Great Sam Fuller flic
By a customer
, 24 Mar 2006
The Naked Kiss opens with a shocking pre-credit sequence, shot partly with cameras harnessed to the actors, in which we see a furious woman beating a man with her handbag. He grabs at her and her wig comes off, revealing that she is totally bald - a prostitute who has been shaved in punishment by the pimp she is now assaulting. Kelly (Constance Towers), the hooker eventually makes her way to Grantville, a small town in New England and after a brief liaison with a law enforcement officer, abandons her bad ways and becomes a nurse in a children's hospital. In due course she becomes engaged to Grant (Michael Dante) a rich and handsome Korean War veteran. Grant, however, has a dark secret of his own... Sam Fuller started his career in newspapers, wrote some pulp novels and screenplays, and then wandered the United States as a tramp on freight trains during the Depression before serving with distinction in the US Army. Starting with I Shot Jesse James (1949) he directed a series of sometimes-controversial films that established him as a cult auteur, especially in Europe. His critical stock remains high today, for instance amongst such modern filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Tim Robbins. Perhaps Fuller's quote that 'Film is a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action, death... in a word, emotion' is the most famous statement of his creative philosophy. Certainly the assaults come thick and fast in The Naked Kiss, either during the opening scene (where the camera angles suggest that blows are struck directly against the audience's point of view), or the two other attacks by an out of control Kelly on Candy (Virginia Grey) the Madame, or Grant respectively. Finally of course there is the 'battleground' of the legal process in which the heroine finds herself entangled.
The present film was the second of two notorious titles that Fuller made, one after the other in the early 1960s, the other being Shock Corridor. They polarised critics between those who found the results shallow and sensational and those others who discovered in Fuller's increasing disillusionment about American society a welcome, and brave aesthetic. There's no denying Fuller's in-your-face tabloid style has its rough edge, but this is part and parcel of the director's way of 'cinema as scoop' where his films were amongst the first to cover the pressing issues of the day. For instance, Steel Helmet (1950) early on brought the Korean War to the screen. The Naked Kiss goes the whole hog in sensationalism and manages to include abortion, prostitution, police corruption as well as paedophilia, often with the urgency of an on-the-spot report. At the centre of it all is Kelly, the poetry-loving prostitute who, despite her past, is both intelligent and sensitive. 'Intellect rarely goes with physical beauty' the self centred Grant smugly actually tells her, 'and that makes you a remarkable woman.' For Kelly leaving her earlier profession is a matter of self-esteem just as much as it is social duty. When Buff (Marie Devereux) tries to follow her bad example she is forcibly reminded that prostitution is 'a social problem, a medical problem, a mental problem' and that she will end up 'a despicable failure as a woman.'
At times The Naked Kiss plays out like a garish Sirkian drama. Small town America, as displayed in Grantville, is just as full of hypocrisy and repression as anything found in Imitation Of Life (1959) or All That Heaven Allows (1955). The difference here is that the emotions are worn on the sleeve; the ironic reassurance of the German's widescreen colour is replaced by stark journalisms in black and white. Fuller's town is a personal one, where Shock Corridor is on the local cinema's marquee, and where Fuller's own paperback novel The Dark Page is being read by the heroine. This is a feminist noir with a controversial edge. If the result is the occasional miscalculation (such as the sugary song sung by Kelly and the children) then the overall effect can be judged a success. The film's title itself refers to the way one can, ostensibly at least, identify a pervert - by the nature of his or her intimate contact. The Naked Kiss, itself a title reminiscent of some garish dime fiction, is full of such distorted intimacies, much of which ends disappointingly or with violence. Of course 'naked' in one sense is also the way we first see Kelly, bald headed and frenziedly beating her pimp. As critics have observed, there's a characteristic contradiction in many of Fuller's films that antisocial characters perform the most necessary social actions. In Pickup On South Street (1953) for instance, it is the sociopath Skip McCoy who helps bring the communists to book. Here, although some still see the newly reformed Kelly as reprehensible - notably her first, and only, paying customer in Grantville, Captain Griff (Anthony Eisley) - it is she who provides the catalyst for the eventual exposure of Grant's perversions. Although still ostracised at the end of the film, she has performed a valuable, if uncomfortable, service to the community - her lack of sentimentality neatly sidestepping many of the 'whore with the heart of gold' clichés, which the director so despised. Fuller had an almost mystical faith in America's destiny, but sensationally recorded its sins and failings with increased pessimism as his career proceeded. The choice of Kelly as the vehicle for reform in The Naked Kiss is typical of his later films. In fact the present title was something of a watershed for the director. He next made the financially unsuccessful, and far more conventional, Shark! (aka: Maneater, 1969), before he eventually found his feet again in the American cinema in the 1980s.
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