Friday Editor’s Pick: The Naked Kiss (1964)

by on March 31, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri April 6 at 4:30 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]

In conjunction with the museum’s career retrospective, MoMA gives Cindy Sherman carte blanche with their theater screens and the series is, quite unsurprisingly, full of goodies.
As Robert Horton says in Film Comment, “The Naked Kiss can leave bruises (the camera whammys around so much that you can actually see Fuller himself in one shot, yanking off Constance Towers’s wig).” And Don Druker for the Chicago Reader: “What can I tell you about a film that begins with a bald prostitute beating a man unconscious with her handbag? Except that it’s undoubtedly Sam Fuller’s vilest, sleaziest masterpiece.”

Robert Polito for The Criterion Collection:

More than Shockproof, the 1949 film Fuller cowrote for Douglas Sirk, The Naked Kiss intuits a Sirkian female melodrama—at least a Sirkian female melodrama as recast by Russ Meyer and Rainer Werner Fassbinder into a minimalistic, noirish fairy tale. Everything here is concentrated, iconic: the beautiful stranger of lowly American origins, enigmatic past, and higher purposes (“Lord Byron,” Kelly whispers to Grant. “My favorite poet”); the rich playboy, soaked in old money and European culture (“Would you like to visit where Byron wrote many of his favorite sonnets?” Grant responds); and the small-town hypocrisy, decadence oozing at the edges (“Now, there’s nothing personal, muffin,” Griff clarifies for Kelly after sleeping with her for ten dollars. “If I let you set up shop in this neighborhood, the people would chop me like a ripe banana”). By tracking Kelly’s dreams of self-transformation out of prostitution into a job ministering to crippled children at the Orthopedic Medical Center and her engagement to Grant, Fuller casually, relentlessly smokes out the secret codes. “What I wanted was the whole concept of a caste system,” he recalled in an interview. “The irony was, a woman who has struggled finds what she thinks is happiness, the whole nine yards, then finds out it’s all a lie.”



Sean Axmaker for Parallax View:

The angry hooker busses into a small town, becomes nurse in the children’s ward of a hospital while local cop Anthony Eisley tries to force her out of town (immediately after sleeping with her) and ends up wooed by local millionaire Michael Dante, a cool sophisticate with a perverse secret. Fuller holds back his Kino-fist for all but a few brief scenes—the jagged opening, the fantasy that transports Towers to the canals of Venice, the discreet revelation of Bunny in Dante’s mansion and the dislocated cutting that throws the scene so off-balance it’s like we’ve had the world pulled out from under us. An audacious mix of cynicism, sleaze, sentimental gooeyness and social commentary, it’s bizarre and at times an assault on the senses (the children’s choir is enough to make you run from the room screaming) but there’s nothing else like it. Fuller gives us an ugly, tawdry America hiding its guilt under a surface of normalcy. This two aggressively crude and skewed late Fuller film is America’s pulp poet at his most passionately outrageous.

Tom Milne for Time Out (London):

Fuller’s grasp of character and milieu is so sure that the film gradually imposes itself as a scathing exposé of hypocrisy, unforgettable for the sharp savagery of scenes like the one in which Towers calmly marches into the local bordello and stuffs the madam’s mouth full of dollar bills as retribution for trying to corrupt an innocent.



Keith Phipps for The Onion AV Club:

Things aren’t as they first appear, however, and the film becomes a tussle between good and evil, as Fuller’s films tend to. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez—also responsible for The Magnificent Ambersons and Night Of The Hunter—deals in starkly opposed black-and-white images to match Fuller’s themes. But Fuller is just as interested in grays. Towers leaves vice to dedicate her life to the most demanding sort of do-gooding, but her redemption doesn’t come easy, and she’s forced to fall back on old, hard ways to protect her friends. The Naked Kiss contrasts angelic children with unapologetic depravity, while capturing the tissue-like division protecting the former from the latter. Innocence and corruption live together beneath the harmonious, hypocritical surface of an idyllic-seeming American town, and while that situation may seem familiar now, thanks to the films and TV shows Naked Kiss helped inspire—Blue Velvet comes immediately to mind—familiarity has dulled none of the film’s force.


