The Naked Kiss

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Constance Towers (Kelly), Anthony Eisley (Capt. Griff), Michael Dante (J. L. Grant), Virginia Grey (Candy), Patsy Kelly (Mac, Head Nurse), Marie Devereux (Buff), Karen Conrad (Dusty), Linda Francis (Rembrandt), Bill Sampson (Jerry), Sheila Mintz (Receptionist), Patricia Gayle (Nurse), Gerald Michenaud (Kip), George Spell (Tim), Christopher Barry (Peanuts), Patty Robinson (Angel Face), Betty Robinson (Bunny)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: U.S.
The Naked Kiss Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Naked KissMuch as I would like to resist it simply because it is the first thing virtually everyone mentions when writing about Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, I feel compelled to start by discussing the opening scene, which launches us directly into the action en media res. And this is not just any scene, but one in which a prostitute is brutally beating her john, which Fuller shoots entirely with first-person handheld cameras that force us to alternate violently between the perspectives of the aggressor and the victim. One second we are beating, the next we are being beaten. The shock and disorienting effect of the violence is given an additional jolt when the john accidentally knocks off the prostitute’s wig, revealed a clean-shaven head. The reason her head is shaved will not be revealed until nearly the end of the film, and it hovers over everything that happens thereafter, functioning as a kind of all-around symbol of the film’s central theme: what lurks beneath.

The prostitute, whose name is Kelly (Constance Towers), takes the $75 she is owed by her john, reaffixes her wig, and stalks out of the apartment. We catch up with her two years later, when she alights from a bus in the small, seemingly benign town of Grantville. At this point, she has every intention of continuing her trade, as her first afternoon is spent with Griff (Anthony Eisley), the town’s police chief. He is the film’s first object lesson in hypocrisy, as he casually follows his tryst with Kelly by trying to send her “across the river” to work at a brothel run by a madame named Candy (Virginia Grey), something he has clearly done with many women before. Griff wants to keep his town “clean,” even as he ensures the opportunity for himself and others to indulge in the very activities he wants to run out of town.

Kelly has a change of heart, rejecting Griff’s proposal and instead staying in Grantville and taking a job working as a nurse in a hospital for disabled children. It is her bid to go straight, to redeem her life by rejecting “the buck, the bed, and the bottle,” as she alliteratively puts it, and make it worth something--a desire that will be challenged on all fronts, both openly and secretly. In Fuller’s world, which is informed as much by his experiences working for tabloid newspapers in the 1920s and ’30s as it is by the B-movie conventions that he made so furiously his own, nothing is simple and no one is innocent. The world is a messy place, rife with contradictions and lies, and if Kelly is the hero of the story, it is not so much because of her strength and determination (both of which are profound), but rather because she is the one character who is not a hypocrite. She knows what she wants and she takes what is hers (which is why it is so important that she only took the $75 from her john and didn’t rob him when she could have). Her bid for respectability sometimes entails hiding her sordid past, but when she becomes romantically involved with J. L. Grant (Michael Dante), the handsome son of the town’s wealthy founder, she is honest with him. Yet, in a sick twist that only Fuller could have imagined (and probably no other filmmaker would have dared put on screen at that time), Kelly’s honesty with Grant becomes a trap into which she unwittingly walks. Her willingness to play it straight turns her into a possible accomplice to a heinous crime, which provides yet another object lesson in the difference between surfaces and what lies beneath them.

The Naked Kiss was one half of a pair of films (the other being 1963’s Shock Corridor) that Fuller produced independently for producer Leon Fromkess. Fuller had been making films since the late 1940s, and he had succeeded at both the major studio level, shooting four pictures for Daryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox from 1951 to 1955, and working independently with his own production company, where he shot six films from 1957 to 1961. Yet, regardless of where he was working and for whom, Fuller was always a fiercely independent artist, melding his personal experiences and his sensationalist subject matter and always infusing the mix with a heady sense of social observation and political critique. He had already been investigated by the FBI and considered a potential traitor for his critical views of the Korean War in The Steel Helmet (1951) and the bureau itself in Pickup on South Street (1953), but that was hardly enough to slow him down, much less stop him.

Like Shock Corridor, which features a journalist who has himself committed to a mental institution in order to solve a murder but is inevitably driven mad by its microcosm of American insanities, The Naked Kiss uses it tabloid-sensational subject matter to probe at the country’s darkest recesses. The idea of a small town’s surface innocence hiding dark secrets was nothing new, but there is something particularly provocative in the way Fuller deploys this trope. We see everything through Kelly’s outsider eyes (she is in every scene in the movie), which turns every corner into a new discovery. She is a woman of the world who knows how to handle herself, which is why it is all the more disturbing that what she encounters in Grantville is ultimately more than even she can take.

The Naked Kiss Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Naked Kiss is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.75:1
AudioEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Video interview with actress Constance Towers
  • Excerpts from a 1983 episode of The South Bank Show
  • Interview with Fuller from a 1967 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps
  • Interview with Fuller from a 1987 episode of Cinéma cinemas
  • Original theatrical trailer (2:00)
  • Insert booklet with an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 18, 2011

    Released back in 1998, The Naked Kiss was one of Criterion’s earliest DVDs (spin #20), and it has been due for replacement for some time. Their new high-definition transfer, taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally cleaned up, should please fans of the film to no end, as it has the film looking better than it probably did during its original theatrical release in 1964. The sharp, well-detailed image has a fine sheen of film grain and excellent contrast. There is nary a speck of dirt or a scratch to be seen, and the film’s fine cinematography looks better than ever. Criterion’s lossless DTS-HD monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical track, is a clean, faithful reproduction.
    Criterion has also added a host of new supplements, starting with a half-hour video interview with star Constance Towers by film historian and filmmaker Charles Dennis that was recorded in 2007 (the second half of the interview is included on Criterion’s Shock Corridor Blu-Ray). Criterion has also scoured the archives and come up with a trio of gems: More than half an hour of excerpts from a 1983 episode of The South Bank Show that is dedicated to Fuller and includes extensive interviews with him in his jam-packed garage office, a 23-minute interview with the director that original aired in 1967 on the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps, and a 12-minute interview with Fuller from a 1987 episode of the French television series Cinéma cinemas. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, and the 26-page insert booklet contains illustrations by cartoonist Daniel Clowes, an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito, and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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