Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Constance Towers as Kelly - K E double-L Y.

The cinema is a mountain you never finish climbing.  My co-author and I both spend far too much time watching movies, buying DVD's, and reading about film history, and yet there still remain (will always remain) tremendous vistas yet to be admired, staggering cliff-faces yet unnoticed.  Odin willing, that will always be the case.  As a film fan I know of few pleasures as great as the discovery of a talent or genre that previously lurked just off your personal radar.

It can be shocking, too.  You ask yourself, "just how did I miss this?"  I knew who Samuel Fuller was prior to watching The Naked Kiss.  I knew he directed pulpy, controversial genre pics.  I knew he'd been embraced as an icon by the French New Wave.  I knew he was an acknowledged influence on Tarantino.  Which makes it all the more baffling that I am only now cracking the lid on the treasure chest of his body of work.

Let's get this on the table right away:  The Naked Kiss rocked my face off.  From the opening shot in which Constance Towers batters her pimp with her shoes, filmed from the pimp's POV all the way to the shocking revelation that signals the start of the third act, this movie is the cinematic equivalent of a charging bull.  The steam from its snorting nostrils means it's best that we just get the hell out of the way.

"Your face might fool a lot of people, but not your body.  Your body is your only passport."
Have you seen the commercials for the company (that I won't provide free advertising for) that offers background checks on whomever you wish?  The idea that fuels these ads is apparently that there's nothing scarier than a stranger -- we put our lives and our values at risk if we trust our own impressions of an individual we don't know.  Far better to listen to what everyone else has to say about them.

This idea of the "character reference" as essential to safe living informs everything that happens in The Naked Kiss.  We first hear the term when Kelly (Constance Towers) is shocked to learn that she can rent a room in the small town of Grantsville without one.  Later, sleazy police officer Griff (Anthony Eisley) is even more disturbed to hear that Kelly didn't need one to get a job as a nurse at a children's hospital.  In the end, her life depends on getting good character references from people who wouldn't spit on her if she was on fire.

Anthony Eisley's Griff is a cop for a new era.

That's the central conflict faced by Kelly, who must be one of the strongest female leads in the history of American film.  Do we judge her by her face, which her landlord finds so sweet and caring as to make more information unnecessary?  Do we judge her by her actions, which win the hearts and loyalties of her fellow nurses at the children's hospital?  Or do we judge her by the sordid history a string of pimps, madams and spurned johns are ready to hang her with (even if they have to make up some of it just to have enough rope)?

This movie couldn't or wouldn't have been made in any other era.  It looks and feels like the film noirs that were pouring out of Hollywood just a few years earlier; in just a few more years it would have looked too old-fashioned to make it to the big screen.  Yet its frank discussions of prostitution, abortion and police corruption would have never passed muster back when the Hays Code had teeth.   If you've ever wondered what a film like The Big Sleep might have looked like if its writers hadn't been forced to dance around the subject of sex and perversity, this film's your answer.

If the ending is a little too pat, a little too polite, just be thankful you made it out relatively unscathed.  Kelly never makes change, after all.

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