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Samuel Fuller developed a reputation over time of being the tough guy director of movies like Pickup on South Street (1953), The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980). This is all well and good but his films have a sense of style, and insight at their core, that belies the notion that Fuller can be pigeonholed as the cigar-chomping model of masculinity behind the camera. He may well have been, but the man put together more movies about regret and despair than most directors and occasionally dipped deeply into the well of sentimentality. In 1964, he put together a movie whose story and plot could have easily been mistaken for the kind of movie directed by Douglas Sirk, although with completely different results. In fact, The Naked Kiss (1964) may be described as the best movie Douglas Sirk never made.
The Naked Kiss has the cold open to end all cold opens. Without so much as a fade-in, the viewer is assaulted by Kelly (Constance Towers, in a terrific performance), a prostitute as she swings her bag at the camera, and thus, the audience. A quick cut gives us her POV and we see she is smacking around her pimp who pleads to her that he’s drunk and can’t protect himself. He reaches out and tears off her wig revealing a shaved head, which seems to infuriate her even more. She beats him to the ground, even taking a moment to spray him in the face with a seltzer bottle, straight out of a Three Stooges routine, before raiding his wallet for what she’s owed, 75 dollars.
We’re then treated to a magnificently styled opening credit sequence in which Kelly once again looks us right in the eye as the credits roll. She’s looking into a mirror (the camera), fixing her wig, putting on makeup and pondering her departure. Then we see the date, July 4th, 1961, her independence day. Cut to two years later and Kelly’s natural hair has grown back in and she’s in a new town, Grantville, plying her trade. She gets a john right away, the town’s police captain, Griff (Anthony Eisley), but when she’s done, she decides to turn over a new leaf. That new leaf turns out to be working with handicapped children at a hospital paid for by the town’s leader, J.L. Grant (Michael Dante), the great, great grandson of the town’s founder.
At this point, several things happen (ahem, SPOILERS): (1) Griff figures she’s running a scam, maybe to get at the doctors; (2) we discover she’s the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold; (3) she meets Mr. Grant, falls in love and gets engaged; (4) Griff’s not buying that one either; (5) she’s implicated in Grant’s murder, which she did but because he was going to molest a child. Everyone else thinks she did it because a plan to roll Grant backfired. Now she has to prove her innocence to get off the hook with Griff fighting against her every step of the way.
Fuller sets all of this up bluntly, without so much as a nod to subtlety, following the lead of the noir greats, who eschew subtlety for style, and naturalistic dialogue for poetry. Griff and Kelly have some of the best back and forth in the movie. Early on, when she arrives in town, using a travelling saleslady cover, Angel Foam, she and Griff shoot the breeze. She’s already figured him for a cop and he’s already figured her for a prostitute:
Griff: “How about a sample?”
Kelly: “No free gifts.”
Griff: “I’m pretty good at popping the cork if the vintage is right.”
Or when Griff confronts her at the hospital, a mere week after sleeping with her on her first day in town:
Griff: “A new low, using crippled kids to front your trade.”
Kelly: “I quit my trade… I washed my face clean the morning I woke up in your bedroom.”
Griff: “You got morals in my room?!”
Kelly: “You had nothing to do with it. It was your mirror.”
Griff: “You must’ve taken a long look.”
Fuller was no stranger to tough talking characters and he was also no stranger to Douglas Sirk, who directed his screenplay for Shockproof (1949). Fuller was not at all pleased with the results and seems to have spent the rest of his career making movies with a character named Griff and many of the same themes of Shockproof just to settle the matter.
The Naked Kiss shares a lot in common with Shockproof, as well as the types of characters that Sirk made famous in his other films. One can easily imagine Griff played by Rock Hudson, Kelly by Dorothy Malone and Grant by Robert Stack, with lots of technicolor, gleaming surfaces and repressed desires. The difference is that Fuller had no desire to film the underbelly of small town America as a shiny soap opera. His visuals, aided by the formidable talents of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, are all dark and shadowy, even in broad daylight. And the crowd seems menacing, even when they’re gathered to welcome Kelly back into the fold. Everyone in the town, in fact, seems like an unthinking automaton, desperately in need of Kelly to come in and save the day. Fuller’s message, by the end, as Kelly strolls out of the town a savior, could be read as an ignorantly happy America needing someone street smart like Kelly to come in and fix the problems they’re all blissfully ignoring.
The Naked Kiss isn’t perfect, by any means. Fuller stretches out a few scenes past their breaking point and the film still only clocks in at 90 minutes. These scenes involve the children in shots of such preening sentimentality that it’s never clear if Fuller is being sincere or mocking the kind of soap operatic scenario he’s filming. One scene in particular, of the children performing a song, is almost unbearable if looked at in earnest but rather funny if viewed with an eye towards parody.
Samuel Fuller didn’t make many more movies after this, and one of his best, White Dog (1982), got such a botched non-release, that he never quite recovered. But here in The Naked Kiss, and in his previous effort, Shock Corridor (which shows up on the Grantville movie marquee), Fuller achieved a real low-budget noir poetry, one not easily imitated nor abundantly found in the world of 1964 cinema, or any other time.