Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is something off the beaten noir track, something of a neo-noir melodramatic masterpiece, The Naked Kiss (1964).
Director Samuel Fuller, a maverick in Hollywood, once said a movie ought to grab you with its first scene and this film’s opening does just that. It stuns……. darkly marvelous.
When, in the early sixties, the studio system more or less collapsed under the onslaught of television, Samuel Fuller had trouble getting money to make movies and worked once more as an independent filmmaker on very low budgets, as with this 1964 film noir “The Naked Kiss” (which I discuss in this clip). He took advantage of his status as a sudden outsider to give his wildly lurid imagination and tabloid fund of experience free rein for a story centered on Kelly (Constance Towers), a prostitute seeking redemption as a small-town nurse, and the web of unanticipated depravity in which she finds herself enmeshed. Its raw and violent subject is matched by its hectic style; the thin production values take a backseat to Fuller’s rich imagination. One of the story’s surprising elements concerns a local grandee of high-cultural accomplishment who takes a shine to her—asserting, no less clearly than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that devotion to the arts and sciences is no guarantee of moral character.
The great Sam Fuller began life as a crime reporter at the age of 17, before writing pulp novels and doing mostly uncredited work on screenplays through the 1930s (his first credit was on 1936’s “Hats Off“). He served in World War Two, seeing action in France, Italy and North Africa, as well as being present at (and filming) the liberation of the concentration camp at Sokolov. By the time he came to direct in 1939 — having been inspired by his anger at what Douglas Sirk did to his screenplay “Shockproof” — Fuller would infuse his work with his experience as both a journalist and a soldier.
Indeed, the director once made a parallel between moviemaking and war in a quote that served as something of a mission statement for his career “Film is like a battleground, with love, hate, action, violence, death…in one word, emotion.” Shooting with both a journalistic eye and a heightened style, producing work that was simultaneously crass and subtle, he’s one of the great pulp filmmakers, and a director who proved a huge influence on everyone. Especially cinephiles and directors who would go on to become much more famous than he. The Nouvelle Vague adored him (Francois Truffaut, etc.) and Jean-Luc Godard would go as far paying him open tribute by giving him a cameo in “Pierrot Le Fou.” Wim Wenders would do the same with Fuller’s small part in “The American Friend.” Other admirers would include Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino. Even if career problems meant that he never became the household name he should have been (he didn’t direct between 1972 and 1980, and the misreading of 1982’s “White Dog” saw him become a pariah in Hollywood), Fuller’s lasting stamp on cinema is still felt today.
“The Naked Kiss” (1964)
Reuniting almost immediately with some of his key collaborators from “Shock Corridor” (among them DoP Stanley Cortez and lead actress Constance Towers), Fuller went back to his neo-noir roots for a film that arguably sees the peak of his career. “The Naked Kiss” stars Towers as a prostitute on the run who arrives in the small town of Grantville and tries to start anew, becoming a nurse and falling for the heir to the town’s wealthiest family (Michael Dante). But the town sheriff (Anthony Eisley), who knows of her past, doesn’t trust her, and when she kills her fiance on discovering that he’s a child molester, she has to face all her enemies down at once. In its depiction of the rotten core beneath a perfect Americana town, the film forges the path for all kinds of films to come (“Blue Velvet” being one of the most obvious descendants), but Fuller’s sense of good and evil has never been stronger, even if his heroine’s morals are more flexible — the helmer being, as ever, a great director of women). Indeed, it’s many ways the purest of all the Fuller films; his journalistic eye for detail married with an ever-bolder approach to filmmaking, bold POVs joined by fractured jump cuts influenced, presumably, by the French Nouvelle Vague. The kind of film you feel you need to shower after seeing, it just might have been Fuller’s finest hour.
Samuel Fuller was a maverick in Hollywood even before he left the studios and struck out in a series of independent, low-budget productions in the late 1950s. But with the freedom afforded him outside the studio system, combined with the challenges of working on smaller budgets and tighter schedules and his own tabloid journalist and pulp fiction instincts, Fuller’s filmmaking became downright jagged and jarring and confrontational in films like Verboten!, Underworld U.S.A. and Shock Corridor. These were critical portraits of American hypocrisy and social injustice within lurid pulp stories and Fuller turned familiar genres–the war movie, the gangster film, the detective story–inside out with a mix of searing social commentary and startling cinematic devices that would be picked up by the directors of the French New Wave. The Naked Kiss is arguably the most aggressively defiant film of his career.
