Thursday, May 1, 2014

Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss

After pummeling her pimp with a shoe and spraying him with seltzer water, a bald prostitute takes the $75 he owes her.

Two years later, Kelly (Constance Towers) gets off the bus in Grantville, an idyllic community. She meets Griff (Anthony Eisley), the local police captain, and after some blatant flirting, the two sleep together. Although Griff likes Kelly, he doesn't want "her kind" in his town and recommends she seek employment at a nice brothel "across the river."

Kelly reflecting on her life.
After taking a hard look in the mirror, Kelly decides to make a new life in Grantville. She gets a job at the local hospital, where she finds her calling by caring for handicapped children. Her co-workers adore Kelly and she takes care of them. She also falls in love with J.L. Grant (Michael Dante), a millionaire whose ancestors founded the town. Unfortunately, Grant's best friend is Griff--meaning that Kelly can't keep her past a secret for long.

Candy doesn't like the taste of money!

While this plot summary may sound like a soap opera, The Naked Kiss is a wonderfully odd movie that constantly surprises its audience. Writer-director Samuel Fuller takes traditional film stereotypes (the prostitute with a heart of gold, the town "sheriff") and transforms them into vivid characters. We see Kelly interact with the children with compassion and tough love. Later, though, we see her violent side again when she takes matters in her own hands after learning that Candy (the aforementioned madam) tried to recruit a young nurse. She visits Candy a La Carte (yes, that's the name of the brothel), beats Candy with a handbag, shoves cash in her mouth, and warns her to stay away from the nurse. (This scene sets up a terrific later exchange  in which Candy gets her revenge and ends with the retort: "Nobody shoves dirty money in my mouth!").

Constance Towers as Kelly.
In a 1980 interview with Tom Ryan, Fuller used the term "gutter people" to describe characters like Kelly, who "have their own code of honor" and "don't try to live on lies--like we do." Kelly's moral compass is clear from the first scene; although her abusive pimp has $800 in his wallet, she only takes what he owes her. Likewise, while she doesn't make excuses for her past, she goes to extremes to keep two young women from repeating her mistakes. Though I don't think Fuller would include Griff as a "gutter person," the police captain also lives by his own code. It's okay if he pays Kelly for sex or frequents Candy's place, but he doesn't want prostitution in "his town."

Griff's concept of a wholesome town sets up the dominant theme in The Naked Kiss--that evil dwells in the shadows of even the nicest places. Fuller paints Grantville as a Thortonesque community only to later reveal a dark, disturbing secret. And although the townspeople are unaware of the evil that lurks among them, Fuller turns them into unwilling accomplices. When Kelly reveals the horrid secret, no one believes her--not even Griff--because of her scandalous past.

A world of shadows.
The great Stanley Cortez served as cinematographer on The Naked Kiss. Cortez, who collaborated with Orson Welles (The Magnificent Ambersons) and Charles Laughton (The Night of the Hunter), creates a world of shadows for The Naked Kiss. He also employs light and dark shading to reflect Kelly's past and future. She wears a white suit when she first sees the children, wears white as a nurse, and sports a light dress visiting Grant (with wedding gown in hand). In contrast, she wears black in the opening scene with her pimp and when she visits Candy.

The memorable opening sequence.
Some critics have complained that Fuller built some of his films around set pieces, to the extent that two or three scenes dominated the films. There is no denying that The Naked Kiss boasts three fabulous set pieces: the opening scene, shot in alternating first-person views, while jazz blares in the background; the beating of Candy; and a shocking scene with a phone (which is nicely foreshadowed).

However, there's much more to The Naked Kiss on thematic and stylish levels. The acting may be a mixed bag (though Towers and Eisley are quite good) and the running time could be pruned by a few minutes. Still, it's an absorbing film and one of the best cult films of the 1960s. Plus, it features a plethora of quotable dialogue, such as when Griff first ogles Kelly and remarks to another guy: "That's enough to make a bulldog bust his chain."

6 comments:

  1. I've been compiling a list of movies to foist on my daughter during college break. I hadn't thought about this or Fuller (she did like "Park Row"). The list has to get another working over.

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  2. This one has been on my "to-watch" list for a while. I really liked Fuller's BARON OF ARIZONA, but I admit I have been waiting for the right mood to tackle this picture's more shocking content.

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  3. Rick - I haven't seen this one but It's definitely on my list now.
    Thanks for the stirring review.

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  4. This is an excellent profile of a much lesser known film. The "idyllic" town you describe isn't quite so wonderful. Even the title is jarring and, when it is finally explained, it makes your skin crawl. Great post, Rick!

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  5. The Ryan interview with Fuller, the last true American auteur, is excellent. Fuller's films never disappoint.

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  6. Very perceptive take on one of my favorite films. Fuller made some truely wonderful films.

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