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Director Sam Fuller once stated, during a cameo appearance in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965), that "a film is like a battleground -love....hate...action...violence...death...in one word - emotion!" This simple philosophy couldn't be better illustrated than Fuller's astonishing opening sequence to The Naked Kiss (1964), which begins in the middle of a violent fight between a prostitute and her pimp and culminates with the pimp being beaten unconscious after he pulls off the woman's wig, revealing her bald head. It's a shocking image but is just the beginning of a 90-minute attack on middle-class morality and hypocrisy, which must have confused and disturbed audiences who first saw this hyperactive melodrama distributed on double bills or in theatres that specialized in B-movie fare. Anyone expecting sexual titillation was in for a surprise.
As the narrative of The Naked Kiss unfolds, Kelly (Constance Towers), the bewigged prostitute of the opening sequences, relocates to a small town in the Midwest and reinvents herself as a nurse who works with crippled children. Her excellent work at the hospital does not go unnoticed, especially by Grant (Michael Dante), a millionaire philanthropist, and soon the two are involved in a serious romance. When a discussion of marriage finally arises, Kelly decides to be completely honest and reveal her sordid past to Grant. Surprisingly, he accepts her without any recriminations and they seal their engagement plans with a kiss. Kelly senses something terribly wrong when their lips meet but she chooses to ignore it. Instead, she focuses on her upcoming wedding but is eventually confronted with the horrible truth about Grant - he's a child molester!
Like most of Fuller's independent productions, The Naked Kiss was shot quickly and cheaply with the director exercising total control over the creative process, from the writing to the performances. For the dynamic opening scene, Fuller revealed that, "the camera was strapped to the actors, to their chests. And the girl hits the camera lens. And then it's strapped to her and she's beating the pimp. And then she's staring straight into the camera again, putting on her lipstick, the camera's the mirror. It's very direct...I open with a straight cut, no dissolve, no fade-in. I want to grab you." Constance Towers, interviewed by Lee Server in Sam Fuller: Film is a Battleground, also remarked on the opening adding, "When you watch that you really feel like you are the person being beaten up. Actually, the person who got beat up for real in that film was Virginia Grey. And it was a terrible thing because I loved her so much - such a wonderful actress and a wonderful human being. And in the scene where I hit her with my purse, Sammy said, "Really hit her now." And Virginia said, "Yes, really hit me." And, well, I did. And I guess I was still green, I didn't realize that when she said "really hit me" she meant in a stage way, not full force. And I really whacked her. So what you see in the film is an honest reaction on her part. And poor Virginia didn't tell me for a long time afterward that she went around with a jaw that ached so badly after that."
In an interview with biographer Lee Server, Fuller commented on what inspired him to make The Naked Kiss: "What interested me was the type of mentality found in many small towns in the United States. And the type of people they look up to and the people they look down at. And I have one of those local heroes who's the son of the mayor or the bank president and he's rich and a war hero, and they don't know that the sonofabitch is a child molester. The man they all look up to is the lowest of the low. And the one they despise, the hooker, is above him. They're hypocrites. And I have a speech in there at the end where she tells them what they are, she rubs it in so they know it. And the theatre owners wanted this speech out. They said, "You don't need that speech." I said, "I think I do." They said, "We're not going to be able to go all out for this picture with that speech in there. People aren't going to want to hear this speech, because it's about them."
Unfortunately, the opinions of the theatre owners proved to be prophetic. The Naked Kiss was not a commercial success but even if it had received more support from the theatre owners or a major promotional campaign, it wouldn't have appealed to mainstream moviegoers. For one thing, the film is relentlessly bleak in its view of small town social mores. The idiosyncratic direction, unconventional cinematography by Stanley Cortez and the often challenging subject matter were also a turnoff for movie audiences who prefer non-threatening entertainments over in-your-face morality plays. Today, The Naked Kiss is ranked among Fuller's best work but at the time of its release, it heralded the end of Fuller's most creative period in film. With the exception of his later war epic, The Big Red One (1980), his subsequent work was continually compromised by meager funding and studio interference; Shark!, the film that followed The Naked Kiss, was taken away from him, reedited without his supervision, and released in 1970, two years after its original completion date, thus setting a pattern that plagued Fuller the rest of his career.
Producer: Sam Firks, Leon Fromkess, Samuel Fuller
Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Art Direction: Eugene Lourie
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Costume Design: Einar H. Bourman
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Original Music: Paul Dunlap
Cast: Constance Towers (Kelly), Anthony Eisley (Griff), Michael Dante (Grant), Virginia Grey (Candy), Patsy Kelly (Mac), Betty Bronson (Miss Josephine), Walter Mathews (Mike).
by Jeff Stafford