In order to be considered great, a film as riddled with flaws as The Naked Kiss must rack up an impressive tally of achievements, enough to persuade viewers to look beyond the faults in order to admire the end results. I have no problem commending the movie as a significant accomplishment: highly entertaining, thought-provoking and courageous in challenging a host of cultural taboos and the presumptions of many in its intended audience. As to whether or not it's great cinema, a lot depends on what one comes looking for. Samuel Fuller is a practical epitome of the cult film auteur, a director whose work requires a process of initiation to appreciate if you don't already happen to be on his particular wavelength, or under the influence of one of his numerous acolytes who are there at the ready to convince you that he's a rare breed of visionary in the annals of 20th century cinema.
While I find his films enjoyable overall, and unquestionably worthy of their place in the Criterion Collection, I'll be the first to concede that one has to wade through substantial portions of schlock, sometimes bordering on cheap and tawdry awfulness, to get to the good stuff. And even then, once the path is cleared for Fuller's unique insights and clarifying perspectives to rise above the two-bit pulpy soil from which they originate, I can't vouch that the payoff will be sufficient for those who seek a certain refinement or disciplined aesthetic to be the mark of distinction in their choice of entertainment. Fuller was a self-taught filmmaker, a native folk artist who happened to land in the movies because that's where the action was at the time. As such, he perpetually pressed against the limitations that other forces - meddlesome studio bosses, censorship standards, financial constraints, tight shooting schedules, etc. - imposed upon his work. His restless temperament and persistent disdain for the hypocrisy that he detected behind the facade of society's "leaders" over the course of his lifetime fueled a body of work that's come to be beloved by those who are likewise fatigued by the endless flow of bullshit, deceit and sanctimony that streams down from on high, whether its source is found in government, military, business or cultural authorities. In that sense, Fuller is a hero, a lifelong rebel who sports a remarkably consistent track record of never selling out, going commercial or playing it safe. Much has been written celebrating his iconoclasm, and there's a good deal of self-promotion and accolades aimed Fuller's way in the supplemental features found on Criterion's blu-rays of both The Naked Kiss and its predecessor Shock Corridor.
I already wrote a fair amount about my own impressions of Fuller in my review of the earlier film, so I don't see a need to recap any of that, As for the movie at hand, my interests here are not so much in merely encapsulating the reckless abandon, saucy humor or unexpected tenderness authored by such a brash, outspoken tough guy. Nor am I especially inclined to pick apart the more obvious, ham-handed shortcuts he took in the casting, editing, plot construction, dialogue or other structural elements of The Naked Kiss. Yes, the verbal exchanges get clunky at times, the implausibility ramps up severely over the final half-hour or so, and there's a heavy moralistic tone that comes through in some of the more pointed confrontations, the quaintness of which might distract some viewers who've moved beyond the kind of moral dilemmas that Fuller and his audience found so compelling. If you haven't seen it before, consider the film highly recommended and also consider yourself forewarned. You might just love it, or you might think it's the most ridiculous pile of absurd drivel. So much for all that.
What really fascinates me here is the prospect of spending some time sifting through the various layers of Kelly, this complex, highly aggressive yet delicately sensitive character that Fuller created and who is memorably personified by Constance Towers. This was her second picture under Fuller's direction, and he moved her up from a strong support role in Shock Corridor to the crucial lead - an inspired decision since the success of the film entirely depends on her executing the rapid shifts in mood and tone that the script demands of her. She had all the attributes necessary - sharp intelligence, an ability to project both confidence and vulnerability and of course the requisite good looks and elegantly curvy physique to keep eyes glued to her every move. Smart and determined, sexy and approachable, she was indeed enough to make a bulldog bust his chain.
