Maverick American filmmaker Sam Fuller was both a progressive and a prude, and no film of his better illustrates this schismic personal dichotomy, echoed in his art’s use of high and low techniques, than his 1964 black and white film noir melodrama The Naked Kiss, a cult classic whose title derives from its lead character, a prostitute named Kelly, who describes the kiss of the fiancée she kills, that way, meaning she could tell he was a sexual deviant from the get go. It’s a film that has brilliance, inanity, memorable scenes of realism, and trite predictable scenes of sheer fantasy- such as the mention of the titular act, which is not real, but works symbolically to explain certain elements of the lead character’s behavior.
That lead character, a hooker named Kelly, is played by B film mainstay Constance Towers, whose decades of acting in low budget films gave her the limited sort of celebrity appeal that only grows with time. For the last decade more people have become familiar with her role as the evil Helena Cassadine on the ABC soap opera General Hospital than in all her previous roles combined, but The Naked Kiss may be her most memorable film role. The film opens with a bang- a shot of Kelly beating the crap out of a man with her purse. He’s her pimp, Farland, but he has been cheating her. After she knocks him out, she takes only the $75 owed to her, and not a penny more. But, in their struggle, he pulls off her wig, to reveal her as bald. He has shaved her as an act of revenge for a perceived betrayal. It is one of the most kinetic and memorable openings in film history. After getting her money, Kelly pulls her wig back on, while looking in a mirror and primping, as the title credits roll. Already, Fuller has set up the character as a ‘bad girl’, but one with scruples. She will be the classic ‘hooker with a heart of gold,’ but Fuller goes beyond the stereotype, although he does so only by saturating the viewer with so many other stereotypes and clichés that one is forced to deal with the surfeit as its own raison d’etre.
As that opening scene ends we see it is 1961. The next scene occurs two years later, as Kelly arrives by bus in a small town, Grantville, where she immediately beds a lowlife police detective named Griff (Anthony Eisley). When they meet she is reading Fuller’s own paperback pulp fiction novel The Dark Page. Winks and nods by Fuller abound in this film. Griff warns her to get out of town, after he tries to set her up with a madam in a town ‘across the river’, at a Playboy like whorehouse, that ‘sells bon-bons’, called Candy A La Carte. We see he hates her because he’s a misogynist and plain old asshole. But she gets a job helping handicapped kids at a local hospital. She has no nursing experience, no references, yet she charms everyone in town- the nursing staff, including head nurse Mac (Patsy Kelly), the kids, her landlady, Josephine (Betty Bronson)- whose lover died in World War Two and deludedly speaks to a mannekin substitute for him named Charley, and her younger fellow nurses- who look up to the worldly wise Kelly as a big sister. She even meets and charms the scion of the family after whom the town was named for- a millionaire playboy named Grant (Michael Dante). Everyone loves Kelly, except Griff, who, after balling her, suspects her of every possible scam. Fortunately, this film only runs 90 minutes, or we may have been subjected to the root cause of Griff’s insecurities with women.
Grant, on the other hand, of course, seems ‘too good to be true.’ He educates her on poetry (correcting her pronunciation of Goethe from ‘Goath-a’) and Classical music- he loves Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, shows her home movies of Venice, and even does not flinch over her prostitute past. They get engaged, and Griff tries to blackmail her out of town, but she’s already told Grant everything, so Griff relents, sees he’s been an ass, and decides to accept Grant’s offer as best man. Then, one day, right before the wedding, Kelly walks in on Grant with a little girl, his niece. We never actually see what is going on- only the faces of the three principals, but we can tell the girl has been molested. Grant has a look of perverse deviance on his face, claims that he forgave Kelly her past and she should overlook his, for they are both ‘abnormal’. She coldcocks him with a telephone and kills him instantly, with a single blow. That she is so powerful that a single blow can kill is clearly Fuller using a metaphor, but it’s so damned silly that to question it would take all the sadistic fun out of the scene. The film is loaded with similar scenes of women beating the crap out of evil men, and some women, yet this is not proto-feminism, just high camp of female revenge fantasy.
Of course, Griff arrests Kelly for killing his best friend, as her claims of justifiable homicide are all refuted by others- Farland reappears, and perjures himself to get revenge on her for her leaving him; a young nurse, Buff (Marie Devereux), she saved from a madam refuses to admit she nearly became a whore; the madam, Candy (Virginia Gray), whom Kelly beat the crap out of and shoved the money given to the young nurse, lies about Kelly hatching a blackmail scheme against Grant; and a nurse, Dusty (Karen Conrad), Kelly gave a thousand bucks to, to hide her illegitimate pregnancy- either by abortion or adoption, refuses to admit her shame. Things look bleak until, while looking out her jail window, she spots Grant’s abused niece. The girl runs, but eventually corroborates that she and her uncle played a ‘secret game’. Kelly, derided as a whore who killed a town legend, is now seen as having saved the children from a monster. She is released from jail, is confronted by a town that softens its mores, yet she still leaves it, triumphantly, for their hypocrisy is worse than anything she ever did.
Towers is magnificent, as she has to play real drama, faux drama, high comedy, and low comedy, as well as pure melodrama, and never waver from the film’s world that all of this could really occur. She handles it with ease. That she never got larger roles in better films is a shame. Eisley is wooden and one dimensional, although, given his trite lines, it’s hard to tell if the fault was his or in Fuller’s writing, or both. Dante, as the perv, is very effective. When his real self is denuded, he acts marvelously with his eyes alone. Kelly seemed to sense this side of him from their first kiss, while looking at his home films of Venice, as she pushed him away, during a gondola fantasy sequence, but then gave in to his charms. Of course, the scenes of idyllic suburbia hiding judgmental liars and hypocrites is wholly off the rack, but Fuller proves he was, again, ahead of his time, as the children’s ward is filled with kids of all races- black, white, Hispanic, Oriental. This pan-humanism echoes his earlier film, Shock Corridor, which Fuller gratuitously, but gleefully, shows as playing in the town’s lone movie theater. The kids are shown in fantasy sequences where Kelly is playing with them as health, as well as shots where she is filmed in an almost saintly halo.
