in Criterion Month

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Can anyone ever truly escape their own sordid past? This is the question that serves as the main crux of The Naked Kiss, a film that on the surface appears to be B-movie trash, and yet somehow manages to be surprisingly thematically rich, while delving into taboo subject matter (for its time) in a way that’s surprisingly deft. I know, I used “surprisingly” twice in that last sentence. But that’s because I went into this movie not really knowing what to expect, and by the end of it felt like I’d watched a particular type of film that I wouldn’t have ever even thought existed.

The Naked Kiss starts with one of the most awesome cold opens I’ve ever seen, as it utilizes a kind of handheld camera shot that wasn’t really a part of the Hollywood vocabulary at this point. This opening sequence features a young prostitute named Kelly (Constance Trowers) more or less beating the crap out of her pimp, while losing her wig and revealing her bald head in the process. After taking the money that’s rightfully hers, we then see her collecting herself and adjusting her wig in the mirror as the credits start rolling.

Perhaps it’s a bit much for me to go out of my way to describe what happens in the film before the opening credits even come to an end, but it’s just a great opening. Mainly because it announces the film’s brazenness right before it starts to pull back a bit. The film then cut to two years later, where Kelly has grown her hair back and is getting off the bus in a typical American suburb called Grantville, with the desire of leaving her call girl past behind her.

However, things aren’t that easy, as Kelly pretty much immediately subjects herself to a kind of unintended prostitution with the town’s tough guy police chief, suitably named Griff (Anthony Eisley). But after that, she manages to stay away from the town’s local brothel, while also feeling a kind of magnetic pull toward the place which she can’t escape. Though that escape eventually comes in the form of the town’s hunky and urbane socialite J.L. Grant, whom Kelly falls hard for and agrees to marry, before finding that Grant has even darker skeletons in his closet than Kelly.

I’ve noticed we’ve been taking a spoiler-centric approach to most of our reviews during this month, but the nature of Grant’s deviancy is pretty darn disturbing. Like for a film from 1964, I was pretty shocked to see where this story goes, so I won’t entirely spoil it. But I will say this is definitely one of those films you watch and you can almost feel the darkness bubbling beneath the conformist sheen of 1950s America that was about to boil over. Not only culturally, but also in terms of the subject matter that would be depicted in films. Though it’s undeniable that The Naked Kiss was able to get away with its subject matter because its director Samuel Fuller, made it for Allied Artists Pictures, a studio known for making low budget B-movies.

And to a certain extent, The Naked Kiss is a B-movie. I wouldn’t say all of the actors in it are first rate talent, though Constance Towers is pretty phenomenal in the lead role, while the rest of the cast is populated with lesser knowns that would pop in some of Fuller’s other films. But I think there’s something really tonally unique about the way the film often goes for a kind of Sirk-ian melodrama, while juxtaposing that with the kind of hard-boiled shit you’d never see in a Douglas Sirk movie.

I know a big part of this whole Criterion month (or at least for me personally) has been seeking out directors that we’re not super familiar with, but there is a part of me that wishes I’d seen Shock Corridor before this film. Maybe it’s a chronological thing, since it’s the film Fuller made the year before The Naked Kiss. While the former film also features Constance Towers as well as somewhat taboo subject matter, while the Criterion art for the two movies even has a similar Daniel Clowes aesthetic. Which makes The Naked Kiss feel a bit like the flipside of the same lurid coin. But perhaps that just leaves me with another film to pick out at Barnes & Noble’s Criterion sale, which officially just started yesterday…