If you’re not at least mildly prepared for it, The Naked Kiss comes at you like a ton of bricks. A woman comes at the camera menacingly beating up a man, for a reason we don’t know. Then her hair comes flying off and there she is still swinging at him completely bald. It’s frightening, frenetic, and completely engrossing. From thence on, Sam Fuller has us in the grips of his story, even if we don’t quite know what it’s about yet. His hook has grabbed us.
It turns out the women we were so brutally introduced to is named Kelly (Constance Towers). A couple years down the road she looks strikingly different, with no sign of turmoil. Instead, she’s a sleek beauty working the streets of Grantville.
Of course, her first customer happens to be a police chief named Griff (Anthony Eisley), who advises her to skedaddle out of town as quick as possible. He gives her the details on a cozy joint across the border known for their Bonbon girls. He thinks he’s got her pegged, but Kelly goes and does something even he wouldn’t expect.
She acquires a job at an orthopedic hospital for disabled children and quickly becomes a favorite in the ward. All the kids love her dearly, and she cares for them faithfully. But Griff still thinks she’s working an angle. His mind is closed off, looking for every opportunity to dredge up Kelly’s guilt. He wants to confirm everything he already knows about her, even if it’s not true.
Kelly’s stellar performance catches the eye of town millionaire J.L. Grant, who also happens to be a good friend of Griff’s. She and Grant hit it off on topics such as Lord Byron and Beethoven. Their time together turns into romantic dreamscapes of Venetian waterways.
At the same time, Kelly is extremely sympathetic to her fellow workers supplying money for a woman so she can keep her baby instead of getting an abortion. To naive young Buff, she warns of selling herself out and becoming a Bonbon (“You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife. Why, your world with Candy will become so warped that you’ll hate all men. And you’ll hate yourself! Because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a MENTAL problem!… And a despicable failure as a woman”). It’s in these candid moments where Kelly reveals her scruples, although she’s not above vigilante justice, whether it involves her old pimp or the morally questionable proprietress Candy.
There are strangely peaceful lulls that only make the climactic moments in the film all the more dramatic. Fuller utilizes the children’s song from the hospital wonderfully with the hollow images he juxtaposes on screen. The song reverberates several times as a haunting marker of what Kelly has seen between a little girl and her soon-to-be husband. But that’s over with now. Kelly has deeper troubles to worry about afterward.
The Naked Kiss is a pulpy delight as only Fuller can deliver with twisted natures and deep-seated brokenness. He makes glorified trash which is often times far more engaging than the most polished blockbuster Hollywood can churn out. The seedy exterior almost always gives way to great depth. Even when you step back for a moment, it becomes obvious how implausible this story is. How does Griff not know about his best friend? Yet Fuller plays the drama so well we are completely engrossed.
The social commentary is there. The characters are interesting. Meanwhile, Fuller slices and dices through taboo subjects that would have horrified censors and yet he brings them to the forefront in such a way that hardly glorifies them, but actually gets them out in the open. Every detail isn’t written out, but Fuller throws us into the narrative and allows us to track with him. He puts a little faith in his audience.
Constance Towers’ performance looms large in this film and she reminds me a great deal of Gena Rowlands. Her turn as Kelly is multifaceted and dynamic. Her look of genial charm just as easily turns into an icy gaze of contempt. Furthermore, she, much like Fuller, is willing to go to the streets and acknowledge all the dirt and grime there. She wants to clean it up, and she truly is the hooker with the heart of gold. Only such an easy categorization should not take away from Towers’ role at all. There’s more to her than a look, or a wig, or a body. To paraphrase Grant, she’s the most interesting contradiction I’ve met in some time.