Andre Dellamorte for Collider:

What’s amazing about this film is that finding the seedy underbelly of small town America became good sport in the 1980’s and 1990’s in American cinema. From American Beauty to Blue Velvet, there are a number of either “great” or great works that have made hay with the difference between the public’s perception/created illusion and the reality of how most of America lives. Mostly this was meant to contrast the way American viewed itself in the 1950’s and 1960s. But Fuller was there at the time showing the rank hypocrisy of not only small town America, but the world. Kelly was/is a former prostitute, but for a culture that supposedly supports Christian values, there are some things that one can never leave behind, and so the minute Kelly gets herself in any sort of trouble, the thing that she was defines her to people who know that she’s a decent person.
Only Sam Fuller can get away with showing crippled kids as he does, and only Fuller would think to do it. It’s weird, and it suggests an askew sensibility, but it’s never cloying or fake. Fuller dealt with truths, and he was great at creating these worlds that – where his function as critic is never overwhelming to the narrative. But the end of the film is such a great “fuck you.” Fuller was pissed, and these films are meant to be an auto-critique. Fuller was a journalist, and he saw the world through that unflinching eye. With these films, he wrote the greatest poison pen letter to the country he loved, and fought for. These are great incendiary works that are just as potent today as they were when they came out. If you haven’t discovered Sam Fuller, this is a good gateway to his genius.



Eric Henderson for Slant:

Postwar cinema was plenty country, and more than enough rock n’ roll. But whether we’re talking The Egg and I or High School Confidential, the drive-in era’s depiction of the effects of urban hangover upon idyllic small town Americana invariably revealed a wounded-but-upright oasis of morality, if only because you couldn’t expect the Big City’s fashionable crime to trickle down for at least a decade. Speaking of being ahead of the curve, noir films stood out among their dated contemporaries like pure hip-hop. And Samuel Fuller’s fizzy, wigged-out masterpiece The Naked Kiss drops it from frame one.
As my Slant colleague Fernando F. Croce pointed out, Fuller once reckoned a movie ought to grab you with its first scene. And by “grab you,” I mean your dick, shocking it into turgidity and priming you for the remaining volatile good time. Few other first scenes give head as good as that of Naked Kiss, but Fuller’s fierce prologue is only an appetizer for the lengths he gets his audience to swallow when his reformed ho Kelly tries to hoist up her stockings and reach for anonymity in the rural wild.
Befitting the movie’s vibrant crosspollination of film noir and women’s weepies, Kelly’s Peyton Place dreams of domestic fulfillment are harshly derailed, and The Naked Kiss begins to grow positively feral as she uncovers the town’s perverse, thriving criminal underbelly. She and Fuller come to the conclusion that even being a two-bit, big-city tramp is nobler than living anywhere that has a Main Street. It’s Sirk-on-a-shoestring, and twice as cynical.


Dave Kehr for The New York Times:

The statuesque Constance Towers is the central character in “The Naked Kiss,” this time playing Kelly, a call girl who, in the justly famous opening scene, is observed beating her pimp into unconsciousness with a telephone receiver, as her blond wig slips to reveal a perfectly bald head. An explication of this startling imagery will come in time, but Fuller is more interested in the visceral impact of the scene rather than any sense it may possess, and “The Naked Kiss” unfurls with the force of a vivid nightmare that never quite reveals its roots and causes.
The no-budget production has pushed Fuller even further into the land of the unreal. The setting is a small town characterized only by some false-front sets on a rented back-lot street. That this is really Fullerville is indicated by the marquee of the local movie theater, where “Shock Corridor” is playing, and by Kelly’s choice of reading material, a dog-eared copy of Fuller’s 1944 novel, “The Dark Page.” The peculiar topography of this dreamscape seems to consist of a hospital for disabled children (where Kelly goes to find redemption as a tough-love physical therapist); the palatial home of the local millionaire playboy (Michael Dante) with whom Kelly falls in purifying love; and, in the disreputable town across the river, a bordello called Candy’s where the women market themselves as bonbons. That the exteriors of these establishments are never seen may be a product of budgetary restrictions, but their eerie lack of site specificity contributes to the film’s oneiric qualities: this place is both Everytown and Nowheresville.

With “The Naked Kiss” Fuller achieved a kind of freedom rare in American filmmaking: the freedom to pursue his own highly idiosyncratic style as far as it could lead him, far beyond Hollywood’s institutional limits of reason, plausibility, good taste and, possibly, common sense. He was always himself — he couldn’t help it — but he was superlatively, extraordinarily himself in this ever-astonishing film.


