Thursday, February 10, 2005

#18: The Naked Kiss

The Naked Kiss, 1964, written and directed by Samuel Fuller.

I'd heard of Samuel Fuller recently because a restored cut of The Big Red One was in theaters this year. I read the reviews; it's a WWII epic. So I was expecting something up Terence Malick's alley. Man, was I ever wrong. If you're planning on seeing this movie, the less you know the better; not because it's a surprise ending, but because it's the weirdest movie I've ever seen in my life. And I see a lot of movies. I wouldn't want to spoil anyone's slack-jawed disbelief at what's onscreen. So feel free to skip this and just rent the movie.

If you're still here, the opening scene: a woman beats the shit out of an extremely drunk guy with her purse. Jazz plays on the soundtrack, really insane bebop. And she's shot head on, swinging with the shoe; the first shot is her just pulling back and walloping the guy; you can't help but flinch. She's wearing a slip, heels, a strapless bra, and a scarf. Halfway through the fight, he grabs her hair, which all comes off; it's a wig, and her head is shaved. This just makes her madder. So now you have this really angry bald woman beating away at this guy; she knocks him down, sprays him in the face with a seltzer bottle (!), and steals $75 from him. Then she gets dressed and puts her wig back on; the minute she puts it back on, the music changes to weepy strings. Looking into the camera like it's a mirror, she carefully adjusts the wig, combs it, and makes experimental pouts at the camera over the opening credits. Then, the jazz comes back on the soundtrack while she walks over to a wall of photos, takes hers down, and rips it up. And if you think that's weird, you should see the rest of the movie.

The basic story is pretty straightforward. Kelly, the woman from the first scene, is a prostitute. She moves to a small town called Grantville, and after sleeping with a local police officer, decides to go straight. She then falls in love with the most prominent guy in town, much to the dismay of the cop, who's good friends with the guy. So far, this could be a late-fifties weeper. But the devil's in the really, really, really bizarre details. Kelly doesn't just go straight, she gets a job as a nurse at a local hospital for handicapped children. And she dresses them all up like pirates, for some reason. And teaches them to sing. Teaches them to sing Cab Calloway's "Little Child,"1 to be precise. So about an hour into the movie, you get a full-on musical number, starring a multiracial group of eight-year-olds in crutches and leg braces. Sample lyric: "Tell me where is the bluebird of happiness found?" And remember, they're all wearing pirate hats. I'm not kidding about this, it's really in the movie.

What else is in the movie:

  • An old woman who talks to a dressmaker's doll that she's dressed in her long-dead fiancĂ©'s military uniform. She calls him "Charlie." And he's in the credits: "'Charlie'...Himself."

  • A brothel called "Candy's," where the girls are called "Bon-bons," and a sign above the bar reads "Sweets Guarantee Indescribable Pleasure."

  • Unwanted pregnancy.

  • Child molestation.

  • A whole lot of Beethoven on the soundtrack, and a guy who has a Schroeder-style bust of Beethoven up above his reel-to-reel tape player.

  • The following line of dialogue, spoken without a trace of irony:
    I see myself by moonlight, by the lake of the Siene, in a boat wandering through a leafy alley, and Beethoven's hands playing the Moonlight Sonata. He carved that sonata out of moonlight.

So as you can see, Samuel Fuller is not the most understated writer you'll ever run across. The closest thing to the feel of this movie that I'm familiar with is David Lynch. Not too surprisingly, Lynch stole from Fuller; that brothel called Candy's shows up in Twin Peaks as "One Eyed Jacks," down to the design of the place. It's not theft, it's homage!


  • A recurring theme in coverage of Johnny Carson's recent death was that Carson gave kids the idea that adulthood was cool, and slightly mysterious; that at his height, he was an emblem of a certain kind of adult world that no longer exists. (Now, the meme goes, adults act like kids. I certainly do. I think it has to do with not wearing suits to work, or drinking every night, or being drafted). Anyway, this movie has that kind of adult in it, and that kind of adult dialogue. Some of it is nearly as good as Billy Wilder, but not quite. My favorite line; the cop to the prostitute: "You and me will get along like noise and a hangover." Nearly as good, Kelly saying that all she had to look forward to in life was "the buck, the bed, and the bottle."