Fuller opens the film by literally battering the audience to attention: a furious woman (Constance Towers) assaults the camera head-on, with reverse shots revealing the man on the other end of the blows. She’s a prostitute, he’s her pimp and as her wig slips off, we get a startling image that explains her fury. Fuller knows how to begin a movie, to be sure, but he also immediately tells the audience exactly what kind of world our mad-as-hell heroine lives in. Two year later, Kelly (Towers) arrives in a small town with a luxurious head of blonde hair, a smart suit and a monogrammed suitcase: the wares of a traveling sales woman hawking California champagne, which local cop Griff (Anthony Eisely) see right through. She’s a pro and he happily pays her fee and samples her wares before booting her out of town. But instead of heading across the river (where the local bordello, Candy’s, is allowed to operate and apparently gets many of its referrals from Griff) she remakes herself as the angel of the children’s ward of an orthopedic hospital, a tough-but-tender nurse who runs her ward like a pirate ship and mother hen to the young candy stripers struggling in the face of all the pain and suffering around them. Beloved by all (except Griff, who thinks she’s just working an angle), Kelly wooed by the town millionaire Grant (Michael Dante), the generous, cultured scion of the town’s founding father. Then she discovers his “secret” (“We’re both abnormal,” he smiles, attempting to equate her past with his sickness) and is arrested for murder.
Fuller was a proud American who showed his patriotism by exploring and criticizing the failures of American society in pulp movies with a vivid, visceral style and making his points with the cinematic equivalent of tabloid headlines. The Naked Kiss has been called a portrait of hypocrisy but it actually presents a culture where the moral lines are drawn in boundaries and the vice is simply segregated from the good people of this “upstanding” town. Griff, a tough-but-tender cop in his own way, sizes up new arrivals quickly, lends a helping hand to good kids facing hard times, sends the shady one their way and then heads over the river to Candy’s place to sample her stable of Bonbons, as her girls are called. His suspicions of Kelly may have more to do with his own attraction to her and his prior claim to her. Meanwhile the town is so enthralled with Grant’s good manners and charitable contributions to the town that any suggestion of criminal (let alone predatory) behavior on his part is beyond serious consideration.
Fuller directs the film like a tabloid melodrama rather than a crime thriller or a film noir, mixing familiar conventions (calendar pages blow away to mark time passing) with unconventional imagery. After Grant shows Kelly his home movies of Venice and his gondola journeys through the canals, they recline on his divan and drift away in their own fantasy, the divan a private gondola floating in a sea of black. Every time that Kelly sees a child or peeks into a baby carriage, the screen is filled with a close-up of her face in a grotesquely overacted smile: the headline type, so to speak, that communicates her maternal desires. And when Kelly walks in on Grant at the film’s turning point, the discreet revelation of a little girl in his mansion, the disconnected close-ups and the dislocated cutting throws the scene so off-balance it’s not quite clear what’s actually going on but it’s like the world is suddenly pulled out from under us. Towers is the film’s weakness, delivering a stiff, confrontational performance with smarmy, unreal smiles and turning dialogue into dramatic speeches, but it’s quite possible that she’s giving Fuller the performance he wanted. She co-stared in his previous film, Shock Corridor, and Fuller promoted her to star billing and the central role for this film. He surely knew what he wanted but we can never warm to her because she’s so removed and exaggerated, and at times she’s so arch it’s simply hard to take.
There’s no attempt at Hollywood realism here. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who previously shot Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Charles Laughton’s sole directorial feature The Night of the Hunter (as well as a number of low-budget exploitation films), he strips away detail and turns the camera into a microscope peering through the bland surfaces of small town America. There’s no glamour here beyond the dreamy fantasy of being transported to the canals of Venice. It’s all contrived and unreal, a weirdly disconnected small town that, aside from a few location shots, seems designed to look artificial. The dialogue is similarly exaggerated and unnatural and Fuller’s use of music–Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is the film’s cue for romantic aspirations and Grant plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to celebrate his marriage (an ominous counterpoint for such a happy moment)–is prominent in the soundtrack, drawing attention to itself is ways similar to what Godard was doing in France at the time.
An audacious mix of cynicism, sleaze, sentimental gooeyness and social commentary, The Naked Kiss is bizarre and at times an assault on the senses (the tone-deaf children’s choir is a weird mix of cutesy sentiment and off-putting awkwardness) but there’s nothing else like it. Fuller gives us an ugly, tawdry America hiding its guilt under a surface of normalcy.
Criterion released the film on DVD years ago, in its early days in the DVD market (the spine retains its #18 release number), in an edition with minimal supplements. It’s been freshly remastered for its DVD rerelease and Blu-ray debut and it looks superb–clean and sharp, with a solid gray scale–and the mono soundtrack is clean and clear. The supplements are solid, mostly archival interviews, notably excerpts from a 1983 episode of The South Bank Show dedicated to Fuller and two archival interviews with Fuller from French TV (one from 1967 and the other from 1987). The images quality is true to the limitations of the era of broadcast TV. New to this edition is an excellent in-depth interview with actress Constance Towers conducted by Charles Dennis in 2007. She is forthcoming about her career and the film and discusses working with Fuller in detail, and is curiously much more engaging and warm in person than she is in the film. The disc is accompanied by a booklet with an original essay by critic Robert Polito and an excerpt from Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking that reaches back to his early days as a young New York reporter, where he regularly came into contact with prostitutes and befriended a few working girls, and how these relationships shaped his portrait of Kelly in The Naked Kiss. The new package features original line-art drawings by comic/graphic novel artist Daniel Clowes (of “Ghost World” fame).
For more information about The Naked Kiss, visit The Criterion Collection. To