The Naked Kiss

Samuel Fuller pushes the boundaries of what one normally thinks of as possible in movies. He combines thudding, flat-footed awkwardness and even occasional outright “bad” moviemaking with surreal flights of screen poetry, sometimes within the same scene, even in the same shot. One fight scene is shot as as a heated, subjective tumble, another is shot dispassionately from across the room, still a third is shot with modernist elegance. Equal parts squalid and elegant, tawdry and moralistic, it can be startling with its crudeness one moment and then give way to visionary craziness the next.  The clash of styles, tones and textures produces an unsettling, electric tension; one has no idea what is going to happen next.  What emerges is a movie of unique, dynamic life, almost unbearable in its rawness as it plunges its spear into the cerebral cortex of American life. Actors will be stiff and lifeless in one scene and then, seconds later, they will surge with feverish passion as they deliver jaw-droppers like “You’ll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare!” or “I’ve got no time to break in baby baggage!”

A Woman With A Past moves to a small town, anxious to start again, but wouldn’t you know it, No One Will Let Her Be and soon Her Past Catches Up With Her. All noir cliches, and yet this movie never feels cliched. Just when you think “Oh, I know what this is, it’s a ‘b’ movie, this’ll be fun” Fuller will pull some daring, shocking cinematic stunt, with seemingly no bottom to his bag of tricks.

There are any number of stunners in this piece, but my favorites are a late-night makeout session that moves from the couch of a suburban mansion to a gondola in Venice with no stops in between, a soul-searching colloquy between the protagonist and a dressing dummy and a musical number where the ex-prostitute sings like Mary Poppins to a room full of crippled children.

Constance Towers reminds me of Virginia Madsen as the crooked lady trying to go straight. Anthony Eisley, while not exactly “good,” has been given the task of pushing through an incredible arc as his attitudes toward the protagonist shift. He goes from cheerfully randy to puritanically prude to savagely protective to punishingly pigheaded until he finally arrives at something like understanding, forgiveness and tenderness.

The plot spirals downward into the bottommost pit of depravity, a potent stew of betrayal and hatred; it’s hard to remember that it is, forall intents and purposes, a “woman’s picture” plot in the Douglas Sirk mode. It also has one of the most effective gut-punching end-of-second-act curtains I’ve ever seen.
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3 Responses to “The Naked Kiss”
  1. moroccomole says:

    I adore the ending where — not to give too much away — we find out just what the heroine thinks about something that much of the audience expected her to want to get in the final moments.

  2. craigjclark says:

    Ahh, Fuller. There’s nobody else like him, is there? Danny Peary’s Cult Movies 3 has a lengthy piece on this film, comparing it to 1961’s Underworld U.S.A. (which stars Cliff Robertson as an ex-con seeking revenge on his father’s killers). That’s not available on DVD, which won’t make it easy to track down, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

    • craigjclark says:

      Fun fact: a local screening room is actually showing this (and Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street) next month. I rented it a few years back, but it wouldn’t hurt to re-acquaint myself with it.