Two of Sam Fuller’s best films, The Naked Kiss (1964) and Shock Corridor (1963), have recently received an overhaul from the Criterion Collection. Now, besides HD digital transfers, they both include the extras that fans of the Criterion Collection have come to expect: interviews, documentaries (Shock Corridor features the wonderful 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera) and two box illustrations by cartoonist Dan Clowes. Both Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss represent Sam’s Fuller’s disdain and bizarre admiration of tabloid journalism. To be sure, they were sensationalistic b-movies in the truest sense; they sought to scandalize and titillate audiences with the dark material being presented. But Fuller wanted to also illuminate the human condition, to tackle subjects that were not merely taboo at the time, but that were as dangerous as a loaded gun.
Below, I am reposting my essay from last year on Fuller’s seminal work, The Naked Kiss.
Director: Samuel Fuller
A sudden explosion of violence. A woman advances toward the screen, brandishing her purse like a weapon and smacking the hell of some drunken palooka who’s just trying to escape. Frenetic jazz music heightens the sense of chaos as the screaming woman continues her assault. Then the man pulls her hair off—her wig we realize— revealing a woman who is completely bald. When she finally wrestles him the ground with the help of a bottle of spray seltzer, she removes a wad of money from his wallet declaring that she is taking only what is coming to her.
This is the opening scene in Samuel Fuller’s 1964 film, The Naked Kiss. These stark events unfold, rapid fire, in the first few moments following an initial title card. Using mainly a hand-held camera and frequently cutting to a P.O.V. shot of the retreating man, the audience itself feels like it’s under attack. It is a sly, utterly convincing conceit on Fuller’s part. The scene is unexpected and unnerving and once the main character, Kelly’s (Constance Towers) wig comes off it gets weird, really weird (this opening scene itself is really worth the price of admission). We realize in short order that Kelly is a prostitute that’s had it with her pimp and is ready to severe all ties. But Kelly is also someone with morals, even in this dirty business. This is a theme that Fuller would return to again and again over the course of the film.
The Naked Kiss is a movie strangely out of time. I still don’t know what to make of it. It certainly feels like film noir, with its snappy dialogue and pulpy storyline, but it also exists in b-movie territory; low-budget and off-kilter, it lurks about in lurid, often taboo material. At the same time it seems to fit the mold of the 50s melodrama, movies mostly geared toward women. Fuller undermines all of these genres, pulling from them at will, using their hallmarks as subversion, as a way into darker issues. Indeed, the topics that Fuller tackles are still weighty subjects to this day and I can only imagine that movie goers at the time must have been either scratching their heads or utterly incensed by the scandalous content. This is grotesque stuff indeed, a film that doesn’t fit the mainstream mold, that’s not the typical “Hollywood” picture. Fuller had long been know as director with a maverick bent, churning out films like The Baron of Arizona (1950), Pickup on South Street (1953) and Shock Corridor (1963) ; The Naked Kiss only helped solidify this notion.
After Kelly’s initial attack on her pimp, the film skips ahead several years. Kelly arrives in a small town called Grantville, stepping off the bus with only a few pieces of luggage and a new head of hair. Posing as a saleswoman, she quickly takes up with the town cop, Griff (Anthony Eisley), as her first “john” in the new town. Griff offers her work at the town’s brothel, Candy’s. Instead, Kelly decides to shed her past once and for all and takes a job as a nurse helping handicapped children at a local hospital. Once Griff learns that she rejected his offer for work at the club, he begins to shadow her, not believing that she can relinquish her unsavory past.
Kelly soon meets Grant (Michael Dante), the town millionaire and a supposed beacon of the community. They quickly fall in love and Grant proposes. Kelly has several initial reservations about marrying Grant, her former life as a prostitute being one. True to her nature, she comes clean, revealing her past to Grant. To Kelly’s surprise he doesn’t care and still wants to marry her. But, the strangest, out-of-left field twist is still to come.
