Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Are You Ready to Get "Naked?"

Tired of the same old crime dramas or tormented romances? Bored with predictable, run-of-the-mill stories? How about a bald prostitute beating a man senseless with her purse until he's on the floor, then spritzing him in the face with a soda water dispenser?! And that's just the opening scene... If that sounds in any way intriguing, there is plenty more to see in today's featured film, The Naked Kiss (1964.)

Produced, written and directed by maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller, The Naked Kiss is a fascinatingly unusual and surprising sort of movie. It's got an almost “Twilight Zone Meets Peyton Place” vibe to it as it nestles a few very atypical people into a highly typical setting.
As I mentioned above, the movie opens with a flailing man being mercilessly pounded by a clench-jawed, angry woman (Constance Towers) whose wig is snatched off to reveal a totally bald pate. After walloping him to the ground, she hoses him off with club soda and then rolls him for $70.00. Note, she doesn't take all his money, just what she feels is coming to her.
Next, she reassembles her snaggled and bedraggled wig atop her head and smooths it out the bet she can while the credits roll.
When we meet this gal next, two years have passed and she's a shapely blonde, dressed in a form-fitting suit and just arriving in Grantville, a small town in which she appears to be stopping in order to sell her wares (“Angel Foam” champagne.)
The local police chief (Anthony Eisley) isn't buying her champagne or her story, at first anyway, as well he shouldn't. She's only using the champagne scheme as a cover for her real occupation as a call girl!

Thing is, it turns out he's not above trying out some of her bubbly himself and swiftly does so. However, once the fizz is gone from their momentary tryst, he wants her to high-tail it out of town. Grantville is (allegedly!) too clean a town for her kind.
He suggests she cross the river (and the state line) to a cat house he frequents and get a job there. After he leaves for work, Towers goes to fix herself in the mirror and winds up taking a good hard look at herself. Realizing that her days as a hooker are numbered, she faces the hard truth that maybe it's time she switched gears.

As she's strolling through town, she spies a charming house with a (pleasant, as the sign says!) room for rent. She meets the landlady (Betty Bronson), who is quickly taken with her, and decides to stay on in Grantville.

Bronson is a spinster who keeps a dress form in her spare room dressed up like her long-dead fiance, calling him “Charlie.” Later, during Towers' unpacking, Bronson chatters on about a local hospital for handicapped children and Towers suddenly gets the notion that she could turn her life around by working there.
Eisley, after a brief stretch, decides to go looking for his one night stand Towers over at the aforementioned cat house. Candy's is a rather sweet place for a whorehouse, with all the gals serving bon bons in their revealing attire. 

(One of the good time gals is curvaceous Edy Williams, queen of many exploitation movies of the '60s and '70s.) This “clever” establishment is run by a madam named Candy, of course! (Virginia Grey essays this role.)
Eisley is stunned to hear that Towers never made her way there for employ-ment, but is in fact working as an occupational therapist over at the children's hospital! He shows up at the facility and is given a walk-through by Head Nurse Patsy Kelly.

Kelly raves about the fine work being done by Towers and soon we witness her iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach to healing. She takes a young boy to task for not applying himself properly, but then rewards him with affection when he does.

Eisley's not sold, however, and wants her out of his town. He marvels at the fact that a prostitute has moved in with “the town virgin,” though Towers swears her life as a call girl is behind her for good. She is adamant about staying on and helping these children.

Towers dreams of the kids being happy and healthy, envisioning them in her mind running and playing outside with ease instead of hobbling around on their crutches and artificial limbs. It's notable, too, that in her dreams, she is far more fresh and girlish than what we've seen thus far, intimating that by helping the children, she's ultimately helping herself.

There's an elegant party thrown for one J.L. Grant, the scion of the man who founded Grantville, who is just back in town after an extended trip to Europe. The rich, handsome gentleman (Michael Dante) has gifts for everyone, all chosen from various places on his journey.
Kelly brings her new friend Towers, done up to the nines in a slender satin gown, to the party where Dante is instantly attracted to her. Fortunately, he has a spare present for her, a piece of Venetian glass that has more than a little phallic suggestion to it!
Trouble is, Dante's best friend is none other than Towers' newest adversary, Eisley. Eisley cannot believe it that his best friend is suddenly falling madly for a woman he knows is a former prostitute! He still wants her out of the picture, regardless of what the other townspeople think (and they all adore her immensely.)

Why do they adore her? Well, apart from her work with the children, she's become something of a guardian angel to a couple of her fellow nurses. One, Karen Conrad, has gone and gotten herself knocked up. Towers gives her a wad of money, not so that she can have an abortion, but so that she will have the financial stability to proceed with having the child (and, with luck, the hubby to go with it.)
Another nurse, Marie Devereux, has gotten the idea that she should flee the hospital and switch gears to be a bon bon girl over at the cat house! Borrowing one of Towers' gowns, she goes there, wins over madam Grey and is given a (gasp!) $25.00 advance in anticipation of her employment at Candy's.

