Judge Gordon Sullivan has a lot of little silver wrappers lying around.
"I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That's what I saw."—Kelly
Samuel Fuller might be the quintessential mid-century American auteur, his only competition being Nicholas Ray. He arrived for the latter part of the careers of Hollywood's Golden Age (John Ford and Howard Hawks) and reached the pinnacle of his achievements as a director just as the New Hollywood guys (Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola) were coming in. In fact, his pioneering work with independent producers helped inspire those up-and-coming directors (especially Scorsese). One of those breakthrough films was The Naked Kiss, the kind of film that would never have made it past the first script reader at a major studio. Despite its sometimes lurid subject matter and low-budget feel, The Naked Kiss is a triumph of independent filmmaking and totally earns its second Criterion release. This time, the film gets a hi-def upgrade and a few more extras that provide a solid supplement to an already interesting film.
Facts of the Case
As The Naked Kiss opens, a pimp is being beaten by prostitute Kelly (Constance Towers, Shock Corridor). She's beaten him because he stiffed her on payments, but she only takes the seventy-five dollars she's owed. Knowing that he'll be after her, she heads out to ply her trade in smaller towns. Two years later, she arrives in Grantsville, and her first customer is the town sheriff, Griff (Anthony Eisley). After their tryst, he tells her to hoof it across the river to the house of a madame he knows. Instead, she decides to go straight and becomes a nurse attempting to rehabilitate handicapped children. She eventually runs into the town's most famous scion, Grant himself (Michael Dante, Willard), and the pair fall in love. However, everything is not as it seems in the idyllic little town, and Kelly will learn just how deep the town's resentments run.
Much of the idea of the director as auteur, or author, of his films came out because consistent themes and stylistic elements could be seen across the work of a single director despite different scripts and crews. Hitchcock became known for suspense (and his obvious dis-ease with women) and Ford for dealing with the legacy of America through the West, but Sam Fuller is one of the few auteurs whose obsession was today, the right now. His most famous films (Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor) challenge viewers to deal with some contemporary issue. Naked Kiss is no different, displaying a healthy number of Sam Fuller trademarks:
• The Issue. The Naked Kiss is about a former prostitute. More importantly, it's about a good woman who happens to be a prostitute, and the film makes the audience confront the fact that this is not a contradiction. Although she's a "reformed" prostitute, Kelly doesn't fit the "hooker with a heart of gold" stereotype. Instead, she's a woman who wants to find love just like every other person in the town. It sure as heck seems like a more realistic and timely portrayal of prostitution than something like Pretty Woman. Also, prostitution might be the main issue here, but Fuller isn't above getting a few digs in at small town life and the secrets it's willing to overlook.
• The Pulp/Tabloid Style. Fuller started out as a journalist, and the deadline lifestyle doesn't just inform his choice of subject matter. No, everything about The Naked Kiss has the immediate, spare sense of the best kind of journalism. The town is evoked in a few moments, as the town sheriff pays out of his own pocket to send a troublemaker out of his jurisdiction. Also, like any good journalist, Fuller shows both sides. For every hypocrite like the sheriff (taking Kelly's wares but refusing her a place in the town), there's someone like the local seamstress Kelly ends up renting a room from. Finally, for all the luridness of his subject matter, for all the force of his indictment of society, Fuller still wants to tell a human story about real people, and with The Naked Kiss he succeeds.
• The War. Fuller is famous for having served with the Army during World War II, and a number of his films dealt with war. Although The Naked Kiss ostensibly has nothing to do with the military, there are still a number of poignant scenes where it is evoked. The room that Kelly rents was supposed to go to "Charlie," who was killed in the war, and Charlie's presence is signified by a tailor's dummy with medals on its chest. There are also evidence that Grant saved Griff at least once while they were both serving, so despite the small-town setting, The Naked Kiss can't escape the realities of war.
This is the second time that Criterion has brought The Naked Kiss to home video. The first was an early effort (spine number 18), and although it was fine for its time, the disc was beginning to show its age. For this release they've gone back to create a new hi-def transfer that's AVC encoded. It looks pretty spectacular, especially for a low-budget film of this vintage. Contrast and black levels are consistent throughout and detail is generally strong. On the negative side, there is still some print damage, and some scenes are definitely soft (though it's hard to judge if that is intentional or not). The audio is similarly strong, despite the limitations of age. The LPCM mono track keeps dialogue clear, and the sometimes jazzy musical numbers are surprisingly free of hiss and distortion.
Extras are expanded from the original disc, and generally take the form of interviews. There's a new interview between star Constance Towers conducted by Charles Dennis, and two different interviews with Fuller from French television. There are also excerpts from an episode of The South Bank Show dedicated to Fuller. The film's trailer is included as well. Finally, the usual Criterion booklet includes an insightful essay by Robert Polito and an excerpt from Fuller's autobiography.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Naked Kiss is capital-M Melodrama. When Kelly steps off the bus into Grantville, we see her stocking-clad leg emerge from the door of the bus accompanied by a jazzy score with its sweltering horn line. Like his contemporary Nick Ray, Fuller was telling pulpy, melodramatic stories while trying get at a personal vision. Those not willing to suffer through "big" moments—outsized emotions, violent reactions—should probably stay clear of The Naked Kiss.
The Naked Kiss is an amazing historical artifact, way ahead of its time in style and subject matter, able to maintain a frightening relevance almost 50 years later. Criterion has graciously decided to upgrade their previous release of the film, and along with an excellent hi-def upgrade have thrown in enough new extras to entice Fuller fans further. It's pretty safe to say that the old disc is worth retiring, if only to acquire the fantastic new cover art by cartoonist Daniel Clowes.
Far from a broken down piece of machinery, The Naked Kiss is not guilty.
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