By Scott Ross
If I’ve seen a movie with a stronger, stranger, wilder and more compelling opening than Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964), I can’t remember it.
Even reading, in Fuller’s posthumously published memoir A Third Face, the basic plot of this astonishment, and how that remarkable opening was achieved, cannot quite prepare you for that first shot. Of the Fullers I’ve seen so far, it is this immediately involving visual statement that has best exemplified its progenitor’s “grab ’em by the balls” philosophy of filmmaking. I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated, but when you see it (and you should) bear in mind the writer-director’s youthful beginnings at the New York Graphic. Little Sammy learned early — at a time when most boys his age had barely graduated to long pants — the innate value to the journalist of the strongman opening sentence. And there was surely no stronger cinematic opener in movie-houses of 1964 than this one, yet it’s only the beginning. When, 91 minutes later, The Naked Kiss ends, you’ll grant you’ve seen something utterly unlike anything else.
The movies have had a fascination with prostitutes almost from the beginning, and it went on, enthusiasm undimmed even when the writers had, under the yoke of the odious, Catholic-driven, Production Code, to disguise their intentions beneath cloaks of obfuscation. The year before The Naked Kiss was released, Billy Wilder, taking advantage of the waning censorship standards, had his greatest box-office success with his and I.A.L. Diamond’s simultaneously unguarded and surprisingly poignant comedy Irma La Douce. (The original musical, from Broadway and the West End, via France, and from which Wilder extracted the musical numbers, benefited both from the more relaxed “moral” attitudes of the stage and the show’s own, surprising level of innocence; it’s a fairy tale for adults, with poules and mecs standing in for damsels and princes.) But no contemporaneous American movie I can think of tackled the subject so head-on as this one — and definitely not for laughs.
There is nothing remotely funny about Constance Towers’ Kelly, or her situation. Having extricated herself from her seamy procurer and working solely on her own, she finds herself in a seemingly idealized small town and, all too bitterly aware that time is against her (“Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life”) settles in, against the odds, as beloved nurse to a hospitalful of handicapped children. She even seems to find love, and the promise of future respectability, with the town’s wealthy scion. But as in life, though all too seldom at the movies, these things have a way of disintegrating. The Naked Kiss emerges, less as the “shocker” advertised than as one of the fullest portrayals ever made of a woman engaged, as they now say, in sex-work, unparalleled until Jane Fonda’s fulsome portrait of Bree Daniels in Klute seven years later.
Towers, known to me before this only as a performer in musicals (she was and remains the Anna Leonowens of my dreams) has one of the strongest faces I’ve ever encountered in a movie; she’s in virtually every scene of The Naked Kiss but you’d be hard-pressed to take your eye off her even if she wasn’t. Towers had enormous regard for her director, and it’s clear that Fuller returned the esteem. He uses her extraordinary physiognomy both to conceal and to reveal; even when you’re not sure why she’s reacting as she is, as in the sequence in which her wealthy suitor (Michael Dante) first kisses her, the moment has exceptional power.
Kelly is one of the most fully delineated female characters of her era, and I wish the man who created her had done more studies of complex, troubled, strong-willed women like her. For a filmmaker as concerned with masculine stories as Fuller, his conception of Kelly is a revelation. And for all his pulp entertainment sensibilities, and his occasionally unpolished dialogue, his sensitivity to Kelly (and, by extension, to women generally, in or out of “the profession”) is exquisitely limned. Kelly is a sister under the skin to such finely depicted Fuller heroines as Jean Peters’ Candy in Pickup on South Street, Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond in 40 Guns and Shirley Yamaguchi’s Mariko in House of Bamboo — women who are flawed, proud, sometimes difficult, intermittently inexplicable, but imbued with an innate humanity that is never condescended to by their creator.
Working outside the Hollywood system, Fuller was able to get into The Naked Kiss some astonishing details. Kelly’s narrative arc does not merely take in the degrading, soul-killing life of the prostitute; it encompasses explicitly stated (if discretely illuminated) pedophilia and the hypocrisy of the law. The police chief (Anthony Eisley) tries to run Kelly out of his town, but only after he has enjoyed her erotically himself. Other hypocrisies abound; of the many people in Grantville who come to love her, not one offers her comfort when she’s arrested, only after she’s released. Indeed, if I have any real quarrel with Fuller’s dramaturgy, it’s that I would prefer that Kelly, rather than embracing and kissing her women friends at the finale, spat in their faces instead.
There are several splendid supporting performances in The Naked Kiss: the robust, jocular Patsy Kelly as the hospital’s head nurse; Marie Devereux as Buff, Kelly’s unhappy colleague who is drifting perilously close to the kind of life from which Kelly has walked away; Betty Bronson, the screen’s very first Peter Pan, in a lovely performance as Kelly’s landlady, witheringly referred to as the town’s oldest virgin; Virginia Grey, a gifted mainstay of period radio drama, as the soignée madam who gets an especially brutal comeuppance from Kelly and who will later return it in kind; and Gerald Michenaud as the legless child who is the special recipient of Kelly’s buried mother-love.
Fuller’s dialogue, despite some embarrassingly facile passages, brims with his patented street eloquence, as when Kelly warns the wayward Buff away from the lure of selling herself: “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… And you’ll meet men you live on… and men who live on you. And those are the only men you’ll meet… You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife.” He is also unafraid of showing Kelly’s lack of education, as when she mispronounces Goethe’s name; she’s a dilettante — self-educated, a reader who has never heard the name of the poet she admires.
Watching the extras on the Criterion edition, I was struck once again by how often Fuller’s most ardent defenders degrade him even as they enthuse over his work. Wim Wenders, for example, calls Fuller’s direction here “crude.” Why? Because he was unafraid of energy, even shock, as means of artistic expression? If Fuller’s is a pulp sensibility, then so is William Faulkner’s. There isn’t a frame of The Naked Kiss, exquisitely shot in black and white by the redoubtable Stanley Cortez (who also lit Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and the Charles Laughton-directed Night of the Hunter) that is less than eloquent, and frequently more than that. My only real issue with the movie is Paul Dunlap’s sappy, ultra-conventional score, square and old-hat where Fuller, and his movie, are anything but. Everything else is as startling, and as perfectly realized, as it must have been the day the movie opened in 1964. Its immediacy, seriousness of purpose, and aching humanism put almost every other movie released that year — and it was a very good year for American pictures — to red-faced shame.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross