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Sep 8, 2007

Dark Soap -Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss (1964)

Any movie that starts with a shaved-bald hooker beating up an abusive, drunken pimp with a shoe then robbing him only for the amount she’s owed, is off to a good start.

Good, thinks the discerning viewer, lots of 1960s sleaze ahead! But Fuller then cuts to the credits where the afforementioned member of the demimondane (in soft focus) slips her wig back on and applies her makeup while syrupy soundtrack music reminiscent of a Douglas Sirk melodrama plays. The discerning viewer is confused. Is this flick going to be film noir ala Ida Lupino's 1950s directorial works or are Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman going to appear and shock their New England neighbours by canoodling by a fireplace? Hmmm, the flick is in black and white, so there's not much
chance that it's going to be a sequel to All That Heaven Allows.

Cut to two years later. Griff (Anthony Eisley) the town police chief of Grantsville is talking with the guy who runs the bus station as a bus pulls up and the prostitute Kelly (Constance Towers) steps off it. Griff knows she's a hooker straight away. She claims to be a travelling saleswoman flogging a brand of champagne called Angel Foam. Griff sleeps with her then tells her to leave because “this town is clean”. (You've got to love early 1960s American sexual hypocrisy.) He acts tough because he's watched Lee Marvin in a lot of episodes of M Squad. But
Kelly isn't just a run-of-the-bordello hooker, she's educated, intelligent and worldly. She gives as good as she gets in the dialogue department. Griff tries to tell her where the local ‘salon’ is but instead she rents a room in a local home and gets a job as a nurse’s aid in the local hospital for handicapped children. She uses the tough-love approach on the kids and is incredibly successful at helping them overcome their disabilities by having everyone pretend they're pirates.
(None of this is made up, I swear.)

She meets the town big-shot, Grant (Michael Dante) who charms her and asks her to marry him, but here the soap opera becomes shadowy and malevolent after the sickly wish-fulfilment courtship. Kelly beats Grant to death with a telephone and is charged with murder. I won't give away why she does it. I'll just sa that flick deals with issues that mainstream US cinema didn't touch for another thirty years.

On one level The Naked Kiss is a soap opera. There are moments of incredible saccharinity but those moments recurve to take on a much darker tone later in the film. On another level it's also a feminist parable about strength and independence. Fuller has always denied that The Naked Kiss is film noir, but I disagree. In traditional noir, a male protagonist with a shady past tries to find redemption only to be brought down by fate or circumstance. The only difference here is that the protagonist is female.

I also have to mention Paul Dunlap's music, which subversively emphasises the mid-20th Century wholesomeness of the town in the daytime scenes in the town square, slightly overdoing the cutesy music to highlight the falsenss of the image.

Samuel Fuller didn’t make movies to win awards. He told stories he wanted to tell and to hell with anyone else. He made movies that are unlike any others. Along with Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss charts Fuller's cynicism and disillusionment with America as he saw it. Makes you wonder what his spin would be on the post-millennial USA.

(Originally posted Saturday, December 11, 2004)

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