  • There's a scene in this movie where Kelly makes Candy, the madame, eat $25 she'd offered to a local girl to get her to work in her brothel. Whacks her in the head with that deadly purse from the first scene, and shoves it in her mouth; leaves her with a mouth full of bills. (Her line is, "Ten. Ten. And five! Now you stay away from Bunny!") I'm going to steal that idea; I'm amazed I haven't seen it in more movies. Especially given the number of Se7en rip-offs that pride themselves on creative revenge. Anyway, in this movie, it works like gangbusters.

The next movie I'll be seeing is Shock Corridor, also by Samuel Fuller. He's insane! I can't wait.

1This song is actually referred to by any number of names. It's been called "The Little Child (Mon Enfant)," "The Little Boy and the Old Man," "Mommy Dear," "Daddy Dear"... and so on. Best reference ever: Tony Danza apparently had his daughter record a version, and then told Pat Sajak about it. See, the more I try to learn about The Naked Kiss, the deeper down the rabbit hole I go. To find out more, go here (the Who's The Boss Resource page, of course!) and search for "Bluebird." Googling monkeys forever!


Anonymous said...

Crazy flick. And don't forget Kelly's odd pronunciation of Goethe. What a weird film....

Matthew Dessem said...

Yeah, nothing else like this movie in the world.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Matt. Greetings from your neck of the woods. In West Hollywood for a few days R & R. I jotted this down on the flight.

Samuel Fuller, in an interview that I found online, said, “It’s easy to set a pictorial mood, to fill an alley up with shadows and ash cans and black cats. I prefer to focus on something sinister at the edge of a beautiful playground.” Ergo, The Naked Kiss, father (as you note) to Twin Peaks, and grandfather to Desperate Housewives.

Fuller’s is a brash voice, so it’s a little surprising that he didn’t go for the ash cans and black cats. Still, there’s nothing very subtle going on in his version of Wisteria Lane. It’s all broad strokes. But he doesn’t seem to be completely in control of his material. It’s a mish-mash of sloppy technique (jump-cuts that make no sense thematically, wildly uneven caliber of performances, jarring transitions) with moments of great beauty (a noir shot of Constance Towers in profile behind bars) and effectiveness (that amazing opening).

Constance Towers, with her slightly haggard good looks, is believable as the prostitute, Kelly, although there’s only so much anyone could do with some of the dialogue she was handed. “Angel Foam goes down like liquid gold and comes up like slow dynamite.” I think we all present different faces to the world depending on circumstances, and I liked how Kelly embodies so many different female archetypes in the course of this film: saint, whore, mother, bride-to-be, friend, caretaker. But she’s at her shocking best when she’s bludgeoning an adversary with a stiletto pump, a purse or the telephone.

I’ve got to say, I loved the opening sequence. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve described it to since I first saw it. But then you’ve got that god-awful musical number with the multi-racial cast of crippled children. (Although this did put me in mind of Constance Towers’ definitive performance as Anna, singing “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Getting to Know You,” to all her charges in The King and I opposite Yul Brynner in the 1977 Broadway revival.) As it turns out, that’s what I enjoyed most about this one: not knowing what to expect next.

Tom said...

Have you had a chance to see the reissue of these? I just watched the blu-ray, and pictorially, it's a world of difference. Also, Constance Towers is still remarkably good looking and entirely with it, to judge from the excellent interview with her.

I was thinking about the movie in noir terms, and I think if you look at it as an early post-noir, there are some interesting things to get out- Kelly comes from a very noirish, inner city world, and thinks she has found something cleaner and better in the suburbs. She falls in love with the town and the man who represents the town. And then, the pedophilia.

Obviously, the idea is that the rot noirs always attribute to urban alienation and moral decay is out there in the clean little towns, too- Kelly's out of the noir world, and good riddance to it, but the world outside of that's just as fucked up. It's an interesting comparison to the semi-noirish Blue Velvet, in that light.

Matthew Dessem said...

John B.,

I love the musical number. Nothing else like it in cinema. Thank God.

Matthew Dessem said...


Interesting idea, that Kelly is fleeing noir; you're on to something there. I haven't seen the new release but very much would like to; I felt like this one could use some context.

deanepuddle said...

Best line:
"Nobody shoves dirty money in my mouth."

Manish said...

excellent write up. I came across this movie randomly on hulu. the description and the sexy title interested me but the opening scene had me glued to the screen. Bizarre, wonderful, with fun dialogue, fierce performances, great score/cinematography. I can't wait to buy the blu-ray though it doesn't have a commentary