Wednesday 22 March 2017

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Writer: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante and Virginia Grey

Index: 2017 Centennials.

One of the most consistently overlooked filmmakers in American movie history is Sam Fuller. I first learned about him on a British TV show called Moviedrome, presented by Alex Cox, the director of cult films like Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Cox programmed two of Fuller’s films in a double bill: a western called Run of the Arrow and a war picture called Verboten! Both were low budget, although there were many actors that I recognised. What struck me then was what strikes me now whenever I see another Sam Fuller film, namely that he does a lot with a little and that lot includes things that we aren’t conditioned to expect from American movies. His most controversial pictures came later, like this one, as well as its predecessor, Shock Corridor, also starring Constance Towers, and White Dog, but he stretched taboos early and often in ways that don’t always seem controversial today. For instance, he often wrote films about marginalised characters, such as thieves or prostitutes, and films that featured multicultural casts.

I’d seen The Naked Kiss before and, when I started to look for a good choice to remember the career of Virginia Grey on what would have been her one hundredth birthday, it came quickly to mind. Any opportunity to watch a Sam Fuller picture is a good one and I was keen on taking a second run through this one to see what I’d missed a decade and change ago. One thing I discovered was that Grey isn’t in it anywhere near as much as I remembered her being, but the scenes that she does have are memorable and superbly performed with a great deal of power. She’s easily the best actor in the movie, even if she’s billed fourth after Towers in the lead and Anthony Eisley and Michael Dante in support. She plays a madam called Candy, who runs a cathouse called Candy à la Carte with a selection of Bon Bon Girls. How her part interacts with the film as a whole mirrors its moral progression and the film has no point unless it progresses morally and we notice that.

The Naked Kiss begins as we expect Sam Fuller movies to begin, namely with a bang. This is 1964 but we’re watching a woman beat up a man to a dramatic jazz score. She’s Kelly, who is dressed, or perhaps undressed, in a bra and skirt, high heels and a scarf. Oh, and a wig, as we discover when he pulls it off her to show a completely bald head. She takes $75 from his wallet, that she tells him is due to her, but leaves the rest of his substantial wad of cash. As she’s keen on telling him, she’s not robbing him blind. Then she fixes her wig and make-up in his mirror and leaves town, with him unconscious on the floor behind her. She’s a prostitute and he’s her pimp. We discover much later that his name is Farlunde and he holds a grudge. After he ripped her off, she got six of his girls to leave his stable, so he spiked her drink, cut off her hair and... well, we just saw the rest, as much as we can for a 1964 picture. It has to suffice that we’re told that the word was out in the underground to throw acid in her face.

And so we’re not set to see Kelly as our hero, when she arrives in a new town three years later. Towers really looks the part. She has a nice ass for one thing, but it’s much more than that. She’s smiling like she doesn’t know what happy is, but she’s seeking it. She’s also younger than she looks, as if she was was a beautiful girl once but times have been hard on her. Sometimes it seems that she’s winning her fight against her past and she looks good for it but, at other times, she’s older and her bone structure takes over from her skin, reminding of how she looks today in her twentieth year on General Hospital. How much is make-up and how much her, I have no idea, but it works. Her first day in Grantville is cleverly built, as she turns a trick for the local police chief without ever crossing a line to say that she’s doing it for the money. She’s selling Angel Foam, you see, a line of champagne at $10 a bottle. He recommends Candy’s, on the other side of the river in a different town. She’s ‘a personal friend of mine.... tell her I sent you.’
For some reason, however, Kelly doesn’t do that. While we’re never given a reason and she may not know one herself, she decides to quit. She rents a room from Josephine, a local seamstress, who doesn’t need a character reference from Kelly because she trusts her face. She finds work at the Grantville Orthopaedic Medical Center, which caters to all handicapped children, regardless of their circumstances. She even finds a romantic connection, with J. L. Grant, whose great-great-grandfather founded the town and who’s keen on keeping up the good work. He built the hospital where she works, for a start. If all this sounds too good to be true, I should point out two things. One is that it’s supposed to, shot mostly in soft focus, not enough to be a dream sequence but just right for an afternoon Movie of the Week. The other is that it actually is and Griff, the outwardly decent, cathouse-frequenting police chief, is a constant reminder that a town might look perfect on the outside but harbour horrendous secrets on the inside.