So the movie starts off in full throttle, blasting past the red line, giving the audience no chance to catch our breath or settle into what we're about to see. An extremely pissed off woman is whacking some guy relentlessly. Is she using a shoe, her purse that she's hitting him with? We're not exactly sure at first, but it's gotta hurt. Over a wild be-bop jazz soundtrack, he's begging for mercy, moaning that he's drunk and defenseless, but his plea is for naught. In fact, the more he whimpers, the angrier she gets. In the tussle, her wig gets knocked off and we see that she's completely bald. Now she's in a frenzy, pummeling him without mercy until he collapses to the floor. She blasts him in the face with a strong jet of seltzer water, straight from the bottle like the old vaudeville gag. Utter humiliation, he's totally passed out now. Of course she digs into his wallet, removes a big wad of cash, $800 but she makes a special point of telling him she's limiting her haul to the $75 she's rightfully owed. She stuffs the bills into her bra, the only thing covering her top, with a matching black slip preserving some semblance of modesty. Quite a site she is, looming over his inert body, money strewn about, glaring down at him in utter contempt. He's obviously done her wrong; her rage has an unmistakably righteous subtext, so she's not just some crazy bitch who flipped out on him for no good reason and took him off guard.
But with her sense of justice momentarily satisfied, a shift in tone occurs - the music goes from blaring to soothing, even a bit seductive, and as the opening credits roll through, we see Kelly primping herself in the mirror, resetting her wig, touching up her make-up, testing out her allure through a well-rehearsed routine of expertly modulated glances, pouts and grins, each expression capable of delivering subtle yet unambiguous messages to those ready to pick up on the nuances - and for those who don't get what she's silently saying, she instantly knows they're not worth her time.
So who is this Kelly, this strikingly attractive woman who nonetheless has taken on more than a few classically masculine attributes? Even her name carries an androgynous implication, one that Fuller draws attention to later on in the film when one of her acquaintances promises to gratefully name her unborn baby after her, whether it's a boy or a girl. "Kelly" also has the feel of a surname turned into an identifying label, the way that men of Fuller's time often referred to each other. Kelly sounds like the kind of guy one might have fought alongside in the war - think Kelly's Heroes - and like every other character in The Naked Kiss, we only know her by that one name. Griff... Grant... Candy... Mac... Buff... Dusty... Kip... Bunny... Marshmallow... Hatrack... humans reduced down and captured as one word ciphers.
That berserk opener serves as just about all the backstory we get on Kelly, and it takes place a little over two years before the movie's main action. Her assault of the drunk feels like it takes place in some kind of big city bachelor pad, but now we see her getting off the bus in a small town called Grantville. Her sly, winsome eyes survey the landscape and she sets about reenacting a script that puts her right back in control - grab the attention and win the affection of some local "Mr. Big," conduct a bit of illicit business in the skin trade, then let the word spread around town that there's some new action to enjoy for those who seek out that sort of thing. It's an easy and familiar routine, but even as she goes through the motions of arousing and entrapping her prey, she knows full well that she's just as trapped, but hardly aroused. The cycle is wearing her down, robbing her of her artistic dreams and maternal aspirations, and time's ravages creep in, one wrinkle, one sag at a time, reminding her that one of her strongest selling points is nearing the inevitable expiration date.
A morning-after epiphany embarks her on a new course, a journey toward respectability, one that she wasn't apparently anticipating when she first got off that bus. Events fall into place to allow her that chance, starting with room and board offered by a sweet little old lady whose naive trust could serve as an invitation to manipulation, but instead seems to inspire Kelly's confidence that maybe this time she could make a change that sticks. In accepting this humble, dowdy lodging, Kelly spurns the insider tip she received from Griff, her first john who also happens to Grantville's police chief - a vain, oblivious hypocrite who barely blinks at the cognitive dissonance that would send the whore he just hired safely across the river to another town so that he can easily access her wares without risking his own reputation by allowing her to do business in his "bivouac."
Kelly's entree into this boondocks medical establishment is attributable to her brassy big-city know how that can push or woo as needed, the kind of no-nonsense drive in a woman made palatable in that cultural context by her swift pivots to sweetness, remorse and disarming candor when someone tries to push back or call her bluff. The kids love her and she loves them; the veteran nurses respect her savvy and energy, and the younger nurses look up to her as a woman who's learned how to make her way in the world and stand up for herself when necessary.
Still, Kelly carries a lot of stress inside - her inability to have children, her anxiety about ending up alone, used up and past her prime, attractive to only the wrong kind of men, the general heartache that comes with the knowledge that she's squandered her assets in a misspent youth, harboring secrets that hang over her head like an ominous cloud that could burst forth in storm at any moment.
