The Past Is Always With Us: The Naked Kiss (1964)


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Samuel Fuller developed a reputation over time of being the tough guy director of movies like Pickup on South Street (1953), The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980). This is all well and good but his films have a sense of style, and insight at their core, that belies the notion that Fuller can be pigeonholed as the cigar-chomping model of masculinity behind the camera. He may well have been, but the man put together more movies about regret and despair than most directors and occasionally dipped deeply into the well of sentimentality. In 1964, he put together a movie whose story and plot could have easily been mistaken for the kind of movie directed by Douglas Sirk, although with completely different results. In fact, The Naked Kiss (1964) may be described as the best movie Douglas Sirk never made.

The Naked Kiss has the cold open to end all cold opens. Without so much as a fade-in, the viewer is assaulted by Kelly (Constance Towers, in a terrific performance), a prostitute as she swings her bag at the camera, and thus, the audience. A quick cut gives us her POV and we see she is smacking around her pimp who pleads to her that he’s drunk and can’t protect himself. He reaches out and tears off her wig revealing a shaved head, which seems to infuriate her even more. She beats him to the ground, even taking a moment to spray him in the face with a seltzer bottle, straight out of a Three Stooges routine, before raiding his wallet for what she’s owed, 75 dollars. We’re then treated to a magnificently styled opening credit sequence in which Kelly once again looks us right in the eye as the credits roll. She’s looking into a mirror (the camera), fixing her wig, putting on makeup and pondering her departure. Then we see the date, July 4th, 1961, her independence day.

Cut to two years later and Kelly’s natural hair has grown back in and she’s in a new town, Grantville, plying her trade. She gets a john right away, the town’s police captain, Griff (Anthony Eisley), but when she’s done, she decides to turn over a new leaf. That new leaf turns out to be working with handicapped children at a hospital paid for by the town’s leader, J.L. Grant (Michael Dante), the great, great grandson of the town’s founder.


At this point, several things happen (ahem, SPOILERS): (1) Griff figures she’s running a scam, maybe to get at the doctors; (2) we discover she’s the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold; (3) she meets Mr. Grant, falls in love and gets engaged; (4) Griff’s not buying that one either; (5) she’s implicated in Grant’s murder, which she did but because he was going to molest a child. Everyone else thinks she did it because a plan to roll Grant backfired. Now she has to prove her innocence to get off the hook with Griff fighting against her every step of the way.

Fuller sets all of this up bluntly, without so much as a nod to subtlety, following the lead of the noir greats, who eschew subtlety for style, and naturalistic dialogue for poetry. Griff and Kelly have some of the best back and forth in the movie. Early on, when she arrives in town, using a travelling saleslady cover, selling champagne called Angel Foam, she and Griff shoot the breeze. She’s already figured him for a cop and he’s already figured her for a prostitute:

Griff: “How about a sample?”

Kelly: “No free gifts.”

Griff: “I’m pretty good at popping the cork if the vintage is right.”

Or when Griff confronts her at the hospital, a mere week after sleeping with her on her first day in town:

Griff: “A new low, using crippled kids to front your trade.”

Kelly: “I quit my trade… I washed my face clean the morning I woke up in your bedroom.”

Griff: “You got morals in my room?!”

Kelly: “You had nothing to do with it. It was your mirror.”

Griff: “You must’ve taken a long look.”

Fuller was no stranger to tough talking characters and he was also no stranger to Douglas Sirk, who directed his screenplay for Shockproof (1949). Fuller was not at all pleased with the results and seems to have spent the rest of his career making movies with a character named Griff and many of the same themes of Shockproof just to settle the matter. The Naked Kiss shares a lot in common with Shockproof, as well as the types of characters that Sirk made famous in his other films. One can easily imagine Griff played by Rock Hudson, Kelly by Dorothy Malone and Grant by Robert Stack, with lots of technicolor, gleaming surfaces and repressed desires. The difference is that Fuller had no desire to film the underbelly of small town America as a shiny soap opera. His visuals, aided by the formidable talents of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, are all dark and shadowy, even in broad daylight. And the crowd seems menacing, even when they’re gathered to welcome Kelly back into the fold. Everyone in the town, in fact, seems like an unthinking automaton, desperately in need of Kelly to come in and save the day. Fuller’s message, by the end, as Kelly strolls out of the town a savior, could be read as an ignorantly happy America needing someone street smart like Kelly to come in and fix the problems they’re all blissfully ignoring.


The Naked Kiss isn’t perfect, by any means. Fuller stretches out a few scenes past their breaking point and the film still only clocks in at 90 minutes. These scenes involve the children in shots of such preening sentimentality that it’s never clear if Fuller is being sincere or mocking the kind of soap operatic scenario he’s filming. One scene in particular, of the children performing a song, is almost unbearable if looked at in earnest but rather funny if viewed with an eye towards parody.  Or is Fuller just setting us up, putting this saccharine song into our heads so that, only minutes later, he can transform it into the sinister backdrop for a particularly heinous act.

