Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie is one of those that I ended up picking up almost by accident. I have a rental account with Classicflix, which I’ll link and plug but in no way am associated with (for the record). I found it when I was looking for a Netflix alternative, not to replace Netflix but to help augment it. As much as I like Netflix, their back catalog, especially when you get to actual old movies, is just this side of atrocious. They rarely pick up new home video releases of old movies, particularly the new trend for studios to release deep catalog stuff on print-on-demand DVDs.
Classicflix, however, counters this by selling and renting only movies made on or before 1970, with a real focus on the early decades. They’re shockingly comprehensive, and also great about picking up Criterion Blu-Ray releases, something Netflix seems to mostly ignore. As if people want to watch old movies on Blu-Ray. What a crazy idea. Right? Ugh. Either way, I have a one-disk rental plan through them, and for $10 a month it’s a solid deal if you’re interested in obscure movies and get them watched/shipped quickly. They aren’t nearly as fast as Netflix, to be fair, but as a smaller company I wouldn’t expect them to be. Anyway, plug over.
What this intro mostly means is that I watched this movie not because of its status in the Criterion Collection, but mostly because I just wanted to get some noir on Blu on my TV and into my eyeballs, because black and white movies look amazing if you have good transfers. It’s only when I popped in the movie and saw the familiar 3/4 circle logo that I realized that I can never escape this series. No matter how far I run, it’ll pull me right back in again.
The Naked Kiss (1964)
A seedy motel room. A woman swings at the camera, a man reels back from the blow. With no warning, we’re in the middle of a war zone: the beautiful, half dressed Kelly (Constance Towers) beating the hell out of a man who begs her again and again to relent. In the struggle, he reaches for her, and pulls off her wig, revealing a shockingly bald head. When she knocks him to the ground, she reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of cash. She counts out an amount, says ‘All I want is what’s coming to me’, and tosses the rest on top of the reeling body. She stops, composes herself, tugs her wig back into place, and walks out of the room.
The opening of Samuel Fuller’s 1964 The Naked Kiss is a punch in the gut. It’s a noir film made far after the genre had mostly wound down in film, and with a new era comes new sensibilities. There’s not much kindness here, and little decorum. The things that are beautiful are often equally ugly or violent, and nothing is what it initially seems. From that initial scene, The Naked Kiss plants its feet as a movie aware of the tropes and ready to tell its story anyway, a film out of time, two decades too late but angrier due to the long hibernation.
The movie picks back up with Kelly some time later, coming into the idyllic small town of Grantville on the back of a bus. She seems smaller, less ferocious, dressed plainly and with her own head of hair. She parks herself on a bench and goes about her business, planning how to make money as she drifts from one town to another. Grantville isn’t like the others, however, and the town sheriff Griff (Anthony Eisley) quickly spots her as an outsider and picks her up. Griff, the kind to assume first and trust later, identifies her quickly as a prostitute, and when confronted she admits that’s what she used to be, but is trying to reform. Griff, seeing an opportunity, talks her into his bed to keep her out of trouble, and then afterwards points her towards the nearest brothel in the state next door.
Somewhere between the first scene and the scene we see now, however, something has changed in Kelly, and she seems to up and decide not to take his warning, but instead to prove him wrong and show him up for using her. The best way she knows how is to go legit, to stick around and become part of the town, so instead of skipping out on the next bus she gets a room and starts looking for a job in town, all while carefully avoiding the attentions of Griff until it’s too late. Soon enough, she’s working as a nurse at the local hospital, taking care of children, and by the time Griff realizes she never left it’s too late. He can’t out her without admitting the virtuous sheriff took advantage of her before she left, and she’s already become a bit of a town darling, a bright, beautiful new woman of seemingly irreproachable virtue.
It’s as she settles into this idyllic lifestyle that she meets and falls in love with J. L. Grant (Michael Dante), son of the man who founded the town, one of the most popular people in the community, and Griff’s best friend. Kelly, wanting to believe that this fairy tale of a romance can work out, pressures Griff into not revealing her secret to J. L. Griff, believing that a woman like her could never be good enough for someone like J. L., insists that if she doesn’t tell him by the time they get married that she will, and so she brings herself to tell him. Surprisingly, J. L. doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it, and even insists that they go through with the wedding anyway, as he loves her despite her past deviance. All seems well, and Kelly and Griff even come to a sort of agreement to let their animosity go, as the wedding goes forward.
It’s here that the movie has lulled us into a sense of domesticity, a weird idyllic romance and picturesque small town setting that, while not without its bumps, seems totally at odds with the opening scene. In fact, so much time has passed that when I was watching it, I had almost forgotten that was how the movie opened: not with her drifting into town but with a stridently unromantic look at her beating the hell out of a pimp to get her money. But good things never last forever, especially in noir, and this whole life is just a house of cards waiting for the lightest push to topple it over.
Shortly before the wedding, Kelly gets off work early one afternoon and heads over to Grant’s house, letting herself in only to find that he’s not alone. Grant, in his house, with a young girl from town. We never see what they’re doing, but only Kelly’s horrified face as she stands in the doorway, and the girl shyly skipping out of the house before Kelly can react. Before her surprise turns to anger, J. L. tries to circumvent it, pointing out that it shouldn’t be any shock, that the reason he forgave her so easily was that he saw her as a kindred spirit, someone who had tastes and proclivities that the rest of the world couldn’t hope to understand. As he professes his love, one deviant to another, she responds by grabbing the phone receiver and braining him, killing him with the force of her blow.
Griff, happy to arrest her for killing his best friend, locks her away. And suddenly, the whole town is against her, and all her protests as to what J. L. was doing fall on deaf ears. No girl has come forward to admit to being there, and it’s just the word of an outsider woman with a mysterious past versus that of the most beloved son of Grantville. Not only is she under investigation, but quickly people start coming forward as character witnesses against her, friends turning under town pressure and people from her past (including the pimp she beat at the start of the film) finally catching up with her after so much time in one place. It’s the flip side of this small town vision, the gossip and the fear of outsiders, the tendency to pave over the monsters at home in order to present a united front.
And really, this is where The Naked Kiss finally begins to shine. It’s a noir that throws away much of what is held as obvious about the genre, the seedy cities and back alleys. Fuller’s world is one where the real villains aren’t trench-coated killers or gangsters, but smiling faces you see on the street every day. Injustice isn’t meted out via a smoking gun, but the assumptions and attitudes of seemingly normal people who are quick to make judgments that can destroy lives. And the smartest way to subvert noir tropes is to take them all away and show that noir isn’t about the elements, but about the tone. It’s not about the stock characters or harsh lighting, it’s about a world where danger lurks in familiar places and the only way things can go is bad, all the time. And in that respect, The Naked Kiss is a beautiful, perfect noir, the kind of subversion that could never have existed in the heyday of the genre, but smartly not revisionist or derisive of what came before. It’s simply another brilliant entry, with a heart as black as night even in the quiet, brightly lit streets of small town America.