Friday, November 21, 2003


Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss (1964) smacks you across the mug like an angry dame with a pocketbook -- which is also how it begins. The first thing we see is the prostitute Kelly (Constance Towers) beating the fool out of some poor sap who tried to rip her off. We watch from his point of view, a man so drunk he can barely stand, as Kelly's blows send him reeling backwards down the hall of his apartment. She swings so wildly, angrily, and literally in your face (as well as his) that you almost think she's going to break the lens, which is frantically trying to keep up with her. Her unfortunate john makes a wild grab at her hair, which turns out to be a wig, and Kelly goes apewire: a bald hooker in black bra and panties beating the son of a bitch senseless and then finishing him off by by spraying a seltzer bottle in his face. She readjusts the wig and stares into a mirror, and at us. As the opening credits appear and the music swoons, she combs her hair into shape, restoring the hard, sculpted beauty of her face. It's one of the most jarring opening scenes in American cinema.

"If a story doesn't give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage." Such was the famous advice Fuller gave to Jim Jarmusch. Worshipped by independents, a figure of honor to in both the French and German New Wave -- he appeared in both Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou and Wim Wenders’ The State of Things -- Fuller crafted melodramas that push the border of art, and this one throbs with expectancy from the get-go. It’s a B-picture of considerable purity - the setting is worm-in-the-apple suburbia, the laughs are mean, the dialogue is lousy and the acting is wretched. It is also operatic; a hyperdrama with an impassioned sensibility and a sense of mood that is masterfully shaped by composition and lighting. Fuller puts his characters in worlds full of extremes. He doesn't peel away social camouflage to reveal the dark side. He starts with the dark side, the place where his people live, and shows the camouflage as it accumulates.

After Kelly's episode with the deadbeat john, we move ahead a few years. Her hair has grown back -- it isn't until much later that we discover how she lost it -- and she moves to the small town of Grantville to ply her trade. Posing as a champagne saleswoman, she meets Griff (Anthony Eisley), the local cop, who quickly puts his moves on her. Griff doesn't learn that the champagne lady is a hooker until she's already popped his cork, whereupon he tells her he doesn't want her type in his town. Griff is the kind of cop you might meet in a Jim Thompson novel, a hot-headed defender of public morality who sees no contradiction between his private life and his public one. He's not totally heartless; he even recommends a good bordello in the next county, where "Bon-Bon Girls" with names like Redhead, Marshmallow and Hatrack offer their sweets to the highest bidder.

Kelly isn't interested. Instead, she rather all of a sudden decides to change her life completely. She gives up champagne and whoredom, takes a room with a kindly if dotty old woman, and becomes a physical therapist for handicapped children. She rises in this line of work with lightning speed, tough-loving the youngsters into health and winning the total respect and admiration of all her fellow nurses, who trust her wise, been-around-the-block counsel on all matters.

Naturally, this rise in her fortunes doesn't sit well with Griff, who has a strong, old-fashioned belief in "once a whore, always a whore." What ticks him off even more is when his friend J. L. Grant (Michael Dante), the town's wealthy playboy as well as its leading son, takes a special liking to Kelly. When Griff learns of their upcoming marriage, he threatens to expose the newly-reformed Kelly if she doesn't scram, but Kelly beats him to the punch: she tells Grant everything about her past, he forgives her, and Griff can't do much more than sulk.

Where can the movie go now, you wonder - half way through and the central MacGuffin already MacGuffed? Lots of places, as Fuller is just getting cranked up. The charming, Byron-quoting, good-looking Grant of Grantville proves just as prejudiced against Kelly's past as Griff, only in a much nastier way. Grant, she discovers, is a child molester who needs someone as abnormal as he is for a wife, and figured an ex-whore was as good a place to start as any. When he winds up dead, she gets charged with murder. Life turns bleak and hopeless as it only can in a film noir -- or a D.W. Griffith silent like Broken Blossoms or Way Down East. Like Griffith, Fuller is violent, achingly sincere, corny, and a true original when it comes to storytelling. He easily glides into extended poetic reveries, such as when he shows groups of children singing or playing at the hospital, without ever once making it seem extraneous. I think Fuller could have gotten in the ring with Griffith and other great silent directors -- he’s at his best when he scraps dialogue and becomes strictly visual, such as the end, when we see Kelly’s distance from a crowd of townspeople, or earlier, when Kelly discovers Grant with a little girl. Forced by the conventions of his time to be purely suggestive, Fuller lures us into the scene unawares, as Kelly is -- she comes home, hears Grant’s tape recording of the children singing at the hospital, sees a child exiting the house, sees Grant, and her slowly stunned face tells us all we need to know.

Tawdry, silly, over-the-top, totally compelling, and brilliantly photographed by Stanley Cortez (one of the greats: he also shot The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter) this kiss delivers a beginning-to-end knock-out punch.

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