man who goes under the stage name of Har Poon (Barry Morse) and who is involved in the making of those nasty dirty movies. He’s staging his comeback film and wants Alice to join in on the orgy he has going on in front of the camera. Alice isn’t really too sure what’s going on but she seems up for a good time and is intrigued by the dark haired lady brandishing a whip (Ultra Violet). From there she meets a psychiatrist (Roger Carmel) who uses his position to coax confessions out of Alice by plying her with quarters he pulls out of a changing machine affixed to his belt. He wants her to tell him all about the ‘best fuck’ she’s ever had, which leads to a flashback scene where we learn all about her experiences with a man (William Hickey) with a giant erection that just won’t go away. She heads to the park, gets mugged at gunpoint in a phone booth and then meets up with a hot to trot lesbian pushing a baby stroller. She’s invited back to her place for some fun with vibrators but soon gets a call from Mr. Smith telling her to go home. She does and soon a man in a pig mask arrives at her door… and then we watch a full color dirty cartoon.
As all of this plays out, strange little vignettes in which other obscene phone callers appear on camera and discuss how and why they got into the game add some welcome humor. We learn of one woman who likes to pleasure herself with a banana while calling men up to ‘ask about their wangs’ before she climaxes. We hear from a man who blames his love of obscene phone calls on the fact that his mother never let him smell her pants and that his father was into sailors and lipstick. When Alice isn’t hanging out inside she’s zipping around New York City where the film treats us to some nice period footage. Most of the shots of Mr. Smith that take place before their meeting show him coming in and out of the same subway stop or are shot in extreme close up showing us only the bottom of his mask and his mouth over the payphone receiver he uses to dial up his playmates. For whatever reason, shooting this in black and white gives it an interesting look, though once things switch to color towards the end, it remains a visually appealing picture. Though it would appear to have all been shot on a pretty modest budget it is quite well shot, those close up shots of Smith having an extra seedy quality to them.
As far as the cast goes, Sarah Kennedy is pretty adorable as the perky and promiscuous female lead. She has no qualms whatsoever about discussing her sex life and tells Smith exactly what she wants from him when she says ‘to use the vernacular, fuck me!’ Her performance is… cute. Frequently naked, she’s easy on the eyes and seemingly completely comfortable here, never once showing any trepidation or hesitation and instead appearing to have a complete blast in a very sexually liberated role. This is all about getting what she wants – the fact that Smith is enjoying himself is all well and good but the story follows Alice on her quest to quench her lust and Kennedy handles all of this really well. Also noteworthy is the presence of Norman Rose, who is great as Mr. Smith. Most viewers will recognize his voice instantly as he did loads of voice over work in various commercials (he was Juan Valdez in those coffee commercials!) and even did the voice of Mr. Mad on the cartoon Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales. Though we never once see his full face and only barely see his eyes, he gives his character quite a bit of personality and, as Alice notes, he does have some legitimate class. Noting to her that he’s so good at obscene phone calls that he could ‘seduce the President Of The United States’ (though he says he has no political ambitions), Rose’s smooth voice is perfect here and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well after seeing (and hearing) him here.
Some of the supporting characters also need to be discussed. It’s legitimately bizarre seeing Barry Morse playing an aging porno movie actor here. At one point laying on the bed in front of a camera covered in naked women, he seems to be having a great time playing the part but to most of us he’s inseparable from more wholesome, mainstream television roles and will always be remembered as Professor Bergman on Space: 1999 or as Philip Gerard on The Fugitive. Casting him as a dirty old man making grubby little sex films was a stroke of genius and his conversation with Alice in the film is hilarious. Equally weird is seeing William Hickey show up here. Many will recognize him as Lewis from Christmas Vacation or as Andre Toulon in the original Puppet Master movie but he appeared in loads of movies and TV shows spanning four decades of work. Cast here as a man with a giant and persistent erection, he too definitely seems in on the joke and appears to be having fun with the role. Roger Carmel, who did a lot of voice work on The Transformers and The Gummy Bears and who appeared in a bunch of TV shows in the seventies and eighties, is also fantastic as the randy shrink who coaxes as many dirty details out of Alice as he can.
Ultimately, this is a patently bizarre film but it’s also pretty hilarious and definitely original. A strange mix of art house style underground filmmaking and raunchy sex comedy, The Telephone Book is a cult movie oddity ripe for rediscovery. Which brings us to…
Presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in a 1.85.1 widescreen transfer taken from 35mm archival elements, this legitimately obscure offering looks pretty good on Blu-ray. The movie makes its official home video debut with this release. There is some minor print damage here and there, mostly smaller specks, and maybe a few scratches but the grain structure has been left intact and the end result is a very film-like image. Detail is good, close up shots show pores and facial quirks really well, while black levels stay pretty strong. Contrast is generally good as well, there might be a few spots that look a little hot but this would seem to stem back to the way that the movie was shot. There are no issues of note with compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor is there anything in the way of aliasing to note. This one may not have the sheen or luster of a bigger budgeted classic black and white film debuting on Blu-ray, but you probably wouldn’t want it to. The grainy, gritty look of this bizarre little movie really winds up working in its favor.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack starts off with a lot of hiss and crackle – and then you realize that it’s intentional and part of the theme song that plays over the opening credits. From there, things sound pretty clean. Though this is a low-fi, low budget movie the dialogue stays clear and easy to understand throughout while the score is mixed in nicely. There are occasional instances of minor hiss but unless you’re listening for it you’re not likely to notice it in the first place. All in all, this isn’t a fancy mix but it feels true to the source. No alternate language options or subtitles are provided.
The biggest and best of the extras on the disc is a commentary track with the film’s producer, Merv Bloch, moderated by Joe Rubin, who has an obvious love for this particular film. This is a pretty active track, with the two participants covering pretty much the entire history of the film and even adding in some interesting trivia, such as how this picture ties in (sort of) to Raging Bull and Cruising to what it was like shooting on the L Train without permits. They discuss where the title came from – basically it was inspired by a producer who was so successful that it was said he could make a movie out of the telephone book – and they talk about how Andy Warhol famously loved the script and agreed to appear in the movie. His scenes are lost but if you check out the still gallery… but no spoilers! They also mention that the negative is lost but that this transfer was taken from a 35mm print Rubin dug up after being exposed to the film via a bootleg copy from a friend. Merv discusses the influences of filmmakers like Warhol, Cassavetes and Robert Downey Sr. and he also notes the involvement of Norman Rose, who lost two of his voice over clients after being involved in this movie. They discuss how Barry Morse wanted to do his scene completely nude and share some other interesting bits and pieces of trivia and history. There are some spots where the levels fade a bit on the track but otherwise this is a really interesting history lesson in a legitimately bizarre and obscure film.
Aside from that, we also get a quick, original black and white fullframe trailer for the feature, a full color (or at least toned to look that way) widescreen re-release trailer (under the alternate title Hot Number), a still gallery of promotional materials and photographs, a handful of radio spots, static menus and chapter selection. As this is a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack, obviously a DVD version of the movie is included as well.
The Final Word:
To call The Telephone Book odd would be an understatement but don’t let that stop you from checking it out. The movie is definitely unique, equal parts hilarious and sexy, a great mix of humor and taboo breaking sexploitation shot with a keen eye for composition and some obvious artsy influences. Vinegar Syndrome bring this legitimately obscure film to home video for the first time in grand style, offering up a really nice transfer, decent (albeit lossy) audio and with a really interesting commentary track highlighting the extra features. A really nice package for a truly bizarre but compelling film.
Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!