The Naked Kiss
Director: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Marie Deveraux
Woman wants to give up prostitution—but society won’t let her!
I read some review of a number of noir films, and this one was on it. The critic said it was fairly dreadful, but it’s in the Criterion Collection [again: so is Armageddon and The Rock] and the plot description—hooker tries to go straight, but finds no one in a small town will accept her—sounded too interesting to resist. Alas, I should have listened, because aside from some fabulous photography and a few intriguingly off-center touches, this is a giant waste of time.
We have a shock opening with this prostitute Kelly attacking this guy with a shoe. Eventually her wig falls off, and it turns out she’s bald! She knocks the guy out, takes her money from him [but doesn’t take all the money he has—she has principles!], and puts her wig back on under the credits, during we find that this has a cast of thousands, and is written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller of Shock Corridor.
Two years after the wig incident, Kelly arrives in this small town, and why, look what’s playing at the local theater: it’s Shock Corridor. This guy, Griff, is hanging out at the bus station, and he spots her right off. She walks down the street, where she passes an unattended baby in a carriage, just a’sittin’ on the sidewalk, next to these two wholesome girls skipping rope. Kelly plays with the baby [in startlingly mismatched footage], smiles beatifically [she has maternal instincts!] and moves on. Griff catches her in the local park, where he learns that she “sells champagne” for a living. They go to his place to play Hop On Pop, cracking open one of the champagne bottles. Afterward, Griff tells her in no uncertain terms that she can’t set up her champagne sales business in his town. But he can go to the whorehouse of this woman Candy Allacarte’s and if she plays her cards right, she can be Griff’s number one whore! Can you believe the LUCK?!? Kelly tells Griff she is so inspired by the poetry of Goethe, which she pronounces “Go-THE.” Now, I know that’s a difficult, non-intuitive one to pronounce correctly [sounds like "Ger-te"], but it also seems like the kind of thing you might want to check out before you make a movie.
So Kelly sets out the next day to find respectable housing, coming to a stop in front of a house that advertises “PLEASANT rooms to let.” I do so enjoy a PLEASANT room. You will be party to an uncommon number of Kelly reaction shots as she sees just how very PLEASANT these rooms are. The landlady tells her that the room she’s looking at is “wanting four angels,” and contains Charlie, a dressmaker’s mannequin with a uniform on, that of the landlady’s betrothed, who left for war and never came back, 30 years ago, and she decided never to marry but just pine for him. So Kelly is moving into THAT highly-symbolic PLEASANT room. She also hooks up a job as a nurse in a school for handicapped kids, one of whom she inspires to touch his toes, despite being paralyzed.
Well, Griff wants to know what she’s still doing in town and pretending to be all wholesome, when everyone knows she’s a whore, Whore, WHORE! Turns out that, right after being run through with Griff’s lance of love, she looked at herself in his mirror and decided—just like that—to leave her life of prostitution behind and start anew as a respectable woman. Griff finds this hard to believe, and frankly, so do I. Not that she wants to leave the life of prostitution, but that it should suddenly happen, and with such conviction, right after taking a tumble with the first guy she saw in town. But who knows. Maybe it could happen. Anyway, Kelly soon meets Grant, the charming playboy of town, who takes an immediate shine to her, despite Griff’s consternation.
Kelly, who is such an inspiration to those adorable handicapped kids, tells them that if they “pretend hard enough,” anything can happen. We can debate the wisdom of encouraging handicapped kids to enter into impossible wish-fulfillment fantasies at a separate time. Anyway, Kelly and Grant listen to the Moonlight Sonata and he tells her that if she “pretends hard enough” she can be with him on a gondola in Venice. Me, I prefer actual tickets and hotel reservations, but Kelly will take what she can get. There is an odd sequence of shots in which she actually is in Venice in her mind. It all seems to be coming true for Kelly!
SPOILERS > > >
So Kelly sees her friend Buffy [not the vampire slayer] being seduced into working at Candy’s, and tells her “You’ll meet men you’ll live off of, and men who will live off you, and those are the ONLY men you’ll meet.” Then she goes to Candy’s and beats the fuck out of her, telling her to stay away from Buffy!
