Somewhere along the way, legendary filmmaker Samuel Fuller lost his mind. Perhaps it was the rigors of war, for which he earned a Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart. Or maybe it was being present at the liberation of a death camp in Czechoslovakia, an experience sure to depress even the most hardened combat veteran.
Whatever the cause, something led Sammy boy to believe he could, at the dawn of the 1960s, direct a motion picture, The Naked Kiss, that not only centered on a prostitute, but one that plied her trade without an ounce of regret, adding a dash of cold-blooded murder as if mandated by the heavens.
As if to challenge our expectations that yes, even this lady of the night would have a heart of gold, she first comes to us as a woman unhinged; a braying, spitting, two-fisted dynamo with only the body of her deranged pimp to stand in the way of reinvention. She attacks the very camera itself, panting and heaving as if having just surrendered her soul to the wilds of damnation.
We expect the dope at the other end of her fury warrants the abuse, but we’re cautiously uncertain. And when she relieves him of his cash, only to return all but that which she believes herself to be due, we suspect she might be more than the engine of greedy soullessness so common to the type. Her victim now bloodied and broken, she retrieves the wig lost in the scuffle, adjusts it anew, and sets off to destinations unknown.
Wholly the creation of Mr. Fuller, she’s Kelly (Constance Towers), a seemingly high-end slab of flesh some months removed from the opening barrage, only now she’s just arrived in a new burg, seeking the expected comforts from the usual gentleman callers.
The locals all eye her charms, and sure enough, she’s after a room to rent. Send her to the sweet old seamstress, yes, but first, let a local lawman, Griff, engage her in the sort of small talk required by those for whom protocol demands a dance around the obvious. For the kids and retiring types, Kelly’s peddling a particularly nasty vintage of vino.
For Griff and anyone who has let a bit of dust settle on the old equipment, she’s willing to get naked for a price. In this case, an unspeakably low ten American dollars, which proves that more than just innocence died with President Kennedy. No worn out trick, this one, she’s a refined lover of poetry and the arts, dropping a Goethe reference even in the shadow of coitus. But this cop turned john, even while enjoying the newest member of the community, isn’t about to get sentimental and let his town surrender to sin.
He wants her the hell out of Dodge, only he’s not exactly polite about it. To make matters worse, he asks for some money back from the initial twenty he dropped on the dresser. Now there’s a lot you can ask a hooker to provide in this life — a relatively undamaged vagina, a realistically feigned orgasm, even an ass-up Tarzan yell for your “unmatched” manhood. But goddamn it all, not change. Never change.
Needless to say, being asked to furnish a retroactive discount for ejaculatory ecstasy is just about the easiest way to get a whore to reconsider the life. And though Kelly could have joined forces with Candy, the just-across-state-lines proprietor of the region’s best and brightest bedroom attendants (the most popular being Hatrack, the one on whom “every man wants to hang his fedora”), she’d rather work as a nurse, dammit, even if she hasn’t seen the inside of a school since she was presumably molested by her grade school principal.
But this is Sam Fuller’s world, and Kelly is so loaded down with charisma that she’s hired on the spot by the town’s state-of-the-art clinic for handicapped kids. Sawbuck sluts and reference-free employment with children? Salad days, indeed, this 1963. Expectedly, Kelly is an immediate hit, inspiring the kids with songs and love, though she’s not above a snotty remark whenever a kid assumes he should be praised for walking with his new legs. It’s a tough love only an ex-prostitute can dish out, and she’s soon caught the attention of Grant, the town’s richest, most generous benefactor, who just happens to have his name on the hospital.
A great-grandfather founded the town, and this Grant, rather than resting on his laurels, is all about giving back. That is, when he isn’t molesting the town’s most impressionable children.
Where this demented twist came from only Sammy knows, but I for one appreciated its left field qualities. You see, Fuller doesn’t care a whit for a bad girl gone good; he’d rather use the bad girl to expose the hypocrisies and insanity of small town America.
Fuller’s vision is an utterly cynical one, and it just happened to coincide with the historical record. If there’s a glassy-eyed millionaire who seems unaffected by the sordid details of a whore’s past and wants only to have her hand in marriage, it stands to reason that he’s seeking a partner in crime to bask in the glory of sexual deviance.
While she’s working with the wee ones to help them walk again, he’ll be stealing them away in the night to reverse course and make sure they never do. At least not without a severe limp. He’s a thief of innocence, a purveyor of perversion, and it all makes sense once we learn he harbors a very private obsession with Beethoven.
Wasn’t Kelly aware that while hookers can stop living life in the prone position, they can never really find love, as no one fully sane (or even partially) would ever want to be legally bound to a vagina that’s taken so much abuse? The cop gets that right off the bat, and he alone seems to know that once assigned, societal labels – especially those with negative connotations – can never be changed, lest we set the entire earth spinning off its axis. It’s a law and order thing writ large.
Since Grant likes to have sex with children, not even Fuller is going to keep him around for the third act, as challenging to the Hollywood establishment as he proved to be. Upon returning from the seamstress with her wedding dress (and holding a prized house key, proving she’s truly a keeper), Kelly finds her husband-to-be in the shadows with a young girl, the expected Beethoven blaring on the record player nearby. Eye contact is made, the girl darts away in fear, and Grant soon finds himself the victim of an all-too-justifiable homicide.
Only that’s not the way Griff sees it.
She being a hooker and all, it’s just gotta be murder; maybe for love, more likely for shame, but not because the town’s most prominent job creator prefers intercourse with first graders. Like a good cop, and all cops of the time, he believes that to be rich is to be above suspicion, when Fuller himself (and the audience he so greedily coveted) knew damn well that money often signified little else than an amoral sense of entitlement.
If one can drive fathers and sons into the mines to return nevermore, one can certainly drive a meaty stake through the heart of childhood itself. After all, if he wasn’t fucking them, it’s almost certain he’d be working them to exhaustion. Fuller, having seen death on a worldwide scale, came home to an America cheapened by its own base desires, clapped out by the brutality of its so-called “winners.” How fitting, then, that one of the despised would end the madness, even if she’d be jailed for her heroism.
There, with a smile somehow still intact, was the very girl Kelly saw that fateful day. She alone can save Kelly from a date with the hangman, but she’s unwilling to play ball until Kelly realizes that it’s best not to come at a 7-year-old witness with guns blazing and voice at maximum volume.
With sweet seduction, Kelly then secures the necessary eyewitness testimony, and she’s at last freed from bondage. But upon release, with the townspeople gathered round to thank her for saving the rest of the kiddies from buggery, she turns up her nose and exits. She wants nothing more to do with the sort of place that believes the word of a respected businessman over a scarred prostitute, and she’ll keep riding the rails until she finds just the opposite.
It will be a long journey – much longer than she knows – but it’s hers to make. But this town – where newly minted hookers get pregnant by their first john and abortions are, by my count, at least $1,000 – is strictly rearview. And the very country Fuller finds so abhorrent, that land of buried secrets and punitive norms, is rapidly coming around to the Kelly side of things, even if the prices will never again be that low.