Tempting as it is to call The Telephone Book highbrow smut, what with the film’s arty black-and-white cinematography and its peculiar collection of kinky characters, the film has many stretches that are indefensibly sleazy. In particular, a long animated sequence, in full color, features giant tongues probing between women’s legs. Similarly, writer-director Nelson Lyon falls into the common trap of showcasing naked women while discreetly shielding men from total exposure. Rather than providing a frank look at human sexuality, The Telephone Book is a wannabe sex comedy that peripherally includes both artistry and a small measure of sensitivity. As such, The Telephone Book occupies a strange space between exploitation and legitimacy. Most serious movie fans will find the picture way too lurid and tacky, and chances are The Telephone Book lacks sufficient oomph to satisfy the heavy-breathing audience. This weird film is therefore perhaps best classified as yet another odd byproduct of the porn-chic period, during which “real” filmmakers engaged carnal themes in graphic or semi-graphic detail. The picture’s X-rating is appropriate because of wall-to-wall sexual content, but at the same time the rating suggests the film crosses lines that it actually does not.
The premise blends elements of feminist self-actualization with traces of Penthouse Letters male fantasy. Alice (Sarah Kennedy) receives an obscene phone call so arousing that she falls in love with the voice on the other end of the phone, then demands his name so she can find him. He gives her the dubious-sounding appellation “John Smith.” Alice tracks down every John Smith in the Manhattan phone book, leading to encounters with various men. A fellow calling himself “Har Poon” (Barry Morse) invites Alice to join in a group-grope audition for a porno movie. An unnamed psychoanalyst (Roger C. Carmel) flashes Alice on the subway, then pays her to describe her sexual history. (In a somewhat clever bit, he rubs the money changer on his belt while she talks, spewing dimes all over the floor of a diner.) Eventually, Alice meets the John Smith who called her, and he wears a pig mask while providing, in exhaustive detail, the origin story that led him to find gratification only through aural contact. Interspersed with these encounters are “interviews” with obscene phone callers who explain their habits.
As a viewing experience, The Telephone Book is thoroughly disorienting. The visual style of the movie, excepting the animated sequence, is sophisticated, almost to a fault—rather than shooting conventional coverage, Lyon films the picture like a series of elegant still photos, all delicate light and meticulous composition. Leading lady Kennedy is so bubbly and warm she seems like Goldie Hawn, which has the effect of making the picture feel less overtly dirty. And several proper actors deliver interesting work in supporting roles, notably Carmel, William Hickey, and Dolph Sweet. (Jill Clayburgh, pre-fame, shows up in a couple of scenes as Alice’s best friend.) Still, how is one to reconcile the arty flourishes with the stag-reel stuff? And what is one to make of the fact that scenes featuring Smith in his pig mask have an almost Kubrickian level of creepiness, given the way moody black-and-white shadows accentuate the monstrous contours of the mask? Although there’s a lot to unpack in The Telephone Book, it’s open to question whether deep-thinking the picture is worth the bother.
The Telephone Book: FREAKY