In his Life Studies poem “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” Robert Lowell wrote of “free-lancing out along the razor’s edge,” a lean, glamorous, tense phrasing that invokes the Samuel Fuller of the early sixties—a director suddenly without a studio home, or even a solid production company of his own, an itinerant storyteller concocting yarns for various inconstant producers—as well as the doomed and damaged people at the center of the pair of delirious, audacious films he still insisted on then making: reporter Johnny Barrett and his stripper girlfriend, Cathy, in Shock Corridor (1963); and the triangle of Grantville police captain Griff, prostitute Kelly, and Grant, the handsome, philanthropic scion of the mill town’s baronial founder, in The Naked Kiss (1964). This was the season of James Meredith’s graduation from the University of Mississippi, self-immolating Buddhist monks, an army coup in Saigon, the nuclear test-ban treaty, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, the arrest of Christine Keeler in the Profumo scandal, John F. Kennedy’s assassination—and Fuller’s new movies veered along a charged stylistic continuum midway between Bob Dylan’s pointed “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and Andy Warhol’s lurid Death and Disaster canvases of race riots, electric chairs, and car wrecks.
As Fuller’s stories dug into a social world thick with issues and history—race, the Civil War, the bomb, communism, the Korean War, class, mental hospitals, handicapped children, money, hypocrisy, sex—they also appeared to rise whole from a private fever dream. When, in The Naked Kiss, Kelly (Constance Towers) flounces off a Greyhound bus with her monogrammed baggage, what’s playing at the Grantville cinema? Shock Corridor. As Kelly and Griff (Anthony Eisley) seduce each other in the park, what paperback novel is she pretending to read? Fuller’s own The Dark Page. The director always inclined to trace his cinematic themes back to his investigations as a journalist on New York’s Park Row, but any documentary instincts ultimately atomized into phantasmagoria.
Critic Manny Farber, Fuller’s sharpest, orneriest advocate, once described his own prose style as “a struggle to remain faithful to the transitory, multisuggestive complication of a movie image and/or negative space,” indicating that he aimed to write as if from inside the shifting moments of a film. In these two sixties movies, Fuller similarly hustles overtime to implicate viewers in the axial, innermost experiences of his characters, making us feel as disoriented as they do. Recall the retrospective hallucinations of the witnesses to Sloan’s murder, Stuart, Trent, and Boden, for instance, and Johnny’s climactic breakdown, in Shock Corridor. The ferocious assault on Farlunde (Monte Mansfield) at the start of The Naked Kiss—Kelly swinging her handbag at the camera as she beats her procurer—vertiginously collapses any grounded point of view, interior and exterior recurrently exchanging places, much as the fanciful honeymoon of Kelly and Grant (Michael Dante) is set at once in a Venetian gondola and on a Grantville sofa, autumn leaves falling on them implausibly either way.
More than Shockproof, the 1949 film Fuller cowrote for Douglas Sirk, The Naked Kiss intuits a Sirkian female melodrama—at least a Sirkian female melodrama as recast by Russ Meyer and Rainer Werner Fassbinder into a minimalistic, noirish fairy tale. Everything here is concentrated, iconic: the beautiful stranger of lowly American origins, enigmatic past, and higher purposes (“Lord Byron,” Kelly whispers to Grant. “My favorite poet”); the rich playboy, soaked in old money and European culture (“Would you like to visit where Byron wrote many of his favorite sonnets?” Grant responds); and the small-town hypocrisy, decadence oozing at the edges (“Now, there’s nothing personal, muffin,” Griff clarifies for Kelly after sleeping with her for ten dollars. “If I let you set up shop in this neighborhood, the people would chop me like a ripe banana”). By tracking Kelly’s dreams of self-transformation out of prostitution into a job ministering to crippled children at the Orthopedic Medical Center and her engagement to Grant, Fuller casually, relentlessly smokes out the secret codes. “What I wanted was the whole concept of a caste system,” he recalled in an interview. “The irony was, a woman who has struggled finds what she thinks is happiness, the whole nine yards, then finds out it’s all a lie.”
