Directed by Sam Fuller
The Naked Kiss is going to be hard to write about for a few reasons. First, it’s a film directed by Sam Fuller, a notable filmmaker whose films I have never seen (until this one). Second, it was made smack dab in the middle of his career, meaning I can’t look at this as some kind of experiment or sign to come, and I can’t attempt to analyze how it is similar to his previous work. Third, the picture quality for this film on Amazon wasn’t great, with washed out highlights and dark darks. Fourth, I watched The Naked Kiss about a week before writing this, and my memory is starting to get hazy.
So, from a week-later standpoint, the things that stick out are the pulp nature of the story, the depressing worldview of one of the protagonists and the admirable yet somber determination by the other protagonist.
The Naked Kiss is a sad movie and also quite intimate. It’s the story of two people with only a couple side characters. Kelly (Constance Towers) is a prostitute who’s new to town and “welcomed” in by police chief Griff (Anthony Eisley). We first meet Constance in an altercation with a customer who tries to rip her off. She beats him up as a wig slides off her head before taking what’s owed her while making sure the customer knows she’s only taking the amount they had originally agreed on. We know she’s tough, and she has principles.
After her arrival in this new town, however, she decides she’s done with this line of work. Griff, demonstrating an immediate hypocrisy, buys her services but then banishes her across city lines, to a whorehouse some distance away. When Kelly decides to become a nurse at a hospital for handicapped children, all would seem to be for the better except that Griff just can’t have it.
The police chief’s need to take Kelly down, reminding her who she really is, is sad, petty and strange. It also makes for a compelling, albeit damaged character. Griff’s duty is to uphold the law and his sense of morality in this small place, and by sleeping with Kelly he is able to confirm his preconceived notions about her to justify sending her away.
Kelly remains in town, determined to do good, and she falls in love with J.L. Grant (Michael Dante), a wealthy son of a wealthier family. Kelly opens up to Grant about her past life, and he accepts her wholeheartedly. This heartwarming moment helps liven up the dour mood of the film, but later Kelly walks in on Grant molesting a young girl, and boom we’re back to the depressing worldview.
When Grant is caught, he tells Kelly that it’s okay because they’re both sexual deviants. It’s really a brutal moment, first for the obvious reason but also because it reveals that Grant’s initial acceptance of Kelly’s past life wasn’t much acceptance at all.
So, this is sad, right? Anything good in Kelly’s life is quickly erased, but that’s not all. She hits Grant over the head with a phone, much as she did in the attack that opened the film, and this kills him. Now Kelly is in jail, and Griff, the man who so wanted to wield his power to keep her in a box, literally has her boxed up.
Griff, though, does want to help Kelly, at least later on. She looks for a witness or anyone who might attest to Grant’s nature and his intentions. Every witness, every side character fails to come through, and now we’re led to believe that this harsh world is sliding the rug out from under Kelly one last time.
Because I wasn’t familiar with Fuller or the nature of his films, I fully expected this film to end with Kelly’s hanging. She’s a sign of life in a town that’s wasting away, kind of like The Last Picture Show in its own way. She’s like the plant that Wall-E finds in… Wall-E. She’s all that is good, and to kill her would be quite the message. The nature of this film is similar to an Italian one, Federico Fellini’s La Strada. In that film, the heroine was a doe-eyed girl (Fellini’s own wife) who gleefully joined a circus performer who wanted nothing to do with her and treated her like garbage. Throughout it all, the character maintains her innocence and optimism, even as life continues to pile on her. In the end, though, she loses it. She’s abandoned, and her smile finally disappears… until a parade of people come along and bring it right back. It’s a heartwarming end to a cold movie.
Kelly is saved because she finds the girl that was molested, and the girl tells the police that Grant was a bad guy. All is well.
Y’all should watch La Strada, it’s a good movie. This one is too, but it’s more of a neat picture. The story has an emotional punch, to a degree, but it feels like a small local theater production. It has what feels like a small cast of named characters, and so much of it is just a series of conversations between Griff and Kelly. Those conversations certainly aren’t boring, in fact they’re quite interesting, but I find that the movie only thrives in these moments.
As a staged play this could be quite intriguing. You start with the sexual encounter between Griff and Kelly, slowly revealing that he’s actually a police chief and that she’s planning on quitting this line of work. Then we meet them again in a hospital where she’s hardworking and well-loved but he can’t accept it. Then we have the scene in which Griff threatens to reveal her past life to Grant, only for her to tell him that Grant knows and has accepted her. Then we get, perhaps, a moment of some kind of reconciliation or something resembling armistice between them. THEN suddenly she’s in jail, and we learn what happened with Grant.
These conversations work because the characters feel so nuanced and complicated. The determined optimism of someone hardened by life’s worst versus the begrudging pessimism of a man who has nothing to fear. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum, both culturally and in their mindsets. If you want to extrapolate, maybe you could say that Kelly is the progressive movement of the sixties, and Griff is the old guard, the post-war America fifties. He wants everything to remain conservative, restrained and separate yet he’s a hypocrite. Kelly, meanwhile, blurs the lines between what we think of as pure or tainted or whatever. Without commenting on her profession, it’s clearly unusual for one to transition so quickly from sex work to nurse work. Or maybe there’s a weird overlap in the middle where you do the nurse-stripper work. And maybe you work for Lyft to make ends meet during the transition period, when you’re in nursing school and trying to figure out how much you can reasonably take out in loans when you consider the interest. But then what you don’t always realize is that the money you make from Lyft isn’t pure profit. You know, much of that goes to gas, of course, but then you have car repair bills, general maintenance, cleaning costs, and every time you hit the road, particularly during rush hour for that surge pricing, you run the risk of getting into an accident. It’s really a wild world out there.
So The Naked Kiss would make a good play. It’s a nice movie, and I’m curious to see how it compares to other Sam Fuller films. In a vacuum, though, it’s fine. It’s good, it’s sharp and snappy, and it has a point of view.
Up Next: Wall-E (2008), Phantom Thread (2017), Seven Psychopaths (2012)