“You want a medal?”
Here it is, my first foray into Samuel Fuller’s world of pulp, The Naked Kiss. I still don’t quite know what my feelings are. When the ending credits rolled, I was a bit indifferent, but after a heady discussion with my viewing friends, that initial ho-hum—“it was entertaining at least”—thought process became, “yeah, I guess it does have a lot more going for it, if you take the time to look”. And I think this is the point to get across. The Naked Kiss is chock-full of detail and specific plot points, which may at first appear to just be overload and nonsense, but eventually prove to be crucially enlightening to the tale. It takes an audience that understands the time period the film was made, viewers that know of and enjoy French New Wave, and people who can appreciate a heightened reality, realizing that the campy acting is just part of the film’s style, to be successful. Like pulp fiction novels and zines, the aesthetic is one of economy and lesser art, but the fact that it knows this—fusing attributes from film noir and soap opera-like scripting—makes it so much more.
The thing you hear is how the opening five minutes will blow your mind. The seeming absurdity of it all—a bald prostitute beating a man up with her shoe—throws you for a loop until the rest of the story commences, two years after that event. However, it isn’t just that scene putting you in an off-kilter position, the opening credits themselves puzzle too. It all starts off normally until we get a list of the people playing the children, then Candy’s girls, and finally Candy’s Bon-Bons … try wrapping your head around those before the film uncovers the mystery. Oh, and don’t forget that credit for “Charlie” playing himself, the best inside joke of the entire film.
With the beginning nonsense out of the way, the story starts up again in a quiet town named Grantville. Kelly (Constance Towers) steps off the bus and turns heads with her looks, including that of local law enforcement Captain Griff (Anthony Eisley). He takes the newcomer to his apartment where he verifies her occupation and warns her to get out of town and cross into the next where Candy will be able to take care of her. We soon discover that Griff has been cleaning up his jurisdiction by welcoming all the “women of the night” just to pass them on to the brothel nextdoor—keeping tabs and relations with them while maintaining the wholesome façade of his own home. A façade is all it is, though, much to his surprise, once the secrets start to be brought to light.
After Kelly looks in the mirror at Griff’s, she decides to once and for all turn her life around. She finds a nice room for rent with the local seamstress and then a job as a therapist for handicapped children, something the town is known for, what with the generosity of town namesake J.L. Grant (Michael Dante). Grandson of the town’s founder, Grant is a mountain of a man, always traveling, bringing gifts, caring for the local needy, and even a war hero, having saved his best friend Griff in Korea. It is when he begins a love affair with the reformed Kelly that the town soon shows its dark underbelly. Grantville’s veneer is dissolved as everyone soon gets shown as liars or cheats, looking out for only themselves, and others prove to be involved in crimes such as pedophilia, right under the nose of the town. This subject matter, especially, is handled interestingly to comply with censorship while still retaining its weight.
While the story may disturb some—I know child abuse could be a killer for some people whether they were enjoying the movie before that point or not—it is the construction that will end up alienating many. To keep with the pulp aesthetic, Fuller never shies from holding details in focus after a deliberate zoom to blatantly get a point across, nor is he afraid to lend his characters a certain creepiness. The handicapped children, for instance, are shown in close-up very often, dressed as pirates, singing, or just being made to stand on their crutches while the nurses move in and out between them. Even an odd scene where they are shown running around, as if in a dream, becomes hyper-real; all of the young actors acting as though they were told to be a tad off-kilter and appear mentally handicapped as well as physically. Then, of course, there is the karate chopping prostitute, Grant’s butler who seems to be the only normal person in the entire film, the head nurse who only wants to see the town’s emperor with hopes of a gift, and numerous other bit parts that become unforgettable due to their demeanor, not necessarily their importance to the plot.
In the end, I do feel the need to recommend The Naked Kiss to any serious film lovers out there. If you aren’t willing to delve deeper than the surface and find all the different motifs strewn about, hidden via the purposely-campy acting that stays consistent with the film’s world, do not bother wasting your time. It is definitely a movie that warrants repeated viewings, asking you to question why recording devices are so important, (tape recorders, films of Venice, etc), how Griff can be so blinded to the fact that atrocities are going on right in front of him, or whether characters’ motivations are more plainly seen the second time after knowing who they all really are. Don’t expect to be shocked by gruesome events or risqué shots, but instead by the surreal world you will be transported to. As one of my friends said at the screening, “David Lynch must have seen this.” He spoke in regards to Lynch’s Blue Velvet, but I would go a step further in comparing to “Twin Peaks”. That small town was all roses until a prom queen’s death uncovers the hellish world unable to stay contained. Grantville is not far off.
The Naked Kiss 8/10 | ★ ★ ★