And yet, against all hopes and odds, Kelly falls into the company of Grantville's leading citizen, a grandson of the town's founder who's secured his own fame as an international philanthropist and playboy who lives extravagantly. Here is where the narrative gets loopy on the surface, as she and Grant quickly find themselves madly in love - as if she hasn't been swept up by this kind of smooth talking rich man before, as if he in all his travels has never met a woman quite as exotic or tantalizingly mysterious as Kelly. But no matter that, the story must proceed, and we do learn eventually that he at least has more base motives for pursuing this relationship, based on what he learns about her from her own mouth, and perhaps other clues she's dropped along the way.
This fundamental enigma, this contradiction, is what intrigues me most about Kelly - and about Fuller, who gave birth to this brainchild of his. On the one hand, she's cold, calculating, quite capable of getting mean and vicious even toward those whom she cares deeply about. That anger expresses itself in brutal acts of aggression on several occasions throughout The Naked Kiss. However, her fury isn't manifested for the purpose of establishing abusive control, but rather as an expression of moral outrage - when she's not paid the proper hooker's wage, when she sees a young peer about to stumble into becoming one of the bon-bons who work across the river, when she learns that the man she loves, who's promised her a future full of dreams come true, turns out to be a depraved child molester. Kelly can be quite dangerous when crossed, and yet she's gifted with the ability to inspire hope and even sacrificial courage in her work with the unfortunate crippled children that she serves in the hospital.
So there's a tendency to extol Kelly's virtues and excuse her failings, seeing her as a victim who had to harden herself up in order to survive a tough set of circumstances. Certainly there's likely to be a lot of truth in that assessment, but it stops well short of being an objective, comprehensive look at her situation. Kelly's ruse that she plays on the citizens of Grantville is indeed misleading and even fraudulent to a degree. She allows herself to get carried away well beyond what seems like a reasonable level of responsibility in the hospital, and she enters into the contract of marriage with a man she barely has time to know, and who in retrospect seems a little too nonchalant to make a lifetime commitment to a woman with such a complicated past. Though The Naked Kiss is necessarily limited in the degree of explicitness and candor with which it can portray and discuss Kelly's previous carnal adventures, it's incredibly presumptuous on anyone's part - Fuller's or his viewers - to concede the possibility that her "conversion" was thorough, lasting or sincere.
Yes, of course we're dealing with a fictional character, furthermore one that was probably conceived and scripted quite hastily, for the purposes of making a host of editorial points that Fuller had in mind. But his prevailing notion of womanhood - a classic blind chauvinism that evaluates and pegs females strictly across the spectrum of mother ---- > whore - is what grabbed me about this film, even more than the bravura flourishes that Fuller scripted or the classy cinematography of Stanley Cortez who graced this low-budget affair with some seriously luscious compositions.
That mother/whore dichotomy is made clear in the ludicrous interrogation scene between Kelly and Bunny at the end (as if a murder suspect could ever be given such direct and blatant opportunity to cross-examine a child witness with a cop looking on, outside a courtroom!) Kelly's first approach shows her in harsh intimidation mode, berating the child and demanding answers. But then she gets some counsel from Griff, who suddenly, disingenuously becomes meltingly sympathetic toward Kelly when in all likelihood he'd rather just send her off to penitentiary for life in order to wrap up her case. It's he, of all people, who awakens her kinder maternal side, allowing Kelly to coax the vital testimony from Bunny that will somehow go on to exonerate her when the jury hears the recording that Griff made of their exchange.
Even her killing of Grant, if considered for a few moments, appears to be something less than justifiable homicide of a predatory child rapist. She didn't kill him when she first saw him abusing the little girl - instead, she only slammed his noggin with the phone when he made the equivalency between his perversion and her own, making them kindred spirits of a sort. Was it the offense to her honor that provoked her wrath, or was it the end result of a lifetime internalizing messages of guilt, shame, rejection and disgust directed at her that caused her, for a moment, to regard what he said about her as true, and in that moment of recognition, led her to bring down the hammer on the last man who she would ever allow to openly declare that "fact" to her face?