The Naked Kiss

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #18: Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss.
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Sam Fuller is widely regarded as a very masculine filmmaker; his works associated with violence, bravado, exploitation, primitiveness and vulgarity. And while those associations are correct, the masculine label is misplaced. A film like The Naked Kiss illustrates Fuller’s claim to focus on undiluted emotion, emphatically ungendered. The character Kelly is central to the story in this film, and she essentially plays the role of the archetypal female. Maybe in Wicca [something I'm only tangentially familiar with] she would be the embodiment of the Goddess. Another way to look at it would be to combine all of the defining characteristics of Greek goddesses into her form. She’s by turns wanton, vengeful, motherly, sisterly, housewifely. She is everything that anyone has ever thought about a woman. This type of embodiment translates easily into a characterization of Kelly as power. She is what the film is about, and her unconscious inability to be pigeonholed by other characters is indicative of the “moral tract” that Michael Dare mentions in his Criterion essay.
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Despite this reading, the film has moments of weakness in its portrayal of Kelly. Her prostitution is equated as a sexual perversion akin to pedophilia. It is obvious that Kelly isn’t a sexual deviant, but there is a brief moment that gives the film its name when she says she can tell when a man is a pervert by the way his kiss tastes. A naked kiss, prostitutes call it. This sort of sixth sense is nothing but hokey. Even in the 1960s I suspect. Despite and because of Kelly’s multifaceted characterization, she’s the least accessible character in the film. Illimitable. It helps that the setting and other characters are so purely one-dimensional. Grantville could be Leave it to Beaver’s Mayfield, except it is even more idyllic.
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Of course, the lurid plot is exactly right for exploitation cinema: prostitutes, pedophiles, small town America. Dateline could learn a lot from Sam Fuller. Kelly, though a hooker with a heart of gold, has an extremely violent streak that appears when she must defend virtue and justice; an odd trait for a prostitute, but fully in keeping with the complex and imperfect characters that are trademarks of a Fuller film. There is a scene where she shoves money into the mouth of a cathouse madam, and the fact that the madam looks like Kelly might in 15 years is startling. The framing of each shot throughout the film is as tight and claustrophobic as possible, not until the end do we get a sense of freedom and release, as Kelly leaves town to make her way elsewhere. The Naked Kiss isn’t Fuller’s best film, but it is certainly a standout in comparison to his other works and the scholarship that has been done in relation to his defining auteur characteristics. If you’re a fan of anything Fuller though, you’ll enjoy this film.
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Criterion Essay by Michael Dare.
Criterion Contraption review.
San Francisco Gate article.
Dan Schneider essay.
YouTube Clips: Clip 1, Clip 2, Clip 3.