Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Target #60: The Naked Kiss (1964, Samuel Fuller)

Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey, Patsy Kelly, Marie Devereux, Karen Conrad

In the early 1960s, few directors more enthusiastically embraced the loosening restrictions of the Production Code than Samuel Fuller. He shunned big-budget studio pictures to allow himself greater creative freedom, and the themes he tackled were often untouched, or at least poorly-explored, territory. For its first few minutes, The Naked Kiss (1964) skirts delicately around its heroine's profession, implying enough without explicitly spelling out the word "prostitute" (everyone else seems to have got it, but, stupid me, I actually did think she was a champagne saleswoman – perhaps I wasn't expecting such progressiveness). This reasonably subtle approach (by Fuller standards) suggests the sort of evasive techniques that 40s and 50s writers used to bamboozle the censors on matters of sex – take the horse-racing exchange in The Big Sleep (1946), or the curious relationship of the two murderers in Rope (1948). By the time Fuller hits full stride, however, any such delicacy is thrown out the window, and suddenly what you see is exactly what you get.

I don't want to describe this film as exploitation. It certainly is exploitative to a huge degree – Fuller, for example, wrings every ounce of empathy from the poor crippled kids – but somehow there's a sense of sincerity in how he tells the story, as though he really does believe in the possibility of redemption. Tough, independent-minded prostitute Kelly (Towers) arrives in a new town, sleeps with the police captain (Anthony Eisley), and then decides to leave her shameful past behind forever, somehow securing a job at the local children's hospital. Captain Griff is immediately suspicious of Kelly's motivations, hypocritically believing that she'll only pollute his home town, but wealthy local benefactor J.L. Grant (Michael Dante) falls in love with her. When it came to women, Fuller appears to have admired the lowly kind: Constance Towers in Shock Corridor (1963) was a stripper, Towers in The Naked Kiss was a prostitute, and Jean Peters in Pickup on South Street (1953) might as well have been one, too.

Especially in its final act, The Naked Kiss has strong elements of film noir – substituting the usual male protagonist for a woman, of course – but there's also high degrees of melodrama, exploitation, and pulpy, B-movie schlock. Fuller's ultimate message appears to be double- edged. A prominent noir motif concerns the sheer hopelessness of redemption: however hard one tries to evade their past, a man's former misdeeds will always return to haunt them. This fate does, indeed, confront Fuller's heroine, but he leaves a light at the end of the tunnel, arguably dampening the full brunt of the film's ending. Perhaps the more potently-noirish message to be gleaned from The Naked Kiss is that society is rotten: not just the mistreated prostitutes and tyrannical pimps, but the hypocritical police captain, the prejudiced townsfolk, the philanthropist with an ulterior motive in funding a children's hospital. Towers' prostitute crosses to the "respectable" side of society's fence, but finds that corruption has already pervaded to its highest levels.

Currently my #9 film of 1964:
1) Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet)
2) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick)
3) The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet)
4) Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson)
5) My Fair Lady (George Cukor)
6) Per un pugno di dollari {A Fistful of Dollars} (Sergio Leone)
7) A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester)
8) Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton)
9) The Naked Kiss (Samuel Fuller) *
10) Kiss Me, Stupid (Billy Wilder)

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