I’d love to be able to talk about the grand reveal, which is rather shocking for 1964, even though it’s handled in a magnificent way that shows nothing but tells everything. However, I don’t dare, because it’s one of the better hidden grand twists of American film. What I will say is that Kelly’s newfound success in Grantville falls apart completely in a single evening. One hour, she’s engaged to society’s most eligible bachelor with the respect of a whole town behind her as a marvel with the children; the next, she’s locked up in one of Griff’s cells, facing serious charges and serious questions from a man who knows her history better than anyone. This is fantastic from a dramatic standpoint, of course, but it’s also the point where we sit back and re-evaluate everything we’ve seen up until now. Why did Fuller show us what he did and in the way that he did? Why do people respond to this bombshell dropping the way that they do? The answers are like a textbook of how to build a character when that character is an entire town.
And that’s the point here. It’s like Fuller took the 1950s, turned them over and showed us their rancid underbelly, which is rather topical given how many politicians today seem to want to wind back the clock and take us back to that decade. And, perhaps most controversially, Fuller gives us an out, a heart and a conscience that show us the way forward, but he gives it to us in the form of a retired prostitute. Most brutal of all is the very last scene, in which Kelly walks through the people of Grantville to leave the town, presumably forever. I can imagine whole articles written about this scene, what it means and what’s going on inside the heads of everyone there. It’s a tough ending and many will want a different one, perhaps including me, but I think it’s the right one for the film. It throws a whole new question at us to ponder on, after giving us so many others throughout. Another of the characteristics of Sam Fuller’s movies is that every one I watch suddenly feels like it’s his best.

I’ve talked a lot here about Kelly because she’s the unlikely Christ figure at the heart of the movie, but there are other people here worthy of mention. For most of the film, I wouldn’t add her male co-stars to that list, but they really are well cast and do what they need to do. The key moment for Eisley as Captain Griff is the key moment for the film, when Kelly is locked up. He’s manoeuvered wildly throughout the film between wanting Kelly and wanting Kelly gone completely. He’s jealous not only of his personal friend, J. L. Grant, for landing her, but of her too for being a better person than he is. It’s when he’s forced to face that that he comes alive and we see the change. Michael Dante, always a smouldering shadow of a man, is similarly off, as the personification of the town, until we realise why and then everything comes into focus. Neither of them are at terms with who they are, unlike someone with as much vibrant character as Mac, the head nurse at the children’s hospital, whom Patsy Kelly plays with a real joie de vivre.
And then there’s Candy and her Bon Bon Girls. This is late in Virginia Grey’s career and she was literally born to it, arriving in this world in Edendale, the home of most major film studios at the time, including Keystone, where her father, Ray Grey, worked as an actor and director. No less a name than Gloria Swanson, also a Keystone alumnus, was one of her early babysitters. She even began her film career as a child, playing Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1927, though her early parts were generally uncredited because she’d focused on school. Perhaps inevitably, she returned to the film industry, signing with MGM, where she played many small roles in big films like Test Pilot and Idiot’s Delight, both of which starred a star with whom she’d have an on/off relationship for years, Clark Gable. After the tragic death of his third wife, Carole Lombard, in 1942, Gable and Grey were often seen in public together; it was a surprise to many when he married another in 1949. Grey’s friends say that this was why she never married, a rarity in Hollywood.

Arguably her career got most interesting after she left MGM in 1942, even if her most interesting work was often in B-movies like House of Horrors, Swamp Fire or Jungle Jim. in the fifties, she worked for producer Ross Hunter in soap operas such as All That Heaven Allows, The Restless Years and Back Street; that working relationship continued until Airport (her last feature), The Lives of Jenny Dolan and the mini-series of Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, both on TV in the seventies. This is hardly her usual sort of role, but she’s resonant. She hires her Bon Bon Girls for looks rather than brains, but Candy herself is sharp and elegant. I was impressed by how she doesn’t attempt to hide her age but smiles because she knows she doesn’t need to. She’s caught off guard by Kelly at one point but ensures that she’s firmly composed as she wreaks her revenge in blistering style. She’s a hard as nails bitch who we know will do whatever it takes but she’s still able to find a believable softness, even if it’s just for show.
There are other interesting actors here too, with similarly long-running histories in Hollywood. Miss Josephine is played by Betty Bronson, two films away from the end of a career that began over forty years earlier in 1922. She made surprisingly few films for a silent movie star, but they included playing Mary in Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and the title character in 1924’s Peter Pan, the movie that changed her life. She was chosen for that role personally by the author, J. M. Barrie, and her performance led to her being the first crush of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who became smitten. Perhaps at the other end of the spectrum is Hatrack, one of Candy’s Bon Bon Girls, so named because everyone wants to hang their fedora on her. She’s suitably sexy and she’s sultry beyond belief, but as dumb as a sackful of rocks. She’s Edy Williams and, six years later, she married Russ Meyer, having starred in his Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Seven Seconds. She’s still a regular at the Academy Awards today, renowned for her revealing outfits.

If Grey outshines the three actors billed ahead of her, she’s still an actor in a film that resonates mostly for its script. It’s shot with the same coarse style that most of the actors utilise in their work and it sounds good, even with a particularly soporific song at two separate moments in the film (and for very good reason), but it’s really all about Fuller’s script. It initially seems rather loose until the twist hits and everything turns, at which point we have to re-evaluate everything that went before. A second viewing is almost required here, not to make sense of the movie because it’s hardly obtuse but to understand just how deep this goes in its character assassination of small town America. Similarly, it can easily flow past us if we don’t pay enough attention, especially now, over half a century on, but, even after it’s gone, there’s something left in the air that won’t leave us alone and we realise just what Fuller did and how controversial this really was in 1964. Check it out, along with anything else you can find with Fuller’s name on it.

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