Elevating what could have been pure cheese into high art, Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss is a pulp-fiction melodrama of the best kind. Fuller's personal brand of gritty, gutsy and overt filmmaking here is in full effect. It's in-your-face, confrontational, and gloriously sappy. We're introduced to our heroine, Kelly, played by Constance Towers, in a well-composed opening sequence of violence. She's swinging madly at her pimp with her purse, the camera lurching and swinging in unison and we, the audience are also jarred by the bald image of her head. After beating him up and taking her hard-earned cash, she gets in front of the mirror and proceeds to put on her wig as if none of this has phased her one bit. Kelly, trying to give up prostitution, moves to a small town and doesn't take long to "befriend" the local cop. She rents a room in a house and gets a job as a medical assistant caring for children at the local hospital and begins to feel like her past is getting further behind her. At the hospital she becomes a local saint of sorts, caring for the children, teaching them life lessons, helping out the other nurses with their personal problems, saving a woman from going down a wayward path. She even meets a well-off man named J. L. Grant, relation to the town's founder, and decides to marry him after a short but intense courtship. Of course, not is all as it appears. Dark secrets are lurking in the shadows of this iconic mainstreet USA.
Fuller and cinematographer Stanley Cortez make great use of shadow and light, bringing contrast to many scenes to heighten the tension and somehow making most sets appear ominous, enhancing the fact that Kelly can never quite escape her past, that things are lurking in the corners. Fuller's oeuvre included film noir, and he incorporates those types of visual flourishes in The Naked Kiss. Fuller was a war veteran and former crime reporter, so he was personally aware of the extremes of human drama. He continually exerted a unique worldview on his films where he gave voice to outsiders, highlighted social issues and hypocrisy through controversial themes, and even tackled racism head-on in Crimson Kimono (1959) and especially White Dog (1982). I've always been fascinated with Fuller's films and consider him a true auteur and master director. His films were always low-budget looking, but filled with personal and intense filmmaking that gave the films an edge. Several visual flourishes really work here, like the opening sequence I mentioned, an imagined gondola ride through Venice, and even a musical number involving the children at the hospital which maintains a restrained balance between the maudlin and the sincere. In The Naked Kiss, the subject matter in the hands of another director could have turned laughable, but Fuller's sense of balance and contrast keeps the film from going too far.
Melodrama when done right can be very entertaining. Sometimes it's talked about in mostly negative terms, but when utilized by a director who understands its impact, it can be used to highlight hypocrisy, challenge repressive ways of thinking, or to heighten emotion beyond that which can be accomplished through realism. Douglas Sirk's films like All That Heaven Allows (1955) are a perfect example of melodrama done artfully and classically. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was another director who utilized melodrama, albeit with a tinge more realism in films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Pedro Almodovar has fully embraced melodrama throughout his career and was most successful in Talk to Her (2002). Fuller takes this type of melodrama to the extremes of taste though by examining the personal life of a prostitute, making her into a heroine of Frank Capra-esque proportions, flaunting conventions and challenging the audience to hold its prejudices at the door.
Constance Towers has a difficult role to play in this film. She's got to be melodramatic, but make us believe we should actually care about her. She's also alternately sweet and vicious, turning on a dime and capable of swift, brutal violence and justice. She cares for the physically impaired children in one scene and beats a brothel owner in another and somehow makes both extremes believable for this character. I think Fuller's script is filled with hammy moments at times, but Towers always comes out looking empowered and in control, never like she's forcing it. In the final 30 minutes of the film, the story takes a surprising and well-timed turn, bringing everything in the plot to a completeness that could not have been accomplished in another way. Sam Fuller manages to always surprise the audience with an honesty and openness that are still refreshing today. His films hold up remarkably well and his influence can still be seen in the films of Quentin Tarantino among others. The Naked Kiss is a supreme example of the power of Fuller's filmmaking.