We learn quick that just because she's gone small town nursie-poo, Towers is still a force to be reckoned with. She decks herself out in black, heads to the cat house and confronts Grey. 
She starts beating down Grey with her purse just like in the first scene (in a sequence that injured Grey's jaw in real life!) and proceeds to take two tens and a five and cram them into Grey's lipstick-stained mouth!!
Towers is eventually deeply involved with the good-looking Dante. They enjoy listening to classical music together. He entices her with the promise of a trip to Venice, Italy and her mind drifts to visions of them lovingly winding through the famed canals of the city in a romantic gondola.
This fantasy segues to the occasion of their first kiss and she is momentarily startled. She's languidly lying on a sofa as this dreamboat closes in for the title event, but there's something “off” about it. Convincing herself that it's nothing, she continues to see him.
She knows, however, that there is a major impediment to their bliss – her past – and she decides that she has to come clean with Dante or everything will eventually be spoiled. Agonizing over it all, she works up the courage to admit her former occupation to him. To her relief, Dante accepts her, baggage and all, and he proposes marriage.
She is unable to answer him, though, until she thinks it all through, which she does that night. Drinking from the glandular goblet he gifted her with and spilling her guts to “Charlie,” she opts to go ahead and attempt a happy life with this once-in-a-lifetime dreamboat.
Eisley, though, has no intention of standing for it. He confronts Towers at the hospital and threatens to expose her sordid history to her new fiance. However, he is surprised to find out that Towers has already beaten him to it and she finally convinces him to back off and leave her to her newfound happy life.

A show is being put together by Towers and all the little crippled children and, in what is surely one of the most surreal moments of a surreal movie, they are seen and heard singing a halting, heartfelt, hilarious rendition of “Little Child.”

It's rather startling to see this unusual, excruciating for many folks, sequence, especially in a Sam Fuller film, as the director was known for his gritty approach to movie-making. The children's expressions are priceless throughout, though anyone who had trouble with the kids in An Affair to Remember (1957) will likely be scrambling for the remote during this!

With landlady Bronson's help, Towers fashions a lovely wedding dress and veil and darts off, against superstitious Bronson's advice, to show the gown to her betrothed.

As she enters the mansion, she can't immediately locate Dante, though there is music playing (a reel-to-reel tape of “Little Child” that Dante made during rehearsal.) Just as she turns it off, she spins around to see the unthinkable. 

Her gorgeous fiance, the pillar of the town, is involved in an unspeak-able crime! (I'm not going to reveal the crime, though it may be known to some of you already and not that difficult to figure out for others.) Fuller lets the actors' faces – especially their eyes – tell the story as we zoom in on some terrific close-ups.

Towers listens in horror as Dante attempts to convince her that they can still marry since she is a degenerate just like him. Their sordid defects compliment one another and they can be happy together! “Paradise,” in fact. This is too much to bear for the reformed Towers and she grabs a heavy telephone receiver, letting him have it across the head.

Now, our girl is being held on murder charges. The most revered citizen of the town has been slain by its most popular new resident. People begin to crawl out of the woodwork to either help or hinder her case. The nurses she helped try their best to aid her while Grey spins a phony tale that will do her in.

We also meet the man who felt her wrath in the opening scene. He tells his side of the story which is at odds with the one Towers offers in her defense (and we finally get an answer regarding that bald head she was sporting at the start of the movie!)

Only one person, a quasi-witness who was on the premises prior to her killing of Dante, can help her, but it will take a miracle to find that person and get him or her to give any useful evidence that will help her case...

Cigar-chomping director Fuller was a colorful character who worked as a crime reporter, a pulp novelist and was a decorated army veteran. His films were tough for their time and contained vivid subject matter that got viewers' attention. He was known for his efficiency in the face of a low budget and also prided himself on personal integrity in his life and work.

Sadly, his 1981 feature White Dog, was inappropriately and misguidedly deemed racist by pressure groups who threatened boycotts if it was released. It was shelved, later seeing an edited release to cable TV the next year. This, for a man who'd spent his career willfully integrating his films with blacks in non-stereotypical roles and furthering racial harmony any way he could, was too much for him to bear and he moved to France where he remained, never making another American film. He died in 1997 of natural causes at age eighty-five, eleven years before White Dog was released uncut on DVD to near universal acclaim.

