Another pulpy noirish overheated delight from Samuel Fuller, this story of Johnny, a reporter (Peter Breck), going undercover at a mental institution to solve a murder probably bears little relation to the current state of either profession, but as a piece of filmmaking it’s punchy and bold. Johnny uses his sceptical exotic dancer girlfriend (Constance Towers) and the help of some willing psychiatrists to coach him in a story about incest that gets him admitted to the instutition, and once there he seeks out the three witnesses to the murder, but in the process loses his mind under the intense pressure of both his fellow inmates, and, more to the point, the ‘treatment’ delivered by the hospital. It’s all rather hysterical, but Fuller was always a torn-from-the-headlines kind of filmmaker, and he engineers some boldly expressionist scenes that use the starkly-contrasted black-and-white images of DoP Stanley Cortez to good effect. It’s a lurid tale about the malaise at the heart of early-1960s America, in particular marshalling through the three mental patients a history of racial unease and building nuclear tensions, and it remains a fascinating reflection of its world.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller | Cinematographer Stanley Cortez | Starring Peter Breck, Constance Towers | Length 101 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 15 March 2015)
Samuel Fuller has a bold range of punchy features and this particular entry from 1964 seems to fall at the tail end of the film noir movement. Stylistically, it feels of a piece with those spare stories of embattled dames and grizzled guys, in highly contrasted black-and-white (excellent camerwork from Stanley Cortez here). The dame is Kelly, played by the imposing Constance Towers, who’s trying to chuck in a life of prostitution to go straight as a nurse at a hospital for disabled children. Her antagonist is local police chief Captain Griff (Anthony Eisley), who was her last client and as a result thinks he has some special understanding of her motivations, and that he can see through what he thinks of as her act. However, the wonder of the film is that it’s on side with Kelly, who may have had a tough life but is genuinely trying to change and has to continually deal with judgemental crap from the men in town, which she largely takes in stride with a unswerving commitment to her own lack of shame in her past. The treatment of the disabled kids is warmly empathetic and inclusive, even if some of the hospital conditions seem rather of their era. It’s the details of the police investigations in the film’s last third which are rather more difficult to believe (whereby the jailed person gets to question their own accusers in the course of an investigation, leading to a memorable scene of Kelly shaking a young girl to elicit some information she wants). There’s also a plot involving a local magnate and a young girl which could have been ripped from recent headlines over here in the UK (even if the depiction of it is understandably oblique). The Naked Kiss is a film with a lot to recommend it, but it’s the performance from Towers which makes the film so compulsively watchable.
Criterion Extras: There’s a recent interview with Towers, who talks with fondness about her role in the film, but far more compelling is the footage of the director from 1967 and 1987 French documentaries and a 1983 episode of British TV series The South Bank Show, permanently munching on a cigar, and sounding off about his approach to filmmaking. He actually has plenty of interest to say about his process and his interests, and a bit where he mocks the gentility of most filmmaking and contrasts it with what he prefers to see on screen, is particularly memorable. Also, there’s the striking cover art by Daniel Clowes.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller | Cinematographer Stanley Cortez | Starring Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, September 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 8 February 2015)