Fuller tagged this “something of a film noir situation”—and the crux of noir (whether crime, western, or war) for Fuller mostly was a dumb show of knowledge and self-knowledge: who knows what when? Griff proves another in the volatile lineage of powerful Fuller males who only slenderly grasp their own motives—from Bob Ford in I Shot Jesse James (1949) through his near namesake Parole Officer Griff Marat in Shockproof, Private O’Meara in Run of the Arrow (1957), and Tolly Devlin in Underworld U.S.A. (1961). When Griff tries to check up on Kelly among the stable of tempting “Bonbons” across the river at Candy à la Carte—“Sweets Guarantee Indescribable Pleasure”—is he acting out of professional duty or jonesing for her? When he threatens to expose her to Grant, is he thinking about his friend or his hazy, furtive feelings? Griff can wax metaphorical as though channeling a lost Robert Johnson song—she’s “enough to make a bulldog bust its chain”—and then wisecrack double entendres like a soft-core Thin Man: “I’m pretty good at popping the cork if the vintage is right.” Griff mirrors the tough, compromised, yet also generous aspects of Kelly. We initially encounter him helping a troubled teenager escape Grantville—exactly the sort of cold-eyed assistance Kelly will later provide Buff and Dusty.
From the outset, Grant, who saved Griff’s life in Korea, sounds a dreamy, vampirish tone, a medley of off-kilter aphorisms—“A sweetheart is a bottle of wine. A wife is a wine bottle”—and bland, predatory flattery: “Kelly, you baffle me. Intellect is seldom a feature of physical beauty, and that makes you a remarkable woman.” The moment in Grant’s parlor when he meets Kelly isn’t so much love at first sight as it is a desperate recognition scene. He instantly perceives her yearnings for a better, different life. As Kelly once upon a time told Griff of the Moonlight Sonata, “My favorite . . . I see myself on a boat when I hear that . . . A boat on a lake in the moonlight and leaves lazily falling on me,” now Grant plays Beethoven for her, echoing her fantasies with his own. “I see myself by moonlight on the Lake of Lucerne,” he says, “in a boat, wandering through a leafy alley in a garden . . . and Beethoven’s hands playing the Moonlight Sonata.”
Kelly confides to Griff late in The Naked Kiss that she can’t have a child. As she enters and exits Grantville amid baby carriages, Fuller over and over insinuates motherhood into Kelly’s elusive, self-transcendent desires. When Buff wishes to be a Bonbon, Kelly warns her, “You’ll hate yourself, because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a mental problem, and a despicable failure as a woman.” A story about an old man and a swan that turns into a boy that she dramatizes in the hospital roots her wounded identification with the crippled children, Angel Face, Tim, and Kip.
So the old man told me if I pretended hard enough, I could play games with the little boy. I pretended hard enough, and all of a sudden, I was playing all kinds of games with the little boy. And do you know who that little boy was? Kip . . . And we ran, and we played on the grass . . .
She will reflect back on this metamorphosis of swan to boy and handicapped to healthy as she weighs Grant’s marriage proposal—“We girls are always chasing dreams. But why shouldn’t I have a right to catch mine?” And Griff, finally, will tip Kelly’s ornate illusions into tawdry nightmare when he instructs her on how to treat the girl, Bunny, who can back up her story about why she murdered Grant:
Pretend you had a baby. Pretend that child in the next room is your little girl. Be gentle with her. Make her trust you, like you. Talk to her as you would to your own child, not as Kelly, but as a mother. Give it a try?
For the quickie novelization of The Naked Kiss Fuller published with Belmont Books, he brutally disambiguated Griff’s message still further—“Talk to her as you would to your own child . . . not as Kelly the whore, but as Kelly the mother.” The song Kelly teaches her young choral group at the hospital, and then hears again on Grant’s reel-to-reel when she discovers her fiancé with little Bunny, pivots on the plangent question “Tell me why, Mommy, dear, are there tears in your eyes?”
Throughout The Naked Kiss, Fuller, by way of cinematographer Stanley Cortez, editor Jerome Thoms, and composer Paul Dunlap, enacts a rhythm of seedy versus tender scenes, until romantic and corrupt, cute and vicious are synonymous. Even at the finish, when Kelly walks out of the jailhouse a cherished and celebrated woman, free now to launch her new life, why—if those hundreds of Grantville mothers who have gathered outside intend only to thank her on behalf of their children, and urge her to stay in town—why do they stand like a lynch mob, or look like aspirants for Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers?
Robert Polito’s most recent books are the poetry collection Hollywood & God and Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber.