The last midnight showing of THE TELEPHONE BOOK was on Friday and Saturday, February 22 and 23, 2008 at Chicago's Music Box Theatre at Midnight. Michelle Clifford of SLEAZOID EXPRESS appeared in person to introduce the film and answer questions in her running series of revivals of this film, which also included the Art Institute of Chicago. The Music Box is located at 3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL 60613 Phone: 773-871-6604
THE TELEPONE BOOK
by Michelle Clifford
Nelson Lyon is the writer-director of the brilliant film, The Telephone Book. The genesis of The Telephone Book came out the an age old cliché that if “you filmed The Telephone Book you’d have a hit movie.” Nelson Lyon was working as creative director of MGM accounts and made film trailers. Lyon had always aspired to direct a film, and had influences as diverse as Euro-art movies and American underground film. He had an ad agency with a partner named Merwin Bloch. They formed a partnership and The Telephone Book was shot in six weeks in New York.
Joe Levine, the exploitation-art house impresario behind such diverse films as Rider on the Rain, Godard’s Contempt and La Prisonniere released the film. Levine refused to allow his company, Avco Embassy, or his name to be used in print as The Telephone Book’s distributor due to its sexually explicit content. Surprising, considering that Levine had always capitalized on the risqué reputations of his releases. Levine distributed the movie under the subdistributor banner of Rosebud Productions. Nelson hated the nae “Rosebud” and thought it was hokey. Joe Levine also owned the Cinema Rendevous Theater on West 57th Street, where The Telephone Book opened.
Nelson enjoyed meeting legendary tough guy Joe Levine, although “Levine wouldn’t put his name on the movie or give the producer a nickel. The Telephone Book was yet an independent film picked up by a distributor. I told Levine I really respected him for distributing Godard’s Contempt in the United States. Levine went into a tirade about ‘Jean Look Gudoord, that cocksucker piece of shit!”
Block and Lyon parted bitter ways, which put The Telephone Book in theatrical and video blackout for many years in the United States. Nelson Lyon’s The Telephone Book was surreptitiously released on video in Australia on Embassy Home entertainment” which is owned by Joe Levine’s successors. The film was a home video hit in Australia, where it’s an affectionately regarded cult movie.
The Telephone Book opened in fall ‘71 at Manhattan’s Cinema Rendezvous on West 57th Street near Carnegie Hall. The Rendezvous was a theater devoted to showing off-kilter art films with sexual undercurrents. The movie had an X-rating. The screen freedom of 1971 was unprecedented, an independent movie could get an X rating even for theme. While mainstream Hollywood was getting wilder, the MPAA penalized independent films and restricted the theatrical venues they could play in with an X rating. It was the government’s way of keeping subversive filmmakers in their place.
The Telephone Book received mainstream publicity and press as a light sex satire. The film provoked a strange hostility from critics who niggerized it by not deeming it worth taking seriously. Female critics who found it distasteful Judith Crist, the sourpuss critic at New York who was offended by any film with explicit overtones was just offended by it. Crist started a campaign against the film claiming that its language was offensive. Pauline Kael, an aged groupie journalist, backed away from reviewing the film by claiming it was “too political.” Cue magazine took issue regarding its “dirty animated sequence. This was in the same time period when Sweet Sweetback, Cry Uncle and Ginger were reaching middle class audiences. The classic cult films El Topo and Viva La Muerte were playing the midnight circuit with shocking content, achieving some unexpected critical approval.
The Telephone Book is one of the undiscovered great films. Stylistically, it combines the best of Antonioni’s sexually tinged ennui without becoming overlong; the best of the narrative deconstruction of Godard without the hostility towards the audience; the best of the eroto-political statements of William Klein without the cinematic inertia. As Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist enraptured American moviemakers and critics, Bertolucci himself was studying The Telephone Book. He lifted key scenes and concepts from it for Last Tango in Paris. At the heart of both films is the fulfillment of a woman’s anonymous encounter with a sexually charged older man. Apart from tackling such heady concepts as pornography and profanity, The Telephone Book also pre-dates Erica Jong’s concept of the zipless fuck.
The Telephone Book is shot in pristine black and white. The credits unfold to the ominous romantic tune from the black soxer era, Something to Remember Me By.
Willowy blonde Alice (Sarah Kennedy) lives in a Manhattan apartment with pornographic wallpaper, equally hardcore photos all over her floor, and an American flag bedspread. Giant glasses, like bubble girl, sit over her delicate sad face. Looking out at the gray urban landscape, Alice is alone and depressed, unable to function. She crawls in a corner in the fetal position calling Dial A Prayer and absentmindedly listening to it.
A faceless man emerges from the subway. You only see him from the legs down; he’s wearing sensible shoes and a winter coat. The man enters a phone booth, puts on a black latex glove and picks up the receiver as there’s a closeup of his mouth. He calls Alice. Her phone rings, shattering the deafening silence. Alice receives an electrifyingly erotic obscene call. You never hear the sex talk, but there’s a tinge of force. Alice is flattered and shocked that this stranger can understand the curvature of her mind. She’s so happy to have heard from her that her depression lifts, like night and day.
Alice calls Eyemask (Jill Clayburgh, in her first role) her only friend and someone not very emotionally available. Eyemask is a morbid depressive who sits in bed all day with her eyemask blocking out the world, always with a different male partner passed out next to her, occasionally toying with guns. She tells Eyemaks that the call was a “work of art.”
The same man calls again the following day as Alice slinks over black bed sheets, her nude body framed like photographs. Alice tells him that she’d like to meet him and asks his name. The caller is equally shocked. A subtitle reads, in one of the most hopeful come-ons in movie history: “John Smith. I’M IN THE BOOK. I’LL BE WAITING. TRY AND FIND ME.”
The initial exchange between Alice and Mr. Smith triggers the erotic odyssey that forms The Telephone Book. Alice wades through a parade of New York City assholes and bullshit artists to meet mystery man John Smith. Intercut are cinema verite style interviews with obscene phone callers, all played by fine character actors. All claim to have stopped making obscene calls and have found mental stability, but they’re all frighteningly insane. They’re aggressive and you think their activities won’t end with a mere phone call. If you didn’t know that the telephone was their kink, their obscene calls would seem like a prelude to a rape-murder. Each time you see one, you wonder, is it Mr. Smith?
The first caller goes from zero to a thousand in his monologue. He’s initially as innocuous an insurance salesman sitting next to you in church, but ends up sounding like Albert De Salvo, a pulsing gleam in his eye, about to reach through the screen and strangle you to death. He enjoys saying how affluent he’s become since he stopped making calls. For ten years, he stuck his hand in hot split pea soup and call nuns because “they’re sympathetic people. They’re good listeners.” But he conquered his obsession with the belief that Atlantis will be emerging with little green men and the world as we know it will be ending in a year.
Huge, abstracted images of John Smiths listed in the Manhattan phone book with real telephone numbers form a collage that puts Godard to shame. Alice begins calling the numbers, asking in her cheerful, childish voice, “hello is this the John Smith that makes dirty calls?” Her first response turns out to be Har Poon (Barry Morse, the British national treasure) a militant old swinger who boasts that he originated the stag film. Despite a sliding toupee, he acts in and directs his own pornographic movies, for which he auditions a line of naked women. Alice interviews Har Poon from a director’s chair she hops into. “I don’t accept just anybody,” he insists. There has to be passion, a raging woman, five. White hot LUST which my words my charisma must awaken. Next.” Harpoon is surrounded by five naked girls, their hands on their hips in a menacing stance.. The famous still photo from The Telephone Book, so often flashed in men’s magazines especially Playboy’s Sex in the Cinema 1972, is a pileup of many nude women on this pompous, aged sexual athlete, a real numbered positions dude. To slow waltz music, Har Poon appears in the pileup in boxers and black socks. Seen from above it has a water ballet look.
Alice looks bemused by it all. A couple of gals are asked to leave. Some Warhol superstars pop up. Ultra Violet enters Har Poon’s set as a whip wielding dominatrix slithering her tongue and spits at the women who were told they weren’t needed or wanted. Geri Miller follows doing a hilarious speed freak go go dance, a violent thousand mile an hour frug, her tits flying and fucking the air. Ondine is intercut as a psychiatrist, pontificating over a dead man’s bare ass spread over his desk.
Alice mistakenly believes Har Poon is her John Smith. Har Poon demands she join in the orgy and Alice halfheartedly undresses and joins the swarm of bodies. But something is not right. Har Poon commands “improvise!” He offers her an available foot. Alice is depressed again. Mr. Smith enters phone booth. The phone rings under the orgy bed. It’s for Alice and Har Poon passes her the phone. “It’s you – then who am I with?” she asks. “An imposter.” “Where are you?” “In the telephone book…” Alice throws her leather overcoat over her nude body and flees.
