Samuel Fuller was a maverick in Hollywood even before he left the studios and struck out in a series of independent, low-budget productions in the late 1950s. But with the freedom afforded him outside the studio system, combined with the challenges of working on smaller budgets and tighter schedules and his own tabloid journalist and pulp fiction instincts, Fuller’s filmmaking became downright jagged and jarring and confrontational in films like Verboten!, Underworld U.S.A. and Shock Corridor. These were critical portraits of American hypocrisy and social injustice within lurid pulp stories and Fuller turned familiar genres–the war movie, the gangster film, the detective story–inside out with a mix of searing social commentary and startling cinematic devices that would be picked up by the directors of the French New Wave. The Naked Kiss is arguably the most aggressively defiant film of his career.
Fuller opens the film by literally battering the audience to attention: a furious woman (Constance Towers) assaults the camera head-on, with reverse shots revealing the man on the other end of the blows. She’s a prostitute, he’s her pimp and as her wig slips off, we get a startling image that explains her fury. Fuller knows how to begin a movie, to be sure, but he also immediately tells the audience exactly what kind of world our mad-as-hell heroine lives in. Two year later, Kelly (Towers) arrives in a small town with a luxurious head of blonde hair, a smart suit and a monogrammed suitcase: the wares of a traveling sales woman hawking California champagne, which local cop Griff (Anthony Eisely) see right through. She’s a pro and he happily pays her fee and samples her wares before booting her out of town. But instead of heading across the river (where the local bordello, Candy’s, is allowed to operate and apparently gets many of its referrals from Griff) she remakes herself as the angel of the children’s ward of an orthopedic hospital, a tough-but-tender nurse who runs her ward like a pirate ship and mother hen to the young candy stripers struggling in the face of all the pain and suffering around them. Beloved by all (except Griff, who thinks she’s just working an angle), Kelly wooed by the town millionaire Grant (Michael Dante), the generous, cultured scion of the town’s founding father. Then she discovers his “secret” (“We’re both abnormal,” he smiles, attempting to equate her past with his sickness) and is arrested for murder.