For a film that is considered to epitomize the B-movie neo-noir submode, The Naked Kiss’ first-rate talents show immeasurable strength as they come out literally swinging in the first frames, in the form of bald, sweaty, angry hooker Kelly (Constance Towers) and her trusty handbag. Kelly is part smoldering temptress, part saint, part Marlene Dietrich by way of the gutter. In this prologue, director Samuel Fuller pitches the energy level at an impossible height, and he never lets up with his own cinematic right hooks – the punches keep on coming a break-neck speed throughout this pulpy, succulent perversion of the women’s picture that explores dangerous themes throughout. Pedophilia, prostitution, alcoholism, revenge, redemption, and violence against women are but a smattering of Fuller’s favored, often-shocking narrative devices.
Still, for all of the luridness, the bloody-rare vision of The Naked Kiss remains one of singular style and strength, possessed of a charred-yet-juicy flavor that most American films of the era, the early-‘60s, are missing. Fuller doesn’t add on anything unnecessary, his vision is lean and mean.
The leggy beauty decides, following the fracas with her “procurer”, that it is high time to get out of town. Kelly heads to a new life in Grantville, where she immediately begins to work the tat on the local law enforcement, Griff (Anthony Eisely). Purportedly selling champagne out of a suitcase (or “Angel Foam” as she purrs in a seductive double entendre), what Kelly is actually peddling could land her in the slammer. By targeting Griff as her first john, she hopes to be able to work in the town without incident.
Griff, it seems, in the afterglow of a $10 trick and too much pink bubbly, is feeling generous and instructs the sharp young woman that while she absolutely cannot work in his city, she is welcome to cross over to Candy’s (Virginia Grey) place to become a bon-bon girl. And by “bon-bon girl”, it should be painfully obvious again just what Kelly is expected to sell, and it ain’t champagne or candy.
With a killer hangover and a bad taste left in her mouth from Griff’s stinging acid reproach, Kelly decides on the spot that he will be her final customer, that today is the first day of the rest of her life, so to speak, and she quickly finds employment at – wait for it – a home for disabled cherubs, all with jack-o-lantern smiles, cast away by society, and awaiting corrective surgery for their twisted limbs. Kelly goes from whore to madonna in record time, becoming their dedicated den mother. The way Fuller shoots and edits the children’s close-ups is unbelievably beautiful.
Fuller is a master of self-reference, from his 1963 film Shock Corridor playing at the little town’s theater, to his own novel The Dark Passage being Kelly’s bedside reading. Fuller also references his own journalistic background of hanging out with hookers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during his youth. This empathy towards working girls is what sets The Naked Kiss apart from other films about the life of hookers made around this time that patronize their subjects. There aren’t any uptempo sing-a-longs or rosy romance like in Billy Wilder’s hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold tale Irma La Douce (1963), but there is, instead, a haunting choral performance from the disabled children, as led by Kelly, singing the question “Tell me why, Mommy, dear, are there tears in your eyes?”
As far as Kelly’s doomed romance with the local rich playboy/philanthroist is concerned, Fuller saves his hardest blows for a shocking third act revelation. Kelly, even when the chips are down, remains a hero, rather than a victim, until the end. She is in control of this story’s action, and Towers gives a fierce, underrated performance that justly landed her on the first PopMatters’ Essential Female Film Performances list.
Robert Polito, in his critical essay that is included with this new Criterion edition, rightly posits The Naked Kiss into the realm that exists somewhere between Russ Meyer’s exploitation flicks, Douglas Sirk’s feminine melodramas, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s savage assaults on contemporary sexual politics that center almost singularly around the experiences of women and the forces that oppress their bodies, their intellects and their futures. When the film is inspected a bit closer, one can also find elements of Robert Aldrich’s sanguinary passion plays featuring complicated women at the center such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Killing of Sister George, as well as the obvious riffs on classic Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho).
No doubt, Roman Polanski was inspired by Fuller on films such as Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion and the influential meat-and-potatoes aesthetic of Fuller’s films can be found to this day in the work of wildly different modern masters such as Quentin Tarantino and Tim Burton, among many others. This stunning edition, with as perfect a transfer as you will likely ever see, galvanizes Fuller’s place amongst the most underrated auteurs of this era, and The Naked Kiss remains as telling, provocative and good as it was back in 1964.