B&W, 1964, 90m.
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Starring Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey, Patsy Kelly
Criterion (Blu-Ray/DVD) (US R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), VCI (US R1 NTSC), Wild Side (France R2 PAL)

Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock may have perfected the art of transforming trashy pulp into cinematic art in Touch of Evil and Psycho, but Samuel Fuller managed to build an entire career by pulling the same trick over and over again. Not every title scored a direct hit, but when he was on, few could match him. While most of his films are definitely on the macho side before The Naked Kiss, with this film he focuses on a female protagonist howling against the hypocritical forces around her without compromising an ounce of his directorial voice.

In one of the most notorious opening scenes in '60s filmdom, we meet our heroine, Kelly (Towers), repeatedly bashing her pimp over the head with a purse before he rips off her wig, revealing a bald head. She keeps wailing at him and violently sprays him with a seltzer water bottle for good measure for taking the seventy-five dollars he has that's coming to her. After growing her hair back out, Kelly's relocated some time later to a town called Grantville where she plies her wares as a champagne "salesgirl" and finds out that her latest john, Griff (The Wasp Woman's Eisley), is actually a cop who wants her to stop going freelance and instead work for local madam Candy (Grey) whose stable of busty "bonbons" includes a very young, pre-Russ Meyer Edy Williams as "Hatrack." Instead of signing on, Kelly decides to go straight (after shoving a wad of bills in Candy's mouth in a scene that could've influenced Tenebrae) by becoming a nurse tending to handicapped children; then she lands a very respectable beau, J.L. Grant (Dante), who just seems too good to be true and has a weirdly androgynous face that should have sent off a billion alarm bells in Kelly's head. Sure enough, she's in for one huge, nasty surprise that rips the entire facade of propriety off the town and kicks off a scandal that might put her away forever.

< Bizarre beyond words, The Naked Kiss is a fast, clever, and incredibly sordid film that might be impossible to decipher for non-cinephiles. The hard-bitten dialogue, nutty plot twists, and completely unexpected schmaltzy musical number (a dealbreaker for more than a few viewers) involving all the hospitalized kids in pirate outfits are all pure oddball Fuller territory; however, the line separating this from riotously awful films like Valley of the Dolls and Showgirls is so thin you might not even be able to see the difference. No matter how you approach it, though, The Naked Kiss is an outrageously good time and indisuptably the work of a fearless filmmaker firing on all cylinders.

Criterion has been a champion of this film for years since the early days of laserdisc when this became one of their earliest titles out of the gate. (Home Vision also issued a VHS version around the same time.) In 1998 they ported the title over to DVD in a non-anamorphic transfer with only the trailer. VCI chipped in later with two versions, an open matte full frame version and a much later 2007 anamorphic version with a Dante video interview, audio of him chatting with Towers, and a Fuller TV episode of Dark Stranger. A French version with non-English supplements was also released in 2005.

Considering the visual appearance of every DVD edition was nothing to get too excited about, Criterion's 2011 Blu-Ray version had to be an improvement almost by default. Fortunately it turns out to be a huge, huge upgrade in every respect; the film looks absolutely crisp and fresh throughout, with razor-sharp detail even in the farthest recesses of the city street scenes. The darker scenes benefit tremendously as well as the constrast improvements and boost in clarity allow viewers to make out far more of what's going on, especially in the pivotal revelation scene when Kelly comes home before her wedding. You can click on any of the frame grabs here for an uncompressed look, which should be enough to convince any doubters. All the extras here are excellent, especially a new 2007 interview with the still-elegant Towers and Charles Dennis. They cover a hefty amount of ground here, including a funny tie-in to her appearance onstage opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I and the reason behind her bizarre, intentional(?) mispronunciation of Goethe in an early scene with Eisley. A 1983 episode of Britain's South Bank Show devoted to Fuller is also included (with some other studio's film clips excised for copyright reasons) and features considerable input from the late director himself, while the earlier French program Cinéastes de notre temps (mostly in English with printed French subs) and the much later Cinéma Cinémas feature Fuller addressing his European following, which is still far more fervent than the one in America. The trailer is also included along with a very well-written set of liner notes by Robert Polito (augmented with passages from Fuller's autobiography); like their companion release of Shock Corridor, it also features striking, colorful cover art that should win some kind of award. Considering this film was ignored and considered utter trash before the home video era (at least in America), it's remarkable to see how far it's climbed in popular esteem. Thankfully, Criterion's marvelous HD rendering should only propel it higher.