Everything about The Naked Kiss screams "tabloid" and the film certainly begins with a bang, if not an alright assault on the audience. Kelly (the gutsy and indefatigable Constance Towers, who had played in John Ford's The Horse Soldiers and Sergeant Rutledge and been featured in Fuller's previous film Shock Corridor*), a prostitute, from the opening frame is advancing on the camera, swinging her hand-bag as loud caustic jazz blares in the background, beating up her drunken pimp for holding money out on her.
The jerk is knocked flat-unconscious, but not before Kelly, in her exertions, has the wigged ripped off from her head revealing a shaved head—why will be revealed later. With the guy on the floor, she grabs his wallet, snatches "only what she's owed"—$75.00—stuffs it into her bra and gives the guy a final kick for good measure.
She then goes to the mirror, and as the credits roll over the view, she sets her wig back on her head, realigns it, and meticulously reapplies her make-up until she's satisfied, as romantic music swells in the background and she calms down. Pleased with her image in the mirror, she smiles and leaves.
Yee-owtch. What a way to start a movie. The visual pyrotechnics don't get any wilder for the rest of the film's running time, but, throughout, Fuller will be turning small-town soap-opera of the Douglas Sirk-directed variety on it's follicle-less head, veering into areas that make the travails of alcoholism and infidelity in the Sirk movies look like much ado about nothing which, given the way Fuller hated Sirk's direction of his 1949 screenplay Shockproof, it probably is.
It's a couple years later and Kelly arrives by bus to the on-the-surface perfect little burg of Grantville. It's perfect because of police like Griff (Anthony Eisley)—another "Griff' in a Fuller story— who happens to notice her arrival at the bus station because he's busy shipping out a JD who's causing too much trouble in town. Rather than having to deal with the kid, he gives him a bus-ticket and a way out of the jurisdiction. But, it's not so perfect that Griff doesn't notice Kelly the moment she steps off the bus and sniffs out that she's a hooker and helps himself to partaking of the goods—she is, after all, posing as a cheap champagne salesman (for the censors)—and after an evening at his place, he gives her the card for a local cat-house (" a salon, and I don't mean a beauty parlor")...across the river out of town. Cheaper than a bus ticket.That's not good enough for Kelly, though—she's not the sort of woman who'll be pushed to the sidelines, or, for that matter, around. Nor will she let first impressions determine her destiny. Instead, she'll fight against them. She rents a room from a sweet old landlady and takes on a decent job as a nurse-therapist for crippled kids at the local children's hospital run by the town scion, J.L. Grant (Michael Dante). She runs her ward with an overlay of fantasy, with all the kids as pirates and her the captain. She doesn't allow for self-pity. She doesn't allow for doubt. She gives the kids marching orders and she expects them to march...some day.
She has a reputation for being tough, but committed, dedicated. But, the reputation doesn't know the half of it. She also makes herself the unasked-for caretaker of the nurses at the ward: she counsels a pregnant nurse; she watches in horror as Nurse Buff (Marie Deveraux), who is given money by the madam of the cat-house—the Candy Ala Carte—(Virginia Grey) to become one of the girls and convinces her to stay at the hospital and not take the easy money ("You'll turn into a block of ice. You'll be every man's wife-in-law, but no man's wife. .you'll hate all men and you'll hate yourself...because you'll become a social problem, a medical problem, a mental problem...and a despicable failure as a woman") Not leaving it at that, she goes to the Candy Ala Carte, confronts Candy in the back-room, gives a quick beating with her hand-bag and stuffs the money Candy used to coerce Buff with in her mouth. Keep the change.
Then, at a party, she meets the town's benefactor, Grant. He's attracted. She's attracted—he's smart, rich, debonair, handsome, a man of the world, and a man of great generosity. A benefactor. She falls hard and allows herself the fantasy that she might be able to settle down with Grant. But, Griff sees what's happening and doesn't approve; Grant's his friend...and he's the town's favorite son and bank-roll. He tells Kelly that that's it. She's out and if she doesn't get on the next bus out, he'll tell Grant (who, innocently, has asked Griff to be best man at their wedding). But, she won't be blackmailed; in front of Griff, she phones Grant and tells him about her sordid past.
But, instead of being shocked, instead of calling everything off, he becomes more committed than ever. Of course, he'll marry her. He loves her. He doesn't care. What a guy! Griff turns around and agrees to be best man.Kelly couldn't be happier. It looks like everything is going to turn out just fine.
Sure, it is. "Denial's not just a river in Egypt, honey." Maybe, she's looking too much into the future to see the past, but just the fact that Grant is so accepting of her past should have set off alarm-bells. It certainly does in the audience; this is almost too good to be true. So, of course, there has to be something more to it than Grant's just a forgiving guy in love. And there is. And it goes to the very core of Grantville, looking picture-postcard perfect on the outside, but harboring secrets of such a sordid nature that it threatens the very fabric of the town. Before it's over, there will be a murder, with Kelly accused of it, and a fight for the soul of the town with truth on one side and sanctimoniously hypocritical self-interested lies on the other. With Kelly caught in the middle.
Maybe The Naked Kiss is Fuller's answer to the more fashionable, "tony" films that Douglas Sirk was making over at Universal during the 1950's, which gussied up social problems, or the economical caste system of the United States, and then just glossed them over with a conveniently opportune solution in a re-write, allowing for an ending that can be matched with swelling strings and triumphant horns. There's nothing triumphant to The Naked Kiss. Exoneration, maybe. But, the real triumph, like Fuller had it in The Big Red One, is surviving. Surviving enough to be able to walk away.
* Towers' villainess role on "General Hospital" was finally killed off in 2017 after 20 years. She's still working at 85. Bless her.