It’s impossible to analyze a Sam Fuller movie. So they say, anyway: David Thompson believes that “the question of whether or not he’s a good filmmaker ultimately doesn’t matter so much,” Andrew Sarris believes that “Fuller’s ideas are undoubtedly too broad and over-simplified for any serious analysis, but it is the artistic force with which his ideas are expressed that makes his career so fascinating,” and all over the critical world you’ll find accusations of being “tasteless,” “unsubtle,” “primal,” and “primitive”. Fuller’s films bypass the mind and go straight to the soul.
Surely The Naked Kiss is the least subtle thing he’s ever made then? The opening shot of this film literally beats the viewer over the head. A woman we don’t yet know beats a man who we’ll never know over the head with a suitcase, and we’re given his point of view; the very first image we get is Constance Towers angrily looking into our eyes and pummeling us. Fuller’s montage also assaults the viewer, frantically cutting between her POV, his POV, and a wide shot to emphasize the destruction, all while frantic jazz music plays in the background, as her clothes and her wig fall off. It seems like such a non sequitur opening, and yet this scene gives us all the context we need: Kelly worked for this unsavory drunk, has taken only the $75 that’s coming to her, and leaves to start a new life away from her bad influences. After this first scene we may be disoriented, but we are never in doubt about Kelly, her past, and her path.
Though Sam Fuller’s moodiness, his violence, and his chaotic ethos carry through his filmography, his films weren’t often maximalist — they were primal and sensual to the point of minimalism. You could mistake Pickup on South Street or I Shot Jesse James for Budd Boetticher films if they were a bit more pleasant. There is an economy to his shooting and editing. Andrew Sarris describes Jesse James as having “no room for even one establishing shot or anything suggesting normal human behaviour,” and a similar method is used in The Naked Kiss, which is comprised mostly of shockingly direct close-ups and frantic edits, which juxtapose images and scenes as rapidly as tones and moods. The Naked Kiss is a film about disorientation, but it is never dissonant.
Are there really no themes to this film? Are there really no deeper messages to be found in its cocktail of moods and tones? The story rings a couple bells. Kelly is on the run from her past, settling down into a small town to become a nurse for children and the wife to the town’s founding patriarch. She’s only able to do it after she convinces the chief of police. But just before the marriage occurs, Kelly catches her fiancé with a child, discovers that he’s a molester, and kills him. She’s imprisoned for this and must find the child who he’s victimized in order to free herself from prison. It’s a lurid story, full of death and sex and kisses, naked and clothed. Fuller used to be a crime writer before he was a film writer, and that approach informs the way the story proceeds. We get crime after crime, headline after headline, and at the end we find out who died, who went to jail, and who was exonerated.
This plot may be provocative, but it is never regressive. Kelly is not able to succeed by marrying the patriarch, shunning her sexy past, and convincing the chief of police that she’s an upstanding woman who deserves a normal life. She almost succeeds at this but suddenly becomes aware of the dark truth, that the patriarch of the small town is no different than her pimp. A standard narrative would end right where this film’s third act begins, where Kelly is framed for his murder, and only by talking to the victims of his crimes, listening to them, and empathizing with them, looking deep into their eyes (as Fuller’s camera often does), can we ensure that the guilty are imprisoned and the innocent are exonerated. Just like the child who escaped, Kelly is guilty of nothing. By realizing her innocence, that it is always the fault of the victimizer and never the fault of the victim, she escapes prison. Of course, she escapes more than one prison.
The film is not about the guilt of a woman but the guilt of a town, the first of many dark American dramas about the dark truth at the heart of the American small town. It recalls Blue Velvet in many ways, especially its tone. Pickup on South Street and I Shot Jesse James might share the minimalist, brutalist filmmaking sensibility of a Bresson or a Boetticher, but The Naked Kiss is proto-Lynchian. It’s most obvious in this scene. The children sing into the camera. Constance plays the role of their surrogate mother. The close-ups, looking straight into the camera while a record plays, recall the opening scene, but it’s frighteningly pleasant, not a dark undertone to be found. Lynch’s spirit of optimism, his euphoria, is anticipated in this scene, the calm before the storm, before we learn what’s really going on with these kids. This is what I mean when I say Fuller’s films go straight to the soul.
That opening, so devoid of normal human behaviour, with no room for an establishing shot, isn’t subtle, but that’s not to say it’s shallow. The themes go straight from the surface to the core, bypassing sociology because of how immediately they pierce the mind. Fuller’s entire thesis, plot, form, and theme alike, rests in the way he frames Kelly. In this opening she violently assaults the viewer (who shares the POV of her pimp), and her wig falls off, but in the very next moment, in a shot clear as day, she fixes up her look in the mirror. There’s no artifice to either of these portrayals of her. Kelly is sometimes violent, assertive, abrasive, “badass” if you’ll forgive the tastelessness, but she is never masculine. We can think of this film as a prequel to Nymphomaniac and Elle, all films about the stereotypes of womanhood.
Nymphomaniac’s Joe and Elle’s Michelle embody many of those negative stereotypes, in ways that turn Joe more masculine (as masculine as her name) and turn Michelle into a force of nature. Constance is distinct, not just from those two protagonists, but from the whole of female characters in cinema: she defies the stereotypes of femininity without ever ceasing to be feminine. Disorienting, but not dissonant. She is an ex-prostitute but she is never waifish and she makes sure her past does not follow her. She is fulfilled by middle class American life, but she is not shallow. She cares about money, and is successful at making it, but she is not materialistic. She is incredibly capable but never a “Mary Sue,” whatever that term means anymore. She is tender and caring towards children, and while another filmmaker would play this for irony, that the prostitute is kinder to the children than the man who is a pillar to the community, Fuller never does. He sees it as just another lurid detail, another vicious truth.
Fuller never frames Kelly as an object; even when she’s imprisoned she gets her own close-ups. This is just as much Fuller’s achievement as Towers’: a combined takedown of every feminine stereotype possible. This film opens with a directed, full-on assault on the male gaze itself, brutally murders the male patriarch of the American small town, and ends with a question of whether the next generation, themselves victims, will preserve it and become their own oppressors. Of course they did preserve oppression. We can’t tear down a thousands-year-old societal construct with a single B-movie. But if any filmmaker is bold enough to try, it’s Fuller. And now that we’re more aware than ever that our patriarchs are so often guilty of horrible abuse, it’s time we revisit this film, and learn from it. Fuller is not primitive, nor is he unsubtle, nor is he tasteless. His films go straight to the soul, without checking with the brain first.
P.S. At the moment, the entire film is on Youtube.