Kelly (Constance Towers) arrives in the respectable small town of Grantville with a past. She is a travelling saleswoman selling champagne, but she actually makes her money as a prostitute. Meeting the town's police captain, Griff (Anthony Eisley) she spends the afternoon with him and he lets her stay in his apartment for the night, suggesting that she visit the bar of Candy (Virginia Grey) across the river, where she can get a job as one of Candy's "bon-bon girls". But Kelly wants a new life away from sleaze, and after renting a room with the town spinster, she starts work at the local nursing home for handicapped children. It's as though things are finally looking up for Kelly...
...but not for long. Director and producer Samuel Fuller wrote this vivid melodrama, which won a reputation for being high camp in some circles, yet there's no hint that he is anything but sincere in The Naked Kiss. Featuring a prostitute trying to break into society, it could have been a stream of bad taste from beginning to end, but Kelly is far more noble than many of the characters who cross her path, and the film has an genuine integrity in its sympathetic treatment of her and women who are forced into seedy situations.
Once her job at the nursing home is in place, Kelly meets the pillar of the community, Grant (Michael Dante), who is part of the family who founded Grantville. They hit it off when Kelly reveals her education and love of Beethoven and poetry (earlier she quotes Goethe to Griff), especially Byron. Grant is a sophisticate who has been around the world, and he shows Kelly his home movie footage of his trip to Venice to impress her. It works, and before long the couple are engaged.
Meanwhile, Kelly is supporting her sisters when one of the nurses decides she doesn't want to work at the nursing home anymore and approaches Candy. Kelly storms over to Candy's bar and makes sure that she stays away, but little does she know she's causing trouble for herself. It's all too clear that Kelly is heading for another fall, just see those fantasy sequences that she enjoys: imagining the handicapped children cured, only for their cheers to turn harsh, or visualising Grant's sofa as a gondola, but feeling strangely uncomfortable when she kisses him. When she wipes away a tear and says, "I'm so happy!", she might as well admit she's doomed.
The Naked Kiss is a strange mix of the sentimental, as in the musical number, and the gritty, as when Kelly stumbles on an act of sickening perversion that plunges her life into chaos, and pushes the film into a thriller for its last act. The apparently upright citizens are those who, like Griff, recommend young women arriving in town to the local madam, or worse. The prostitute is the worthiest character of them all, but is tarnished by her past so that no one will stand up for her, even though she's basically decent. Kelly realises that being on the outside looking in is the best place to be. From the opening, in which a bald Kelly beats up her pimp, you know this is no ordinary story, and the curious, sensational tone may be offputting for some viewers. For others, this will be very worthwhile indeed. Music by Paul Dunlap.
Pioneering independent director, best known for his tough 60s thrillers. Fuller began his career in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, and after a spell in the army and many frustrated years as a writer, directed his first film in 1949, the Western I Shot Jesse James. Fuller's third film, The Steel Helmet, was the first movie to deal with the Korean war and was a huge success. Other films Fuller made in the 50s include Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Run of the Arrow.
The 1960s saw Fuller deliver dark, ground-breaking thrillers like Underworld USA, Shock Corridor and the infamous The Naked Kiss, which divided critics with their mix of melodrama and brutal realism. Fuller subsequently found it hard to find employment in Hollywood and largely worked as an actor throughout the 70s. The 1980 war movie The Big Red One was something of a comeback, but his next film, the anti-racist White Dog caused yet more controversy, and it has rarely been seen in its intended form. Fuller's final feature was the 1989 crime drama Street of No Return, although he worked in TV until the mid-90s. Died in 1997 aged 86.