Adrian Reeves for Senses of Cinema:

What is most striking in The Naked Kiss is a series of surreal scenes where the characters almost appear to step into another film altogether. Kelly exhorts the children in the home to pretend they can run and there’s a dissolve to a misty park into which they all gradually run as they join the fantasy. On cutting back to the home the children are in ecstatic raptures as if they had actually been running. This is mirrored when Grant shows Kelly silent 16mm footage of his trip to Venice and the voice of a gondolier singing fades in. Grant says if you pretend hard enough you can be there and Kelly visualises herself and Grant on cushions in a gondola, but it looks like a stylised set that in no way matches the footage (it’s more like something out of Godard’s Le Mépris/Contempt, 1963). Finally the most dizzying example is where Kelly is alone and tipsy, trying to decide whether or not to accept Grant’s marriage proposal. Grant’s voice is heard as a voiceover and Kelly talks to herself aloud. Kelly’s voice is then heard as a voiceover and she replies aloud, having a bizarre conversation with herself (“That makes me a woman of two worlds, which isn’t good… or is it?”). These sequences are all hopeful, joyous reveries, however unreal. They mark a shift from earlier films like Shock Corridor (1963), where the fantasy scenes depicting a feverish slide into insanity are more integral to the story.
Beyond the frenetic violence, giddy fantasy and tough talk of The Naked Kiss there is also a complex and subtle visual lyricism. After Kelly’s first encounter with Griff she stands under the venetian blinds that divide his bedroom from the living area, illustrating the choice she has to make between confinement and freedom. This dichotomy between private and public is played on throughout the film. Many of the interiors in the film are made sinister by weird angles and stark, expressionistic lighting, in contrast to the plain, open outdoor shots. This schema reaches its apogee when Kelly visits Grant to show him her wedding dress. On the way to Grant’s house Kelly skips past kids playing on the footpath; the scene is sun drenched and radiant. But once Kelly enters the house she is in a mausoleum, eerie and foreboding. The scene finishes with a montage of still shots within the house that poignantly present the culture to which Kelly aspires as both beautiful and hollow. This montage is a succinct and affecting projection of Fuller’s acknowledgement of, and ambivalence to, European tradition. It is also perhaps an indication of the substance of his great influence on filmmakers ranging from Godard to Tarantino. Fuller could condemn and praise at the same time. He could make violence virtuous and charity odious. His films live and breathe contradiction and leave us breathless.



Michael Phillips for The Chicago Tribune:

Photographed by the great Stanley Cortez (“The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Night of the Hunter”) as expressively as minuscule budgets and breathless timetables allowed, “Shock Corridor” (1963) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964) are as ripe as their titles suggest. In a career spanning five decades Fuller always pushed his luck, rarely conformed to studio-preferred notions of audience sympathy. His best movies in and out of the studio system are morally unsettled and unsettling. “Pinpoint an emotion and milk it!” Fuller once said to an interviewer: That’s how you engage an audience.
“The Naked Kiss” is just as sweaty, showcasing Towers as a prostitute who becomes a nurse’s aide in a children’s hospital funded by the town’s richest and most secret-addled citizen. The film begins with Towers literally beating up the camera: We see her slugging away at the lens (standing in for her pimp), a validation of Godard’s phrase “cinema-fist.”
The year after it came out, Fuller told a New York Times reporter: “I learned early that it is not the headline that counts but how hard you shout it.” One of the American cinema’s most fervent maximalists, Fuller believed in the power of the extreme close-up. He wrote some wonderful, extra-pulp dialogue, which sounded good in the mouths of late 19th century newshounds (“Park Row”), soldiers making sense of hell (“The Steel Helmet”) and lowlife Richard Widmark mucking around with commies and Red-hunters alike (“Pickup on South Street”). Fuller, tellingly, also knew when not to put words in his characters’ mouths: The most striking violence in “The Naked Kiss” comes in a nearly dialogue-free scene when Towers’ reformed hooker shoves three bills, hard, into the mouth of the madam who is trying to tempt a fellow nurse into a life of flesh-peddling. He knew more than shrieking melodrama. But Fuller knew shrieking melodrama, all right. Enjoy the madness.


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