There are funny moments, as when Kelly’s landlady asks her if she realizes that humans spend almost a third of their life in bed, and Kelly rolls her eyes. These moments counterbalance the weaker moments, such as where Kelly gives a bizarrely Puritanical speech to the young nurse, Buff, who almost falls into ‘the game’. Kelly rails about prostitution as ‘a social problem, a medical problem, a mental problem’ which will leave Buff as ‘a despicable failure as a woman.’ Far from being the words of a committed Progressive, one could imagine a Jerry Falwell uttering such unrealistic and distorted fodder for ignorance. No real prostitute would ever claim such, for it is not true, but even if it was, they would not have the wherewithal to utter such a condemnatory diagnosis. Another scene where the crippled kids sing Bluebird Of Happiness almost forces one to gag on its mawkish, saccharine nature. Yet, somehow, the film’s many parts work together, despite the uneven nature of each part. It is not a great film, nor even a great B film, by any means- unlike Frank Perry’s David And Lisa, which also featured troubled youths, and was made two years earlier, but it is campy fun, especially if one does not read too much into it, which too many critics often do. It is almost verboten for these critics to take a work of art for what it is on the surface, and few directors of film were ever so ‘surface level’ as Fuller. Subtlety was not his stock in trade, and when it occurred it was usually a happy accident.
Only Fuller’s films run the gamut from low brow Ed Wood-like total crap to great moments and writing that rival the best moments in a Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese film. Yet, he never had total control over any of his material. Even his magnum opus, the terrific war film The Big Red One, was butchered by its studio, and not restored until nearly a quarter century later. Similarly, The Naked Kiss was butchered to a point where Fuller threatened to have his name removed from it. In some ways, this film superficially resembles Federico Fellini’s Nights Of Cabiria, save that Kelly ends up getting the upper hand, in true Hollywood fashion, albeit in a way that Hollywood would never allow. All of Fuller’s films are didactic treatises where his characters, usually outcasts and reprobates, do the things that ‘good people’ should do, but are too fearful to do. A Fullerian antihero walks the walk that typical Hollywood characters are only willing to talk. Fuller empathizes with the lowlifes in his films, even as he condemns their lifestyles, taking the most Christian ideal of loving the sinner while hating the sin to heart. Of course, there is a big ethical difference between harmless prostitution and wicked pedophilia, yet it is prostitution that gets a dressing down as a social evil from Kelly, while pedophilia merely gets a death blow, and no such direct address. Fuller also takes a very unique approach to triteness by not just using clichés but wallowing in their excesses until they have to be accepted as part of his slightly askew universe. Only then does he show his traces of originality.
Still, many of his metaphors are too forced- such as his equation of Grant’s pedophilia with the hypocrisy and sexual repression of the townsfolk. It’s as if one is to believe that the evils of pre-sexual liberation mores were behind Grant’s perversion. Only Fuller could be daring enough to cover such a topic- as well as prostitution and abortion, yet do so in the most hackneyed ways playing against the most direct and honest. It is this meshing of disparate methods that makes Fuller so unique, even when at his worst and most pedantic. This carries over into his film style, where he is a primitive, artistically. The camerawork by cinematographer Stanley Cortez is often wobbly, off-kilter, out of focus, full of glare, and the editing is often bizarre. The soon to be released DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is a vast improvement over both their earlier release of the film, and a cheapo version put out by Passion Productions. While the print is very good, and on par with the earlier releases, this DVD has some good extras; unfortunately, an audio commentary is not one of them. Considering the rise of Netflix and on demand films, one would hope that the vaunted Criterion would realize that extras are the very reason people still buy DVDs. Aside from an insert booklet that features excerpts from Fuller’s memoir, A Third Face, there is an essay by film critic Robert Polito. The actual extras include the original theatrical trailer (in all its hammy glory), an in depth interview with Constance Towers- who praises Fuller’s ability to tell such a sexual story, by film historian Charles Dennis, from 2007, three television interview excerpts with Fuller, from England and France; all of which lend insights into the man and his work. The film score, by Paul Dunlap, wavers between the laughably predictable blaring jazz of B films of that time, especially in its opening sequence, to its pompous Classical interludes, to its retread 1940s film melodrama set pieces, to the downright awful kids’ song, Bluebird Of Happiness, being replayed when Kelly discovers Grant with his niece. The use of characters with names like Candy, Griff (a name used in almost all Fuller films, based upon a dead war buddy of his), Dusty, Kip, Buff, Bunny, and Hatrack- played by future schlock star of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Edy Williams, only emphasizes how willing Fuller was to go over the top, so that he could slip in his morality plays with less suspicion and more ease, by distracting would be censors with red herrings.
Yet, compared to such stiff moralistic Hollywood fare as Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter, which also deals with child abuse, one can see why a film like this chose to go over the top to slip in its medicine with such candied fluff. The Naked Kiss is anomic, leaves many of its scenes open to interpretation, is over-simplistic, ahead of its time, trite, yet also has moments of true human emotion. It is the definition of that work of art which is definitely not great, but, in a sense, essential, for it perfectly distills the contradictions of a time between the repressed black and white morality of the Cold War 1950s and the sludgy gray of the coming morass of Civil Rights Era abuses and mass murder in Vietnam. But, when all of that is said and one, it’s just a fun film to watch, beyond any analysis, and that’s a rare enough quality in any age.