But Kelly’s mind is tortured with the pain she anticipates feeling when Grant finds out she was once a whore! So she breaks it off with him, telling him her secret and that eventually he'll find out and—she proposes to her! She takes a while to think about it, then decides that YES, she CAN allow herself to be happy at last! She gives Buffy $900 to have the baby [oh yeah, she's pregnant] and not get married [a dubious gift, and keep your agenda to yourself, thank you very much]. Then Griff stops by, ready to spill the news of Kelly’s past to Grant, but Kelly tells him he already knows, and accepts her anyway. Griff softens, and says “That’s the big score—falling in love and being loved.” It seems that nothing can stand in the way of Kelly’s happiness! Nothing but a soupcon of pedophilia, that is.
You see, she goes over to Grant’s just as a young girl is running out. Grant tells her that he’s a pervert, just like her, and that’s what makes it so right. “Our marriage will be paradise, because we’re both abnormal!” So Kelly does the only thing she can do—kill him. The next day the case is reported, and her past is splayed all over the front pages!
Kelly is thrown in the slammer! She tells Griff that if she could just find that girl—only she doesn’t remember a single thing about her! Meanwhile Candy comes by and tells Griff that Kelly was running an extortion racket! This all continues, until it seems like Kelly is having some sort of cell-side tribunal, with Griff the sole presiding officer. Then this strange series of edits makes it seem as though there are a bunch of kids kept in a cell next door, playing. But they’re actually in the alley outside. And Kelly recognizes the girl! And she makes Griff, who we understand is coming to trust and respect Kelly, go find the girl and bring her in.
But every dark cloud has a silver lining, and they find the kid—and Kelly terrorizes her. Okay, I know she’s upset, but even someone who has passed a magazine with an article on child psychology would know that maybe a young kid is not going to respond to “Do you remember me? Do you?! YES YOU DO! YOU REMEMBER ME! [shakes her] You MUST remember me!” The girl finally says “Oh yeah,” and spills that Grant used to like to play a “special game” with her. Griff gets this all on tape, and Kelly is vindicated! Not only that, but she’s a local hero, because she stopped that bad child predator, and she steps out of jail to find the town gathered round to laud her. She walks by another unattended baby carriage [no wonder this town has a problem if parents just leave those things on the sidewalk while they run errands or whatnot], and coos warmly at the baby. I have a feeling she’ll have one of her own in just a bit, and it bet it’ll have Griff’s eyes.
< < < SPOILERS END
One can kind of see why this is in the Criterion Collection, as it is packed with gorgeous photography, and contains a few semi-avant-garde touches here and there. One can also see why the film is just thrown out there with nothing but a trailer [“The shock-and-shame story of a night girl!”], because aside from all that, it’s just not that great and hella tedious. You can see where it’s headed from 13 miles away, and you have to endure a lot of righteous speeches on the slow drive there. Kelly is not exactly likeable, and veers between being an angelic nurse to those darn crippled kids that she just loves so much, damn it, and being a cold, righteously angry scold making haughty speeches to anyone within the neighboring three states.
The movie’s politics are also a bit sketchy. It tries to be on Kelly’s side about how unfair it all is that her past should be held against her, but at the same time tries to tease the audience with the titillation of Kelly’s past, and Candy and Buffy’s present. And it’s more than a bit unbelievable that Kelly should just, suddenly, decide to change her ways after boffing Griff. Was it so great? Or so awful? She says that that moment was the “Naked kiss,” when she realized that she had to change her ways. Well, if you say so, but we don’t see what was so special about it, and this aura of disbelief keeps one at a distance from the entire film.
Furthermore, it’s impossible to forget that Griff thought it would be great and satisfying to all sides for Kelly to go work at Candy’s and be his #1 whore… until he grew tired of her. And he’s really rabid to bring her down throughout the entire movie—he goes out of his way at any chance to destroy her happiness and deny her the fresh chance she wants, and… is THIS why she’s so hung up on him? Not a sentiment Gloria Steinem can really get behind. And while the movie implies that Kelly and Griff share something special, one also feels that a lot of his interest in precisely because she WAS a whore. And these kind of marriages don’t usually work out, as anyone who has seen The Lonely Lady can attest.
Anyway, a strange film beautifully photographed, but not one I think you or anyone needs to run out and see.