02nd Sep2019

‘The Naked Kiss’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Constance Towers, Antony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey, Patsy Kelly | Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller

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The Naked Kiss opens with a fight. And Kelly (Constance Towers) – an experienced escort reclaiming her money from a punter – will never stop fighting. Just for one night it looks like she’s left her worst times behind, as she arrives in Grantville, a small town where no one knows her name. But then she discovers her first customer, Griff (Antony Eisley), is a local policeman. He offers a deal: she can’t operate within the town itself, but he’ll set her up in a brothel outside the limits.

But Kelly is looking for a life more meaningful. So, she finds herself in a hospital for disabled children. She’s a natural. The kids love her. Her colleagues love her. But Griff still can’t trust her – especially when she falls for his enormously wealthy best bud, Grant (Michael Dante), after whom the town is named. Kelly faces an uphill battle to convince Griff that she’s changed her ways – and he holds a secret that could ruin her.

The Naked Kiss tells a story that leads to a tawdry tabloid headline. (We even get the headline in the end.) A fast-paced and enjoyable thriller, what it lacks in plausibility it makes up for with broad twists and a wry script. It is an assault on the small, sanctimonious, picket fence conservative town. It’s often crass and confrontational. Imagine Lars Von Trier making a movie in the Hays code era.

Kelly is a blonde bombshell on the wane, and a large part of her suffering comes from the attitude of men – specifically that she can amount to nothing more than her sexual history. There is no doubt for the audience, though. It might have been fun to have a little more ambiguity about Kelly’s intentions. But then Fuller follows her on a night-time walk through the dormitory, weeping earnestly at the children’s bedside, and we are left in no doubt.

The editing is a mixed bag, with some distracting mid-scene jump cuts and awkward music cues, running up against sophisticated montage sequences. There’s a fantastic scene where the children play on the grass while Kelly narrates a pirate story. And later, there’s a lovely moment when Kelly monologues to a half-dressed mannequin, while a tapestry of voices speak in her head.

Fuller’s steady and sometimes stylish direction ranges from stagey, single-camera simplicity to adventurous tracking shots. The lighting – all noir shadows and plunging spotlights – is top drawer. It’s a pity that some of the supporting performances are distinctly bottom drawer.

The dialogue is as ripe as it comes, and so full of metaphors that it can take effort to understand what the characters are really saying. There’s also a vein of smutty, censor-dodging double entendres: “We spend a third of our lives in bed!” Kelly’s wholesome landlady says at one point. But the real zinger battles occur between Kelly and Griff, and refreshingly without the inevitability of a reluctant romance. They genuinely don’t trust each other, and this provides a fun tension throughout the taut running time.

A fine little thriller it may be, but don’t go in expecting a sophisticated exploration of the cathouse underworld. Kelly describes herself as “a woman of two worlds,” and the film is similarly binary in its conclusions. The focus is firmly on the women as perpetrators – never the punters or the pimps – and firmly on their occupation being a moral choice. Nuance or social context are thin on the ground.

But it’s not that kind of movie. Put aside police procedure (at one point Kelly is allowed to violently interrogate a key child witness) and plausibility and focus instead on the pulp storytelling, which barrels along. This isn’t social realism, it’s a grubby little opera with big ideas: guilt, truth and redemption. Taken on those terms, it’s perfectly watchable. And it’s better than Shock Corridor.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack)
  • New video interview with star Constance Towers by film historian and filmmaker Charles Dennis
  • Excerpts from a 1983 episode of the BBC’s The South Bank Show dedicated to director Samuel Fuller
  • Interview with Fuller from a 1967 episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps
  • Interview with Fuller from a 1987 episode of the French television series Cinéma cinemas
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: Illustrations by cartoonist Daniel Clowes (Eightball, Ghost World) and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.

The Naked Kiss is out now from Criterion.

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