Eyemask tells Alice to forget the calls. They’re too much trouble. “Can’t you make them from home>” she sighs. “No, I don’t like it at home. I can’t. I wanna kill myself there. It’s such a bring down,” says Alice bluntly.
Alice takes the subway and is flashed by a shlub (Roger Carmel) with two paper bags crammed with crap. A very believable slob, just the kind of asshold you ignore in a subway. Someone who’d answer Screw magazine ads. She stares blankly at him as he demands attention. When she busts into laughter and flashes him back, he panics and can’t get dressed fast enough.
His legs are like jelly as he chases her out of the subway down Grand Street. “You are the Mr. Smith who called me?” “No! Oh no I’ve made another terrible mistake.” He’s a cheap shrink with an office on 8th Avenue in the Times Square tenderloin. She apologizes for jarring him. The perv latches on to Alice at a coffee shop go to a coffee shop where he negotiates a deal with Alice telling him a dirty story in exchange for dimes that will finance her quest to call each Mr. Smith in the phone book. Using a change dispenser as a sharply edited and abstracted phallic image, he pumps out dimes as Alice tells a blue story.
There’s a visualization of Alice’s story. However, the tale she tells is freaky, disturbing, playing on supercharged erection and penis size myths as reversals of sexual superpower. A protrusion in his sheet indicates his problem. William Hickey gives a strikingly oily performance, up there in brilliance and audacity with his small part in The Boston Strangler. He begins his tale of genital woe with “at first I thought I’d stay in bed a little while before greeting anybody. I thought this extension of myself was perfectly normal. Real guys always get like that in the morning. So I waited a bit for this ‘healthy normal thing’ to go down but it didn’t. It was tall, hard, tough. It looked almost patriotic. Well, I’m no prude but I didn’t want to alarm my little daughter by showing off in this manner. There’s a time in her life for this sort of thing, but it’s not now, and it should not involve her father.”
Alice feels for the poor bastard. Hickey’s wife and kids leave him. Alice demands more money from her schlub listener. Hickey continues, “when doctors saw me difficulty they laughed.” He sees Alice out his window. He thought she was waiting for a bus, but the busses pass by. Alice says “I was so stoned I couldn’t move.” Hickey screams out, “Hey there, come on up!” They are seen waist up solving his problem. Afterward, Alice is asleep and Hickey is crying. “I’m scared. I’m scared.” The psych perv drops all is dimes. Alice grabs the dimes, puts them in his hat and runs, leaving the analyst with a disturbed head.
Alice runs to a phone booth by Central Park where a man is making a call. He greets her out of the box laughing, produces a gun and steals her dimes at gunpoint as he gropes her maniacally. “You’re really sick,” he says to her. Was it John Smith? Could he be such a criminally oriented, violent individual? That’s part of the suspense of the film – every man could turn out to be Mr. Smith…or there’s a Mr. Smith in every man.
Chopsticks plays on a Concertina as a haggy nurse shows up as Alice looks despondent and about to jump off a bridge in Central Park, looking about to jump. She talks Alice into a lesbian encounter where the baby carriage is in the background, making a creepy allusion to Rosemary’s Baby. Again Mr. Smith is tracking her and calls. “GO HOME!” She flees.
After all these jarring, exploitative, gone nowhere yet seen everything experiences, Alice’s depression has gradually worsened. She sits in bed eating a banana. Superimposed over Alice is the real Mr. Smith. She hears footsteps up her staircase, and Mr. Smith appears. The manic side to every character’s sexual depression appears: the real John Smith. He has a pig nosed mask that obscures half of his face, like The Phantom of the Opera. What you see of him is a masculine, attractive older guy, the antithesis of delicate.
“Yes.” He appears like a superhero, with his arms folded.
In an exquisite casting stroke and equally outstanding performance, voiceover king Norman Rose plays John Smith. Rose has been the omnipresent masculine voice behind car companies, banks and other mega-industrial giants in radio and TV spots. Rose has also done such diverse dubbing jobs as Pinnochio in Outer Space, a Belgian cartoon to the six-hour Russian art house epic War and Peace. Rose is the Manchurian Candidate of voiceovers; you could believe he hypnotizes people for the government. As it subtly has been throughout the movie, the specter of war is in Smith’s story. It’s a political statement without Godard’s didacticism and William Klein’s still photos brought to life.
