Postwar cinema was plenty country, and more than enough rock n’ roll. But whether we’re talking The Egg and I or High School Confidential, the drive-in era’s depiction of the effects of urban hangover upon idyllic small-town Americana invariably revealed a wounded but upright oasis of morality, if only because you couldn’t expect the Big City’s fashionable crime to trickle down for at least a decade. Speaking of being ahead of the curve, noir films stood out among their dated contemporaries like pure hip-hop. And Samuel Fuller’s fizzy, wigged-out 1964 masterpiece The Naked Kiss drops it from frame one, with Constance Towers purse-smacking a P.O.V. shot, brandishing a seltzer bottle and upbraiding her pimp, slapping him in the kisser with her smart handbag until he, flailing, snatches the wig from her newly shaved head. She grabs the dough she’s owed and not one buck more, gives him one last shot and collects her broken looks in a mirror (another P.O.V. shot, this time stabilized and centered where the previous series was marked by blurred motion and an unseaworthy axis point).
As my Slant colleague Fernando F. Croce pointed out, Fuller once reckoned a movie ought to grab you with its first scene. And by “grab you,” I mean your dick, shocking it into turgidity and priming you for the remaining volatile good time. Few other first scenes give head as good as that of Naked Kiss, but Fuller’s fierce prologue is only an appetizer for the lengths he gets his audience to swallow when his reformed ho Kelly tries to hoist up her stockings and reach for anonymity in the rural wild. The movie flashes forward a few years and down about 98 percentage points with the Census Bureau to a town that, if asked, would pride itself on its anonymous interchangeability. While at first the ‘tude would seem characteristic of a populace petrified of loose women, fast money, and ethnicity (and, indeed, the town’s police chief Griff scopes Kelly out in a hot second, sleeps with her, and then tells her his town’s got no room for her kind), the presence of Candy’s Place, where ginger-snapping, gum-smacking bimbos recreate Le Jazz Hot in pseudo-Terra Haute, just across the river goes to show that iniquity is only intolerable insofar as it can be seen with a bored housewife’s set of binoculars.
Kelly’s cover story arriving in town is that she’s peddling a new brand of champagne from out of her suitcase, a concoction called Angel Foam. After being used and insulted by Griff and seduced by his best friend Grant (Euro-sensitive ooze poured into the plastic shell of hunky masculinity), she decides to practice what her bargain bubbly promises, getting a job as a pediatric nurse at the town’s hospital for disfigured children. Why? Because, as Jerri Blank would later explain, the works fell out years ago. (No detail is too spicy for the veteran yellow journalist Fuller, and no scene in his oeuvre attains quite the out-of-context thrill of a salacious pull-quote quite like his be-crutched, pirate-hatted rugrat chorus backing up Kelly in a performance of “Mommy Dear.” Imagine Big Bird’s “Bluebird of Happiness” dropped somewhere in the third reel of Godard’s Weekend.)
Befitting the movie’s vibrant crosspollination of film noir and women’s weepies, Kelly’s Peyton Place dreams of domestic fulfillment are harshly derailed, and The Naked Kiss begins to grow positively feral as she uncovers the town’s perverse, thriving criminal underbelly. She and Fuller come to the conclusion that even being a two-bit, big-city tramp is nobler than living anywhere that has a Main Street. It’s Sirk-on-a-shoestring, and twice as cynical.
One of the first couple dozen discs released by Criterion, The Naked Kiss was not one of their finer efforts. In fact, it may count as one of their worst, from the days when an "interactive menu" (meaning a static screen you could select "play" and "chapters" from) was considered a bonus feature. Whereas the original DVD version was a non-anamorphic transfer of a somewhat beaten-up
pimp print, Criterion's version 2.0 looks stunning in widescreen. The contrasts of cinematographer Stanley Cortez's shots are formidable, and the framing (now 1.75:1 compared to the first disc's 1.66:1) is tighter than the skirts on Candy's treats. The sound is also a noticeable improvement, with the monaural strains of "Mommy Dear" sounding a good deal less shrill than I remember from the old disc.
The gleefully lurid theatrical trailer that was the original set's only bonus feature returns here, and is now joined by a good hour-and-a-half worth of interview footage with Constance Towers and Samuel Fuller. You know what you're getting from the three separate excerpts of Fuller in full fettle. Be it in 1967 on French TV or in 1983 on The South Bank Show, no one touts his own horn like Fuller. Towers, on the other hand, is winningly modest in her newly recorded half-hour chat, in which she remembers fondly her experiences slapping Virginia Grey and the fact that it took her father a full six weeks before he could bring himself to see his daughter play a brassy prostitute on the big screen. A critical commentary track would've been nice, but the printed essay from Robert Polito and snips from Fuller's autobiography make up the difference.
No one slaps the f-stop out of pimps like Constance Towers!