Pros:Constance Towers. The opening scene.
Cons:Pacing, script and acting issues. Also dated.
The Bottom Line: Naked Kiss still entertains. Towers' performance and that opening scene is memorable. The rest of it requires an appreciation for Fuller or for baaad movies.
In 1964, Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss was a shocking neo-noir film. Highly stylized with odd camera angles, it danced on the edges of the still in force film code with its story of a prostitute trying to change her life. The script embraces both the hard-boiled style of Warner Brothers gangster movies of the 1930s AND the forced overly dramatic soap-opera-ish Peyton Place. Its message about American sexual hypocrisy still resonates. It’s revered in some circles and reviled as an entertainingly baaad film in others. The truth lies somewhere in between. It remains very watchable and entertaining however and therefore gets my recommendation.
The ‘shock’ opening is certainly memorable. Kelly, a prostitute (Constance Towers remembered from TVs Outer Limits AND Fuller’s biggest hit, Shock Corridor) brutally attacks what we think is her ‘john’ with a purse. He tells her to stop hitting him because he’s drunk, she knocks him down furiously beating him with the purse and in the process her wig comes off and we see that she’s bald. She gets his wallet which is stuffed with money, but only takes the $75 dollars he owes her.
Two years later, Kelly arrives in a small town, looking like a well-dressed corporate CEO or Stepford Wife, selling champagne from a bulky case she carries (that’s her cover anyway). A guy follows her from the bus station, watching her smile at a baby in a carriage who’s MOM has left her unattended on the sidewalk. Then she watches some girls skipping rope. When she sits on a park bench, the man sits with her and she pitches him about her champagne which costs $10 a bottle. In the morning, after sleeping together, he gives her a $20, expecting change—but she explains to him: “I never make change.”
He then tells her that she cannot be a prostitute in HIS town. He’s the police Captain, you see. He suggests that she goes across the river to talk to Madame Candy Allacarte and set up shop there.
Instead, Kelly decides to rent a room in town. On the outside of the house there’s a sign that advertises
PLEASANT rooms to let. We linger on the sign and then there's a close-up as Kelly smiles and shakes her head. Is she genuinely touched or is she scheming? The proprietor of the house is a charmingly sweet older lady who has decided to trust Kelly at first sight. We soon learn the man she was supposed to marry 30 years ago, died in the war and she’s stayed single.
Kelly gets a job as a nurse’s aide, working with handicapped children. The Police Captain whose name is Griff (!) played by Anthony Eisley doesn’t like the fact that Kelly is pretending to be a normal, squeaky-clean young woman. She tells him she’s decided to give up her old life, but Griff doesn’t believe for a moment that she’s really interested in going straight.
And we wonder too because Kelly soon tries to impress the town’s wealthiest most eligible bachelor, J.L. Grant (Michael Dante). Is she really trying to make a new life for herself or is she a scheming gold-digger? Will there be a wild twist that leads to murder, a harsh comeuppance and…… well… I can’t spoil everything….
Fuller keeps the film moving. He delivers pulpy, daring/shocking (at the time) scenes contrasting with corny, idealized sweet as saccharine ones. There are lots of shots of adorable children smiling precociously at the camera.
Constance Towers as the who*re with the heart of gold is the best thing about the movie. She’s a talented experienced actress who overcomes the scripts considerable deficiencies and absurd constructions. She’s a blend of Hitchcock’s best icy blonde heroines; part Janet Leigh (from Psycho) and part Grace Kelly (from Rear Window and To Catch a Thief). She’s beautiful and can turn from being charming to icy cold in a second. Something about her smile is disingenuous but it’s believable how easily she gains people’s trust.
Less successful are the male leads. Eisley as Griff is a bit stiff, and Michael Dante as Grant is pretty creepy. Fuller however makes use of these flaws.
After its strong opening, Kiss’s pace is somewhat slow with lots of clichéd moments and cloying shots of cute children. There are a couple of unexpected twists and some tense moments in the last 20 minutes to almost make the wait worthwhile. You should also know this is a very low budget movie, with some cheap looking interior sets that aren’t dressed up very well. I suppose it makes things a bit more stark.
Naked Kiss shows up several times per year on cable channel TCM when they do a Sam Fuller themed appreciation or sometimes as a quirky cult movie. However, the Criterion Disc is quite a feature packed beauty. The film looks and sounds as good as it ever did on screen and there are lots of interesting extras.
There's a new (2010) interview with Constance Towers (who continues to do several TV series appearances). There are also two archived interviews with Fuller from French TV and excerpts from an episode of The South Bank Show that was dedicated to Fuller. The Criterion booklet includes an essay by Robert Polito and an excerpt from Fuller’s autobiography.
Naked Kiss no longer shocks (in the least) and so if you can’t approach it with some perspective it’s just going to be a ridiculously improbable, fun baaad movie. If you can appreciate how it was designed to be a bit scandalous with a once fresh style you’ll have an even better time with it. Fuller’s tabloid/pulpy style was once fresh but has not dated well but I still enjoy several of his films: Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor).
3.5 raised to 4 for the DVD extras.
Copyright© Christopher J. Jarmick 2012