There’s a jarring cutaway to another obscene caller. “I make dirty phone calls ‘cause I’m a creep,” says David Dozer. Indeed; he’s the most disgusting of the lot and tells us all about it. He talks about picking his nose and playing with snot, writing girls names in boys’ toilet bowls. He gleefully recalls his first call. “I said, ‘fuck you.’ And they didn’t hang up. It was terrific. They’d never hang up. Then it got dangerous. I told ‘em all about it, but the police came. They just about broke my nose. In fact, I have a police brutality suit. I’ve made my adjustment now. It makes me happy to run down an empty street at night farting… well, not that happy.”
Another obscene caller busts in. A bored, hostile, haggy housewife describes her daily routing, especially how she shoves a banana up her pussy during Sunrise Semester. She masturbates making obscene calls to men at work. After she comes she cleans up and waits for her husband to come home.
Smith himself is one of the most subversive sexual creations in the history of film. Smith is such an acute case of self-hatred that he walks around with a mask on his face. The looks are so normal. What went wrong? Smith is so acute psychologically that he can instantly comprehend the most private needs of the women he calls. But why does he do this?
“It’s not that I’m disfigured,” Smith explains. “It’s just that I have trouble communicating with people eye to eye. I make obscene phone calls. I have perfected it as a science. I could seduce the President, his wife, his children and his grandparents, but I have no political aspirations. I’m not just a lot of talk. That’s what I do.” Mr. Smith expresses a sadness and insecurity about his advancing age, for in his prime he called thousands of women within a year. Now he’s down to four a day. Mr. Smith has four women a night, a thousand per year; he takes two weeks off to go fishing. He’s sad about aging. He used to have ten women a day, ten at night.
“Now I’m more mature. May I call you Alice?”
“What’ll I call you?”
Dolph Sweet appears as the last obscene caller, sporting a pipe and considered grimace. He reminiscences. Betty Ann with pimples. His mother’s panties. His father, a hairy guy, “flirting with sailors and buying French lipstick. Sweet swallowed a golf ball, which gives him constant problems with his ass. He stopped making calls saying “dickalick” to girls because of “the power of my rational mind. Now I’m in control.”
Alice meekly asks Mr. Smith if he has physical relations. He snaps, “What the fuck do you mean?” and goes off at her like Hitler. “Do you like kids too?” Smith tells how “I got over the nymphet stage about six months ago” as a flashback appears of a girl holding a Beatles album. Then Smith tells of a run he had on old ladies, because “they know the ropes.”
Mr. Smith gives Alice an affectionate bath and shampoo. He’s smiling, lovingly playing with her sudsy head in the tub. The scene was emulated by Last Tango In Paris with Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. Alice asks “how did you come to being” and Smith tells her of his past. The sequence is unlike anything cinematically invented, a verbal cut up welded to a visual anecdote. Alice’s nude body is used like a photograph surrounding Mr. Smith as he speaks, and the image is placed within a circle.
Smith had been a military captain who “fought the yellow reds.” He’d calm nervous soldiers by punching them in the gut, grabbing their hand, pointing their gun, shouting “let’s pull that fuckin’ trigger” and then kissing him. “Not like a fag but like the way one man kisses another man.” Mr. Smith returns from the war as a decorated hero and becomes a media celebrity.
Mr. Smith goes home to a very normal life in the suburbs with his wife Mary, his son named Fred and their dog Freddy. Mowing the lawn was his relaxation activity. He and his wife have a code phrase for sex: “honey, wanna have a picnic?” Mr. Smith has all the right stuff. Every marble is tightly compartmentalized in his suburban life.
A recurrent shot of a disembodied lawnmower appears. The lawnmower flows along the grass seemingly without any human supervision. Nelson Lyon calls this the “Gravely” sequence, and shot it where he grew up in New Jersey “overlooking this highly exotic swamp, a spectacular vision of despair. I didn’t ever really get along with my parents but when I made this movie it was the last straw.
