Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss is a difficult film to describe. I’ve tried using “film noir” to capture its twisted mysteries and slowly unfolding seedy underbelly, but that doesn’t quite fit; the central character is far too warm and vulnerable to rank alongside Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe. When that descriptor fails, I try switching to “melodrama,” but few soaps come anywhere close to the dark, weird territory this film occupies. As film comparisons go, the closest match is Shock Corridor, the film Fuller made a year earlier with star Constance Towers—but of course, if someone hasn’t heard of the one, they likely don’t know the other. In the end, I usually just sit my pupil down and show them the film’s opening scene. That usually gets the point across.
That bald woman beating the shit out of her pimp to the strains of wild jazz music is Kelly (played by the exceedingly likable Towers), a prostitute who reaches her limit, cashes out, and tries her luck at settling down in the idyllic suburbia of Grantville. At first, her newfound life plays like a fairytale; she gets a job as a nurse and teacher for ill children in the hospital, is instantly accepted and befriended by her peers, and quickly becomes engaged to the eligible son of the town’s founding family. The better Kelly gets to know her new home, however, the more she realizes that the picket fences hide an underbelly just as horrifying as her old life.
The first secret Kelly uncovers is a wildly opulent whorehouse just over the state border, to which local authorities turn a blind eye (indeed, she is referred to it by the town sheriff, who pressures her to leave town following a one night stand). If you’re the sort of person reading this column, that likely rings a bell; while I don’t think I’ve found any official confirmation of its influence, the similarities to Twin Peaks’ One Eyed Jacks are impossible to ignore. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine this film as a formative influence on a young David Lynch. In a post Blue Velvet world, exposés of suburban hypocrisy have become something of a cliche, but there’s something deeply weird and thrilling to see it happening contemporaneously. For reference: at the time Fuller was shooting The Naked Kiss, Leave it to Beaver was still on the air.
There is one more shocking twist in this movie, which I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but oh man—it’s a doozy. Obviously, with social standards being what they were (or even what they are now), the film is a little vague on the details, but once you realize what’s happening, I promise you, your jaw will drop. Fuller disappeared for a while after this film —only 1969’s Shark stands between The Naked Kiss and Fuller’s 1980 comeback film The Big Red One—but even if his career had ended here, he would still be remembered as one of cinema’s ballsiest auteurs.
The Naked Kiss
dir. Samuel Fuller
Part of the ongoing series: The Complete Samuel Fuller
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