Tabloid journalist makes tabloid movie shock! Writer/director/producer and former newspaperman Sam Fuller demonstrates his nose for a story with The Naked Kiss, a lurid, headline-grabbing movie too sensational for a few jurisdictions when it came out in 1964.
It is the whore-to-madonna tale of a prostitute who – either seeing the error of her ways or realising she’s too old for the job – gives it all up and becomes a teacher of disabled kids in a white-picket US town. But can the universe forgive her for her previous life, or will an avenging angel soon be winging its way towards her? You know it will.
The film opens in spectacular fashion, with a one-two that’s brutal and direct – a woman (Constance Towers) attacking a man with full force, right to camera, with such vigour in fact that her wig comes off, revealing a totally bald head beneath. It’s the equivalent of the front page with massive headline and screaming exclamation marks!!!!!!
The woman is Kelly, a prostitute who is angry that her pimp hasn’t stumped up the money he owes her and is taking advantage of his drunkeness to get it. Flush, Kelly skips town, winding up in Nowheresville USA to start a new life on the game. There, she immediately catches the eye of local cop Griff (Anthony Eisley) – “That’s enough to make a bulldog bust its chain,” pants Griff, copping an eyeful of Kelly as she steps off the bus. From here, after a rendezvous with Griff which will hang over her for the rest of the film, Kelly has her damascene moment and flips from being a hardbitten ballbuster to a teacher in a school for kids with physical handicaps, switching into white clothing for most of the rest of the film as she offers succour to the needy (fallen women as well as disadvantaged kids) and falling in love with the town’s leading light, himself a paragon of virtue.
Here, in scenes that seem to be satirical, Kelly and her white knight, JL Grant (Michael Dante), parade their mutual knowledge of high culture – talking about Venetian glass, Goethe, Byron, Beethoven – in flirtatious exchanges underlining what a catch he is, and how far she’s come. Until – hold the front page all over again – there is a shock/horror revelation about Grant that changes everything.
There’s more, including death, wrongful arrest and eleventh-hour salvation, in a film that piles plot on top of plot like a greedy diner at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It’s simultaneously a mad old stew and a weirdly complex portrait of womanhood. Kelly cannot have children, and a moral panic about non-procreative sex of one sort or another (no spoilers) seems to be what the film eventually settles on as a subject, having ducked first one way and then another, as if seeking a juicy point of attack.
The women in this might be flawed but they are noticeable for making an effort. Whether it’s the “town virgin” Miss Josephine, from whom Kelly rents a room, or the local whores Kelly befriends and defends, women in this film have agency.
Men, not so much. Not at all in fact. We meet three. The pimp – an obvious asshole who will later return to prove again that he’s obviously an asshole. Griff – a bent cop and all-round sourpuss. JL Grant – the revelation about whom is so left-field and incendiary that Fuller cannot even put it on screen. Instead in the filmic equivalent of the muckraking journalist’s classic line “I made my excuses and left” he leads us all the way to his shock reveal and then decorously backs away.
Constance Towers – who is 90 on the day this is published (happy birthday to you, Ms Towers) – wrestles with this lurid material and a character who’s borderline impossible to play, portraying Kelly as a woman mentally committed to a new life but with a muscle memory that gives her a foot in both camps. There are interesting performances all round. Griff is a heel but Eisley suggests what’s really driving him is an unrequited passion for Kelly. Over on the wrong side of town Virginia Grey is spitfire badassery itself as the whorehouse madam no one crosses without consequences.
Through it all Fuller repeatedly compresses time and the narrative in interesting ways, some novel others familiar (Towers has a soliloquy to a tailor’s dummy, for instance). The Naked Kiss is almost laughably histrionic at times and there is a reason it appears in The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood’s Worst. But there’s more to this than just a lurid potboiler busting taboos. While it may be many things, The Naked Kiss has something to say and it is never boring.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023