Few films truly embody the B-movie artistry and controversial subject matter of a Samuel Fuller picture like 'The Naked Kiss.' The story of a reformed prostitute working in the pediatric hospital ward of a small, conservative town is pure melodramatic pulp ripped right out of the tabloid pages. Well, not literally, but it sure does feel that way and it's partly the point of the story. The real beauty is in how the independent, low-budget filmmaker confronts social issues from a blatant and honest perspective. Although Fuller's films are clearly fictional in every respect, there's a candid outspokenness in his desire to examine topics that seems curiously inspired by reality.
The plot here is oddly straightforward, but also incredibly bold and unique for a 1964 motion picture. Constance Towers plays the cheeky Kelly, a working girl on the run. When arriving in Grantville, she decides to change occupations by nursing the somber hearts of physically challenged children rather than the libidinous needs of healthy, grown men. It's to the credit of Ms. Towers that these plot points come off as believable, as a change of heart that's been eating away at the character beforehand. Because otherwise, this is just soap-opera sap that's too hard to swallow. As the focus of the film, she does tremendously in winning our sympathies as she does those of the community when needed most.
Making this sudden transformation difficult for her is the local sheriff, Griff (Anthony Eisley), who doesn't trust that such illicit lifestyles are easily given up. Their apprehensive relationship serves as an interesting point of conflict, revealing the scandalous side of suburbia. He not only wants to run her out of town, but he's looking to make a profit by having Kelly work a brothel just on the other side of the state line. Things only become more heated when she falls in love with wealthy philanthropist J.L. Grant (Michael Dante). But this hopeful chance at redemption only proves that Kelly's past will always haunt her while also exposing an even darker, heinous secret of small-town living.
With striking noir-style photography by Stanley Cortez ('The Night of the Hunter'), 'The Naked Kiss' shows a great deal of metaphoric style and creativity with the camera — a Samuel Fuller characteristic which arguably reached its pinnacle in 'The Big Red One' and 'White Dog.' The film's opening scene and credits best exemplify the impressive camerawork, which also happens to be one of its most memorable moments. Without so much as an introduction, we are caught in the middle of a violent fight between a prostitute and her pimp. Once the winner is made clear, we see a head-shaved Kelly fixing her wig and make-up as the title sequence fills the screen.
The entire scene is remarkably effective and marvelous, a shocking beginning for a low-budget drama that's surprisingly entertaining. Although very much up for debate, 'The Naked Kiss' is not exactly Fuller at his finest. Many of his other features such as 'Fixed Bayonets!,' 'White Dog,' or 'The Steel Helmet' are arguably more deserving, worthwhile pictures. But this production in particular, along with 'Shock Corridor,' adequately and satisfyingly displays the lurid, surreal sensationalism with creative camerawork and photography many of his films strive to accomplish. It may ultimately be a plot of melodramatic nonsense, but it’s a seductive and compelling little flick nonetheless.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Naked Kiss' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #18) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Inside, we find a 24-page booklet with pictures and quotes taken from the film. It features a very good essay by Robert Polito, entitled "Fractured Fairy Tales," and an excerpt from Samuel Fuller's autobiography A Third Face called "Want to Be a Lindy?" There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
The accompanying booklet inside the keepcase notes that the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was made from a fine-grain master positive and framed in a 1.75:1 window. Once again, the engineers at Criterion have worked their magic, bringing a decades-old film to Blu-ray with the best possible video presentation.
Fine object and textural details are excellent and resolute for a nearly fifty-year-old film. The picture sometimes looks extraordinary, with amazing definition on clothing and various small household items. Individual hairs are distinct, the lines in drawings and posters hanging on the hospital walls are clear, and facial complexions are wonderfully revealing and lifelike. Contrast and brightness are perfectly balanced with first-rate dynamic range. Whites are sharp and brilliant while the image maintains terrific clarity of background info and clean resolution. Blacks are richly rendered and penetrating, showing remarkable gradational detail, and delineation in the darkest shadows is strong throughout.
Overall, this transfer is a splendid watch in high definition.
For the audio, Criterion has also mastered a 24-bit monaural soundtrack from an optical track and being carefully cleaned up of excess noise. The results, I'm happy to report, are every bit as good as the video, with a DTS-HD Master Audio track that displays excellent acoustical presence.
Dialogue reproduction is crystal-clear and beautifully delivered, with lucid, precise tonal inflections in the voices of actors. There's really not much of a low-end to speak of, but the upper ranges are broad and far-reaching, creating an appreciably spacious and warm soundstage. With clean fidelity detail and strong clarity, this lossless mix of a Sam Fuller classic is marvelous on Blu-ray.
Along with a booklet illustrated by cartoonist Daniel Clowes, The Criterion Collection has put together a nice set of bonus features shared by its DVD counterpart.
'The Naked Kiss' is pretty much just as it's described, a pulp melodrama about a reformed prostitute living in a small-town community. Directed by Samuel Fuller, the film is a strong example of the sort of sensationalism and B-movie material often explored by the filmmaker. It's still an entertaining feature, with a wonderful performance by Constance Towers, beautiful cinematography from Stanley Cortez, and creative camerawork by the director. This Blu-ray edition of the 1964 film from The Criterion Collection displays excellent audio and video, and the supplemental collection is a good mix of interviews. The overall package is great for fans and the curious of inspired low-budget movies.