This week sees the UK blessed with a bluray release of Samuel Fuller’ 1964 film The Naked Kiss, added to the Criterion Collection’s slowly growing roster on this side of the Atlantic. It’s a most welcome opportunity to rediscover one of the more outrageous and sensational films in the director’s canon.
While not my personal favourite of his (I wrote about that one quite recently), The Naked Kiss still sits comfortably among his masterpieces, a pinnacle of mid-60’s subversiveness. The rules of American cinema were breaking down. The Hays Code – so long the strict barometer of what could and could not be shown or discussed – was starting to collapse, allowing filmmakers and studios to get raw and explicit. Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah were right around the corner. On the peripheries, Russ Meyer was revving up.
Fuller’s film isn’t *quite* there yet, but you can feel it bursting at the seams. It is resplendent with innuendo and sleaze (“I’m pretty good at poppin’ the cork if the vintage is right…” is a sample line of lip-smacking dialogue). The film thrums with the intention to shock; a mandate that comes on strong right from its attention-grabbing beginning.
Fuller always wanted to catch the audience by the throat with a big opening scene. Here you’ll find his biggest. The film opens in the midst of a domestic scrap… only Fuller inverts the anticipated dynamic. We crash in on Constance Towers as Kelly, repeatedly striking Monty Mansfield’s flabbergasted Farlunde with a shoe. This isn’t a bust-up between husband and wife. Far from it. She’s a prostitute and he’s her mark (we assume). Quite what he’s done to provoke her is left out of the equation, for now. Kelly is pissed. She’s seeing red. And this joker, Farlunde, sure knows it.
Kelly strikes him so forcefully that she knocks him to the floor. Farlunde knocks his head hard on a coffee table as he goes down, too, leaving him dazed and defeated. He isn’t the only one knocked. In a virtuoso move to provoke audience shock, Kelly’s wig flies off in the heated moment, revealing a glimmering smooth scalp (clearly a bald cap, but still). It’s one of the most surprising reveals in mid-60’s American cinema. Here we are, totally out of context, presented with an hysterical situation. The fight goes on around this pull-the-rug moment, making it all the more thrilling. Fuller hasn’t even rolled credits yet!
He will. With Farlunde submissive on the floor, Kelly takes his money. But only the money he owes her. Kelly may be tempestuous but she’s principled. She’s not a thief, but she’ll fight (literally) for what’s hers. So confident is she of her dominance in the scene, that she then goes to the mirror to fix her appearance, reapplying her hairpiece, while the man lays prone. It is here that Fuller rolls his credits. Kelly looks direct to camera as though we were her reflection. How galling. How daring. Fuller makes us ask ourselves if we’re Kelly. If we’re as strong. As sassy. As capable.
The scene continues a little afterwards, once Fuller has been proudly announced as writer, producer and director of this barnstorming mess we’re in. Opening a fraction wider, Fuller allows just enough of the apartment for us to realise Farlunde has been taking photographs. Maybe he’s a PI or a snoop? We’re left to wonder for over an hour. We’ll eventually come to learn his role in her life, and the real reason she has no hair anymore… Kelly tears up one of his photos and leaves him curled up on the floor amid crumbled bank notes that drift like tumbleweeds…
With great economy Fuller has told us a lot about our heroine. Thus when the film flashes forward two years to the more conventional start of the main story – an innocent-seeming woman getting off a bus in a new town – we’re in a different position than we’d have been without this stunning opening scene. We know not to underestimate her. We know she’s a force to be reckoned with.
“Why’d you buy my merchandise?” “I was thirsty.”
The film goes on to further provocations and innuendos. Fuller’s squirrelling story ultimately butts up against paedophilia, placing Kelly in the unenviable position of having to square up against such dark perversion… from her fiancé no less. But we’re assured – comforted perhaps? – that she’s up to the task. Along the way she smacks around the madam at the local brothel (where the girls know martial arts, of course). The violence and the potential for violence in both Kelly and The Naked Kiss point forward to the butt-kicking go-go girls of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! that would appear just a short year later. Constance Towers’ performance here has plenty of the same bite found in Tura Satana’s Varla. And, in a scene which the Criterion blurb rightly describes as “bizarrely beautiful”, she also kindles memories of Lilian Gish’s mother to wayward children in the final act of The Night Of The Hunter; another no-nonsense depiction of strong femininity in the face of an evil casting long shadows.
The wig in the opening scene becomes symbolic. What we’ve witnessed is a kind of unleashing. Fuller knew the world and the temperature. The rising cries for equality and civil rights. The Naked Kiss isn’t afraid of powerful women; it wants us to get used to making heroes of them. Fuller always was progressive. He described this movie as a “neo-noir”, a phrase which even in 1964 denoted something new coming through. Cinema was changing, and all bets were off.