Fuller executes the story with precision and economy, as he did with most of his films, but like Shock Corridor, the movie that preceded The Naked Kiss, he also allows for detours into dream-like moments, exposing the psyche of the characters, especially that of his heroine, Kelly. They are often odd, unsettling moments: Kelly imagines floating down the streets of Venice in a gondola as the living room of Grant’s mansion vanishes into a sort of stagey darkness; handicapped children singing a song that is recorded for posterity, that we hear again later and is made all the more creepy by the events that follow it.
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez helps solidify Fuller’s dark, moody vision of small-town America. Cortez shot the one of the most gorgeous black and white films, The Night of the Hunter and brings many of same sensibilities to bear in The Naked Kiss. Large, almost empty rooms are defined by hard-edged shadows. Fuller lingers mostly in wide and medium shots, only occasionally going into a close-up. He moves the camera only when it serves a purpose. There is nothing extraneous; he expedites the storyline efficiently with camerawork that only serves further the plot.
With the The Naked Kiss Samuel Fuller creates a pulpy, sensationalistic assault on small-town morality. It is a film that doesn’t pull its punches, literally. The Naked Kiss reveals its horrors and hypocrisy at a singular, unrelenting pace. Kelly is a woman shunned by society, a pariah, but it is she who is really the moral force of the film. The town holds horrible secrets and is itself corrupt to a degree; from the cop to the philanthropist, they are in league, these two archetypes, ready to expose the failings of others while holding themselves as examples of societal “norms”.
But in Fuller’s world there is no room for notions of good and evil, these thematic manifestations simply don’t jive with his world view (Kelly is no saint, but neither is Griff). His is bare-knuckled social commentary, the kind born from years as a newspaper man working in tabloids (in his teens Fuller was a crime reporter for a newspaper called “The Graphic” and continued working in tabloids until turning to Hollywood where he wrote novels as well as directed movies). Indeed, the dialogue itself feels like it was ripped right out of dime store pulp novel. After discovering that a fellow nurse at the hospital made 300 dollars in one night at Candy’s club, we get this monologue from Kelly:
“All right, go ahead. You know what’s different about the first night? Nothing. Nothing… except it lasts forever, that’s all. You’ll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare for the rest of your life. Oh, you’re a beautiful girl, Buff. Young… Oh, they’ll outbid each other for you. You’ll get clothes, compliments, cash… And you’ll meet men you live on… and men who live on you. And those are the only men you’ll meet. And, after a steady grind of making EVERY john feel at home, you’ll become a block of ice. If you do happen to melt a little, you’ll get slipped a tip behind Candy’s back. You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife. Why, your world with Candy will become so warped that you’ll hate all men. And you’ll hate yourself! Because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a MENTAL problem!… And a despicable failure as a woman.”
True, some of the writing stretches into the realm of cornball, but there is an interesting cadence to it as well, like the writing of James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard, both of whom have an ear of how dialogue is delivered, not simply how it exists on the page. This bit of monologue sums up Kelly’s character fairly neatly, because, after all, it is Kelly’s story. Fuller peppers his script with punchy dialogue such as this throughout the film; as hardboiled and cartoonish as it might seem, it also reveals Fuller’s social conscience and his desire to tell stories that were honest, that exposed humanity for what was.
Perhaps most illuminating of all, Fuller cast his tough-as-nails character, Kelly, as his lead, a role he usually reserved for men. It’s a reversal that is fascinating to watch, especially given the time period in which it was made. Kelly doesn’t need a man to survive, and when she does let her guard down, when she fails to abide her instincts, it leads to her downfall (the “Naked Kiss” of the title refers to the kiss of a degenerate, the taste of ugliness and despair; this was a feeling she experienced with Grant, something she ignored). She is vindicated in the end but chooses to leave town; there is nothing left for her, whatever good she had done was already tainted. She must keep moving, seeking a life that remains elusive, that remains a dream.
Kelly is a woman who knows who she is; perhaps the only character in the movie with enough guts to allow herself this sort of honesty. She will ultimately be alone; made an outcast not by her past, but because of what she believes.