“The lawnmower was a machine called the Gravely. My father was this very macho guy, the only way to cut down this tall grass was this machine called the Gravely, it had sickle bars and the blades were like 4 or 5 inches razor sharp and would move at a blinding horizontal back and forth. You had to hold it, you manually shifted this thing and you could lose control very easily. Mr. Smith uses it to relax and it’s a murderous machine. Only a violent person would enjoy using the Gravely. It’s an homage to my gruesome childhood in New Jersey.”
Two men from NASA approach and ask Smith as he mows the lawn, “Hey, wanna be an astronaut?” Mr. Smith jumps at the chance. He continues telling his tale to Alice, to her bare buttocks and pussy. Her pussy and legs form a triangle surrounding Smith’s face, the image placed within a circular, rotating hypno-dial. Things go awry for Smith when he’s in the weightless chamber. He salutes the NASA officials upside down. The officials ask him what he wants and his response is “A GREAT BIG GIANT TIIIIITTTTTTT!” Mr. Smith is examined by NASA psychiatrists. It was determined that the weightless chamber, Mr. Smith harrumphs, “made me nutty.”
Mr. Smith returns, dejected, to his life in the suburbs. His wife brings up their password for sex, “honey, wanna have a picnic?” Alas, Smith proves impotent. “I just couldn’t keep my mind on regular things any more.” Instead of mowing the lawn being a relaxing activity as it had always been, it only makes him tense and easily aggravated. The family dog starts nipping at his ankles. He gives the dog a kick across the lawn. His wife shrieks, his son threatens to shoot him. While calling a vet for the injured pooch, an idea dawns on Mr. Smith… he gets a wrong number and makes his first obscene call. It turns into an obsession. He can psychologically see through the targets of his calls, and has an instant ability to appeal to them any way possible, from old ladies to teenyboppers, both of which appear in flashback. Eventually Mr. Smith is caught doing his obscene calls. He notes the results as “disgrace and a large fine.” He flees suburbia for New York City, where he pursues his obsession with a vengeance.
And then Alice gets a show. Alice sweetly begs to see Mr. Smith get down to business. “It’s unorthdox.” He gets up into a spotlight and whips out a fresh black rubber glove. Alice skips over to him and presents him with the telephone. Like a and his female magician’s assistant. Smith gives her an example of his skills by calling Eyemask. “So you’re the one who’s been calling my friend.” Eyemask is then taken by force by Mr. Smith’s violent verbiage. Cut to guns exploding with a back—forth bit of weaponry that implies hard fucking. Eyemask is so stunned she removes her eye block in ecstasy as Mr. Smith demands “Say please.” “Please.”
A hilarious parody of a public service ad appears. A baldheaded Baby Huey playing the district attorney warns about the crime of obscene calls. He ranks the obscene callers on the same criminal level as a bomb threat. “We’ll find you! A voice print is now as accurate as a finger print!”
Alice tells Mr. Smith that she likes dirty books. He says he “uses the phone.” Mr. Smith explains how “people in my line of work rarely show themselves and only under legal duress.” Alice begs him to “ravish her.”
But Smith says, “there’s only one way...”
Smith stands in a phone booth, adjusts his mask, and begins to dial. Alice expectantly picks up the receiver in the adjacent booth. Suddenly, the film changes from black and white to color. Mr. Smith gives Alice the obscene call of her lifetime. This leads to a raunchy animate sequence far more extreme than Fritz the Cat or Heavy Traffic, which had yet to be made. It has more in common with Euro-pornogrpaher Lasse Braun’s featurette Sine, which broke taboo after taboo in a matter of minutes. Throughout the animation, there’s tit fucking, buildings copulating, a woman getting it on with a skyscraper, pussies on little high heels, a giant tongue rimming. Every graphic and surreal possibility explored.
The cartoon at the end shot by Leonard Glasser has a yin yang effect. In some ways it’s the unrecognized predecessor of the X-rated animations like Heavy Traffic and Sine to come. Another perspective is that it is a self-immolation of the film you have just seen. However, in terms of the narrative, you’d have to hear the dirty conversation between Mr. Smith and Alice or you’d have to see actual sex. The cartoon represents what couldn’t be shown, as The Telephone Book is not a hardcore porn movie. The cartoon symbolizes that what Mr. Smith was talking about in the phone booth. Domination and manic satisfaction. Annihilation. The obscene call produces le petit morte that kills. Mr. Smith and Alice would annihilate each other from some angle. In a cartoon you can show that in the abstract. When The Telephone Book is over you don’t think about the cartoon. But you can never forget Alice and Mr. Smith.