Samuel Fuller didn’t make many more movies after this, and one of his best, White Dog (1982), got such a botched non-release, that he never quite recovered. But here in The Naked Kiss, and in his previous effort, Shock Corridor (which shows up on the Grantville movie marquee), Fuller achieved a real low-budget noir poetry, one not easily imitated nor abundantly found in the world of 1964 cinema, now, or any other time.

Greg Ferrara

11 Responses The Past Is Always With Us: The Naked Kiss (1964)
Posted By Emgee : May 19, 2017 3:30 pm

i also found the scenes with the children singing cloying, but then subtlety was never Fuller’s greatest strength. But did he ever make some memorable movies, and this one is certainly that.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : May 20, 2017 2:05 pm

It’s interesting. I like Fuller a lot, especially Pickup on South Street, but what his advocates, like Manny Farber, describe as “primitive” movie making in a primal sense, many times feels less primitive and more clunky. While the children singing is clearly used to set up the song as the backdrop to molestation moments later, and show us the molester smiling as the kids sing, it could have been achieved without showing us the entire, endless, painful song delivery by the children. And all the other children scenes, which are just as awful, don’t have the excuse of being used to set up a sinister undercurrent later, as with the song.

Posted By George : May 20, 2017 2:34 pm

“without showing us the entire, endless, painful song delivery by the children.”

I wonder if that was to pad out the running time? I feel the same way about some of the clunky expository dialogue, which spell things out a bit too clearly. It was a low budget movie; maybe Fuller didn’t have the budget to suggest things visually?

That doesn’t negate the fact that NAKED KISS is a largely terrific movie that every film buff should see.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : May 20, 2017 3:52 pm

George, I agree. Both that it’s terrific and that Fuller was clearly padding. Call it Fuller Filler.

Posted By Emgee : May 20, 2017 4:02 pm

My guess is that he thought it would have more emotional impact but simply overdid it.

Just found out this movie listed among The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzie Movie Guide. I wish i hadn’t.

Posted By George : May 20, 2017 9:26 pm

The Razzie Movie Guide is written by stupid idiots. I would throw it in the nearest dumpster.

I’ve found that appreciating Fuller is like learning a new language, or at least a new dialect. You can’t rely on the English you’ve known all your life. Once you learn it, it makes sense.

NAKED KISS isn’t quite in the same class as SHOCK CORRIDOR, but it’s still powerful stuff. And it must have had impact in ’64, when the word “prostitute” was still forbidden on TV and wasn’t heard much in movies, either. They were still using code terms like “nightclub hostess” or “dance hall girl.”

Posted By George : May 20, 2017 9:44 pm

By the way, the children’s singing in NAKED KISS doesn’t annoy me as much as the children’s choir in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, which stops that movie dead for several minutes. McCarey, by then the most super-devout Catholic in Hollywood, apparently intended it to be inspirational.

Posted By kingrat : May 21, 2017 12:40 am

If you remember that Fuller was originally a tabloid journalist, the answers to the questions fall into place. He almost always has a good idea for a film and an attention-grabbing opening, but poor development. THE NAKED KISS is actually better developed than most of his films. Clunky exposition is common in Fuller; his inadequate writing frequently undercuts his skill as a visual director.

The children’s song is the most revoltingly sentimental scene I have ever seen in a film, and it isn’t parodic at all, though one can understand why some of Fuller’s apologists try to regard it as such. Think of tabloid journalism: one page has the gruesome crime scene photos and the opposite page wallows in the sad details of the poor kiddie who needs a heart transplant.

THE NAKED KISS also points up Fuller’s inability to get good performances out of less than stellar actors. Imagine the same script, bad dialogue and all, performed a few years later with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and Gene Hackman in the three major roles.

Greg, I’m sorry but I don’t see the resemblance to Sirk.

Posted By George : May 21, 2017 3:07 pm

kingrat said: “The children’s song is the most revoltingly sentimental scene I have ever seen in a film”

See my comment above about AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER.

Posted By George : May 21, 2017 3:47 pm

“THE NAKED KISS also points up Fuller’s inability to get good performances out of less than stellar actors.”

Totally disagree, kingrat. Fuller got excellent performances from Peter Breck (in SHOCK CORRIDOR) and Anthony Eisley, who were bland TV hunks elsewhere. And he got better performances from Constance Towers than John Ford was able to.

Towers, BTW, is alive and working at 84.

I’d advise people to approach Fuller on HIS terms, rather than setting up “rules” for what is and isn’t acceptable in a movie. Fuller doesn’t conform to anyone’s rules but his own.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : May 23, 2017 5:06 pm

Oh man, screw the Razzies. And Kingrat, there certainly isn’t any visual resemblance to Sirk but I think the story line is very much Sirk territory. It’s that whole underbelly of America vision where it’s all gloss on top and rotting underneath. The town leader and cosmopolitan playboy is also a child molester.

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