Fuller Himself: The Naked Kiss (1964)
Fuller’s film stars Constance Towers as Kelly, a prostitute in the big city, who we meet as she is beating her pimp with her purse. As they struggle, he grabs at her and reveals her bald head, but she knocks him to the ground, taking the money he owes her from his wallet, before she walks out of the life of a hooker. After traveling around plying her trade in small towns, Kelly arrives in the small town of Grantville where she is soon sized up by the local copper Griff (Anthony Eisley) who soon takes her to bed. He also wants to roust her out of town and into the waiting arms of Madam Candy (Virginia Grey) who runs a brothel across the river. Kelly decides she wants to go straight, and after taking up with the local spinster, she lands a job as a nurse at a hospital for children. That’s where she meets Grant (Michael Dante), who lent his family name to the town and founded the hospital. They fall in love, and he accepts her even after she tells him of her past. However, she feels something unsettling in his kiss. It is the “naked kiss” of a pervert, and when Kelly finds out Grant’s secret (he’s a pedophile), her actions land her in jail where her past, ever inescapable, continues to haunt her.
Fuller met his first prostitute when he was working as a seventeen year old crime reporter for The New York Graphic, and he soon became friendly with them, often dispatching his stories from the phone in their brothel. He also gained empathy for the women plying the world’s oldest profession. In his autobiography A Third Face he recalls, “They had a terrible complex about their work. When they went out, the girls imagined everyone knew what they did for a living, as if the word prostitute were branded to their foreheads.” Fuller just saw the profession as another job, but “society and the media made the very word prostitute engender fear and distaste”. After tackling mental illness in Shock Corridor (coming up later this month), he planned a film that “would delve into the small mindedness that thoughtlessly points its finger at sinners, fostering intolerance and hate”. The Naked Kiss became that film. It was one of the most daring of his career, and it would almost ruin him. With controversial topics like prostitution and child molestation, Fuller was angling at topics that no one would dare to cover in post-code Hollywood. The film was not a great success at the box office (and equally panned and praised even now), and between the material and the poor receipts, Fuller found himself unable to secure financing for his next film. Sam was forced to go work outside the US where he made arguably his worst film, the re-edited without his permission, Shark with Burt Reynolds. It would be sixteen years before Fuller worked with the major studios again, and when he did, he provided another classic film, the Lee Marvin anchored war epic The Big Red One.
While trying to talk another girl out of working for Candy, Kelly intones this speech, “You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law and no man’s wife. Why, the world will become so warped, you’ll hate all men and you’ll hate yourself because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a mental problem, and a despicable failure as a woman.” This speech delivered with impassioned fervor by Constance Towers is one of the film’s most chilling moments. I can only compare it to Hester Prynne begging another would-be adulteress to not be branded by a Scarlet Letter. Towers acts fearlessly in Fuller’s film, and she must have trusted him completely. The opening scene featuring her bald head was shot last, and the actress actually shaved her blonde locks to film the unexpected and jarring moment. (It is revealed late in the film that her pimp shaved her head as a punishment.) Towers, who also appeared in Fuller’s Shock Corridor, would have a long career in both film and television before settling in for a twelve year run on General Hospital where she still continues to appear. One note from Fuller about Kelly before we move on, again in his autobiography he defends the hooker with the heart of gold storyline, “I don’t give a damn if people thought it was corny for a reformed prostitute to end up working at a children’s hospital. I wanted to show a “tainted” woman succeeding in the pure world of children,”
While Towers is at the film’s center, The Naked Kiss features a wonderful supporting cast to round out this late era Noir tale. Anthony Eisley, who appeared in a number of TV shows and films (including Onionhead with a young Andy Griffith), gives a terse, unforgiving performance as the cop who doesn’t want hookers in his town but would love to keep them at arm's reach. Eisley’s Griff is a hard man, and he tries almost everything to drive Kelly from town, and when push comes to shove, he’s more than willing to throw the book at her despite having taken advantage of her services. Michael Dante, who plays Kelly’s rich, pedophilic fiancée, does a hell of a job being creepy and foreshadowing his perversion. He seems like a slimy entitled bastard who thinks he can get away with anything, and it turns out that he is exactly that. Dante would go on to roles in Willard, The Big Score with Fred Williamson, and the title role in Charles B. Pierce’s Native American epic Winterhawk. There are also notable performances by Patsy Kelly (Rosemary’s Baby), Virginia Grey (Another Thin Man), and Marie Devereux (Shock Corridor).
As I said earlier, The Naked Kiss has been both lauded and diminished over the years. While it got the full on Criterion treatment, it also appears on the Razzie’s list of 100 Enjoyable “Bad” movies. For my part, I didn’t see it as bad. While some of the moments go a little over the top, The Naked Kiss should be accepted as a fable, and its most symbolic moments reveal this. While Fuller always wanted reality above all, he was not beyond stretching it a bit here and there to provide his audience with something to think about. Nowadays, films like Little Children and Pretty Woman deal with similar topics to The Naked Kiss but they are no longer shocking. I imagine this is because in the forty eight years since The Naked Kiss was released, we have become immune to such topics though the media both fictional and journalistic. Pedophilia has become a revolting, but all too common story in the headlines, and prostitutes lay only a few keyboard strokes away for the barely savvy internet perv. However, looking at it in his time, Fuller was trying to both warn about real sexual deviance that walks among us, and, at the same time, he was trying to say that a prostitutes trade, while not socially acceptable, should not leave a never ending stigma on women who leave the lifestyle. Like all of Fuller’s films, The Naked Kiss is a complex story, and one with layers that will take me many viewings to fully unfold. It also proves why this vanguard, groundbreaking film maker has plenty of reason to be Fuller Himself.
The Naked Kiss is currently running in its entirety on YouTube thanks to the folks at Pop Flix. So check it out. Or, if you don't have time for the whole flick, make sure you watch the intro to the film, an influential and electric piece of film making.