At daybreak, Mr. Smith calmly hangs up, leaving Alice motionless, eyes closed, slumped against the side of the booth. He just leaves. As he himself admits, he cannot cut the couple thing. He needs to be single otherwise he becomes threatening and makes life miserable for those around him. Mr. Smith’s creeping manic sexuality dismayed his family and made him a seclusionist except for passing conversation. But it cheers Mr. Smith up to meet Alice, who thinks that his whole alienation was sexy. Unfortunately depression isn’t fun, and it precludes Mr. Smith from having any sustaining sexual relationships.
Once the phone call is over, Alice is left is a post-orgasmic deathlike state as Mr. Smith just walks on, past the phone booth And you accept that she’s asleep. Fulfilled.
The Telephone Book is very American and has an immaculate great look. It’s innovative in that it concentrates on the odyssey of a female protagonist. Looking from Alice’s perspective people pop up at her, and you never know what’s going to happen next. Usually movies about woman are boring and you know exactly what’s going to happen next. With The Telephone Book you don’t. You wonder whether each new character is Mr. Smith, and it seizes your attention.
The Telephone Book influenced both Bertolucci and Brando when they made Last Tango In Paris, from the opening shots of the male protagonist emerging from a train to the barren apartment where he connects with the girl he’s pursuing. Scenes where Mr. Smith is by the subway stairs and giving Alice a bath are clear templates for Last Tango. Brando’s performance in Last Tango is completely derivative of Norman Rose as Mr. Smith, and Rose is a lot more believably alienated than Brando. Bertolucci gave Last Tango a terminally romantic resolution. Nelson Lyon depicts the hell of his characters having to go on and live, which is much more tricky and difficult to accomplish than an easy death ending and more true to life.
Nelson shot The Telephone Book in six weeks in New York City. From his aesthetic vantage point, Nelson identified both with Alice and Mr. Smith. He initially cast John Phillips’ wife, Genevieve Waite, to play Alice. After Waite dropped out, Lyon noticed Sarah Kennedy from a 7-Up commercial, “a little girlish gamine creature, which is exactly what I had in mind for Alice,” and no one could own that road better. Norman was the idea of the producer. He has an amazing voice, you won’t see his face. The pig mask was my idea.”
Norman Rose plays Mr. Smith brilliantly in the movie. It was casting genius that Rose had been the voice for the actual phone company. Rose recalls that, “When I read the script originally, I had done some work for one or two of the guys producing. Commercials, narrations..And I read the script and I absolutely flipped. I thought it was absolutely a brilliant script. I’d never met Nelson Lyon before. I met two people that were associated with him And they asked me if I wanted to do it, And I said yes. So then we went into production.
“The filming wasn’t terribly long. I wasn’t on the set for more than a week. Those speeches are very long. I had to accommodate them. I don’t remember whether they put up a teleprompter, or cards or what. I had to try to use them as much as I could. They sprang a surprise on me and it’d be a different days work from the one we had scheduled. But nonetheless I still loved the play and the part.
“I was very heavily into doing commercials then at the time. I had as an account, New York Telephone for the agency of Young and Rubicam. It never occurred to me, but I guess that was one of the major reasons that they chose me to do The Telephone Book. Of course I think it would have been incredible if they let me remove the mask at the end. It would have been endlessly shocking, I think.
“I was fired from the telephone account by being in The Telephone Book. Of course, I lost that but it didn’t matter because I had dozens of others as well, and gotten good publicity. I have to tell you something, and it’s this.
“I’ve done a lot of children’s narration. Young people’s records they were called. They were marvelous. They were the first kind of activity records where the narration would call for them to do things.. They were very popular. I’ve narrated so many things, The Man Behind the Gun, or Man Behind the Badge. The Greatest Story Ever Told was an early part on a radio show in the early 50’s. I played on a lot of radio soap operas, but mostly commercials. I suppose the most famous commercial I ever had was the Columbian coffee one which said, “this is Juan Valdez,” - that one. Which made me a pack of money that I wish I still had some left. At the time of The Telephone Book I was extremely active in narrations and commercials.”