Towers had intended to become an opera singer until a role in musical theatre led her in a different direction. Apart from extensive stage credits in which she played the lead in Guys and Dolls, The Sound of Music and, notably, The King and I opposite Yul Brynner, among others, she also worked twice for John Ford in The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960.) Fuller effectively cast her against type twice, first in Shock Corridor (1963) and then in this film. This is probably her finest hour as actress.
Afterwards, however, her work lie chiefly on the stage or on TV, with notable success in the daytime soap operas Capitol (1982-1987) and General Hospital (between 2000 and 2014.) One of those ladies who simply got better and better looking with age, she has enjoyed a successful second marriage to actor-turned-diplomat John Gavin from 1974 on. Her relationship with him has led to work with several charitable endeavors over the years. She is currently eighty-one.

Eisley (who more often sported a mustache) began working on TV in 1952 and as a Warner Brothers contract player he was put through his paces on many programs. He starred on Hawaiian Eye from 1959-1963, but left to explore other things, one of them being The Naked Kiss, though his against-type characterization didn't end up leading to many more movie roles.

He continued to work heavily on TV (with a recurring stint on The F.B.I. over the course of nearly a decade) and the occasional movie (with an eventual descent into a few low-rent horror and exploitation flicks.) For a while in the early-'80s, he worked on Capitol with Towers again. He retired after forty years in the biz in 1991. heart failure claimed him in 2003 at age seventy-eight.

Dante, a strapping 6'2” hunk, had intended to play professional baseball, but was bit by the acting bug instead. He began with bit roles in major movies and frequent TV guest parts before working in Henry Hathaway's Seven Thieves with Rod Steiger and Joan Collins (shown below.) His role in The Naked Kiss may have lent a creep factor to him where casting directors were concerned though he continued to work here and there.
He had a recurring role on the TV series Custer (1967) as Crazy Horse (Dante frequently played Indians during his career), but earned a spot in the cult TV arena when he was cast in an episode of Star Trek as Maab, one of an alien race of fierce warriors (who nonetheless have long, blond ponytails jutting from their heads!) His acting career came to a practical end in the late-'80s, though he still appears at sci-fi conventions. He is eighty-three today.
This represented a little bit nastier a role for Miss Grey than some of the best friend/sister/ secretary roles she'd been playing at this point in her career. It is likely that she relished the chance to break out a little bit, though that blow to the face from Towers (which Grey had encouraged as a bid towards realism) was a unwelcome side effect (and God knows needle-thin Grey wasn't someone who could afford to miss a meal due to a sore mouth!) She passed away in 2004 of heart failure at age eighty-seven, having enjoyed a half-century long acting career.

Like Grey, Kelly worked in movies and on TV for half a century, though Kelly had started in Vaudeville as a preteen. An admitted lesbian (when such a thing was unheard of), her character name here was “Mac!” She played many comic roles over the course of her career, several of them in later years for Disney, but also scored on Broadway, winning a Tony for No, No Nanette in 1973 and being nominated again for Irene in 1973. She died of cancer in 1981 at the age of seventy-one.

The gals playing Towers' nurse friends had pretty brief movie careers, though both worked in Shock Corridor before this. Devereux, the one who nearly became a call girl, had the more extensive resume with a few Hammer Films under her belt and a role in 1961's The Mark, with Stuart Whitman. Interestingly, she also served as Elizabeth Taylor's stand-in during the arduous filming of Cleopatra (1963), which ought to have provided some tales! Conrad, the one who became impregnated, hadn't made any movies prior to Corridor and both ladies left screen acting altogether after this film.

What a treat to see Miss Bronson here. As a teenager, she'd been personally selected by J.M. Barrie (beating out such competitors as Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson) to be the first cinematic Peter Pan (1924) and it caused a tidal wave of fame and publicity. The following year she played Mary in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ and worked regularly until her marriage and retirement in 1933. in the mid-'50s, she began to accept some small TV and movie parts, working until the year of her death (1971) of a lingering illness at only age sixty-four.

The Naked Kiss is a melange of things, funny and serious, campy and condemning. In its examination and searing indictment of the public's regard for public figures (the town's most revered citizen is rotten to the core while its most hardworking do-gooder is an ex-prostie), it was ahead of its time. Not all viewers were ready to face their own hypocrisy when it came to some of the subjects presented in the movie. It does, however, provide a fair amount of entertainment when viewed today, for both right and wrong reasons.
As is often the case, the foreign poster for the movie is so much better, offering up a pulp-novel type of art montage that is right in line with Fuller's type of storytelling.
Likewise, this Mexican lobby card shows more of Dante's furry chest than ever appears anywhere in the movie itself.
Here's a better look at that. You're welcome!

The film is enjoyably unconventional and artistic in its presentation, thanks to Fuller's creativity on a budget. See what you think the next time it airs!