David Dozer, who plays the most unrepentant of all the obscene callers, recalls “I met Nelson through the casting agent. He was very jolly and would laugh, and would giggle and was enthusiastic. He was sort of wildly enthusiastic about perversions and how exciting and interesting it was to make a movie with buildings having sex with each other. And he was way into it. Very over the top. He was certainly not bored. Some directors are like… but he wanted to make the movie. He was happy they were making it.
“The women’s parts were all written, and we went in to meet Nelson and he told me they had written everything except one part. So he told me to improvise. I figured that’s why I was called in. In fact that’s all I’d audition for. He told me the guy was a creep. He told me what he wanted at the audition, I don’t know if he recorded the audition. I tend to give people what they ask for in a way that they don’t expect. Bitter, naive, sweet , crazy, all these things. And they were like “wow, this is fantastic – we got it!” I hoped they were right. So, I came in the next day. And shot it and it was the second time I did it. I didn’t think it was quite as good as at the audition, but it was pretty good and yeah, I could tell, yeah it worked. It felt real and I knew it was funny. They were laughing and I was happy. I remember one thing that happened at the shoot, was that Nelson had this huge rubber penis, and he said, “won’t this be great coming out of the pocket?” I said “No, no.” So, I directed my own segment. So Nelson had nothing written except that this guy was a creep. He had something like an opening line. Like “I’m a creep, I make dirty phone calls.”
When The Telephone Book opened in 1971 David Dozer brought his parents. “They were elderly. Well, not that old, I suppose they were my age (laughs) when they saw it. They took a bus to the subway to see their son in this movie, and I think they were bright red all the way home on the bus. Like, wow this is our son in a movie? My father was an actor, and he knew that actors act. You get a part, you do it. My parents met at the same school I went to CarnegieTech. My father was a drama student and my mother was in music. They did a musical together. Showboat, and they got married , and yes, it is much easier to be an actor when your father is an actor. My father was a prude and he was embarrassed by it, but he could understand what was happening. It was amazing at the time because you hardly ever get to write your own part in a movie.
At the time I did a cartoon. The day I shot the picture I drew a cartoon of me sitting in the chair saying now I run down the street late at night farting.”
Nelson Lyon recalls that, “Roger Carmel who played the analyst was a bombastic guy, coming on to everyone male and female on the set. Barry Morse was in The Fugitive, as the inspector, a very old fashioned English actor. Barry wanted to play Har Poon nude but I insisted he wear pants. Casting the Warhol people was my idea. I even shot an intermission for the movie with Andy Warhol speaking but it ended up on the cutting room floor because it slowed the movie down”
Today, Nelson Lyon Nelson Lyon remains a bon vivant socialite and great raconteur with excellent taste and many talents. Nelson is a virtual Renaissance man, with simultaneous ties to the beat generation, subversive and avant garde film, mainstream Hollywood and television writing. He’s an excellent photographer, and has taken some of the best shots of William Burroughs and Terry Southern. Nelson’s photos are as intense as a motion picture compressed into a still; they capture the inner soul of their subjects. Nelson always retained his great eye for casting. Nelson’s CD of Gimme Your Hump features terrific renditions of Terry Southern’s finest material. It includes superb performances by cast members as diverse as Marianne Faithful as a grizzled Lolita and Taylor Mead doing a hilarious male nurse.
Nelson Lyon’s The Telephone Book is a classic of American sexual alienation in the cinema. In essence the film is a fairy tale, a fable where the obscene call is the magical power, the spell of the wizard. The power and control impulse and the questing for erotic transcendence really amounts to a death wish. Alice is dead at the end, standing up, the orgasm that kills. Within this is the complete loss of self: the complete anonymity of Mr. Smith, and Alice is giving into a complete loss of herself in pursuit of a transcendent erotic self. Mr. Smith is objectifying her and she turns herself into a telephone.
Mr. Smith personifies anonymity as power; Mr. Smith is pervert as hero; his impulse his power; he uses the phenomenal art of the obscene phone call to control and destroy his victims. He’s impotent, so the power of the call is his sex drive. He wants to make himself totally anonymous and has power to probe into the intimate minds of people. In Mr. Smith’s world, desire leads to pain, torture and death. Sexual obsession is all in the service of love; love kills; love is this abstract word sentimentalized it’s actually deadly.
THE TELEPHONE BOOK: A Gallery of Images
Smith’s irresistible come-on:
Mr. Smith’s monologue:
Smith adjusts his mask and calls Alice in the adjacent booth:
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