Samuel fuller’s the naked kiss as a tragedy
Samuel Fuller’s 1964 film noir The Naked Kiss is a tragic story because it shows the misfortunes of a former prostitute trying to escape from her past. Though she seems to succeed in the respectable world, she is undone by the weaknesses of others and by her town’s own corruption and hypocrisy regarding her fiancé, its richest man and perhaps most depraved citizen.
The film’s praxis – the heart of the tragedy – arrives somewhat surprisingly, because Fuller misleads the viewer into thinking that Griff, the sheriff, will be her undoing because he knows her past and refuses to accept her. Instead, it occurs when Kelly discovers that Grant (her fiancé and the town’s leading citizen) is a pedophile who proposed to her only because he considered her equally depraved and would thus tolerate his preference for small girls. Though Kelly’s name is cleared once Grant’s pedophilia is revealed, the town’s hypocrisy and eagerness to condemn Kelly drives her to leave town, dashing her efforts to have the happiness and respectability she seeks.
The key reversal arrives when Kelly enters Grant’s home and catches him as he molests a small girl. He is not angry or embarrassed when caught; instead, he affects a strange look on his face and tells Kelly, “Now you know why I could never marry a normal woman. . . . You’ve been conditioned to people like me. You live in my world, and it will be an exciting world.” Grant has completely misread his fiancée, assuming that she is depraved like him and marrying her only because he thinks she would assent to his preferences. This is part of the tragedy, because the agent of her happiness is proven false. A lesser reversal also arrives when Griff, despite his tryst with Kelly early in the film, proves himself not to be the story’s real villain.
This moment also serves as Kelly’s recognition – as well as the viewer’s – that Grant, like his town, is hardly as proper and upright as appearances indicate. Initially presented as philanthropic, cultured, kind, and heroic (for saving Griff’s life in Korea), Grant seems like a sympathetic character until Kelly’s discovery. However, he demonstrates that he is not what Kelly and others imagined – he is instead a monster, and Kelly treats him as such by killing him.
Kelly is not herself truly pathetic because of her intelligence, principle, and courage. However, the viewer ultimately pities her because of her life’s tragedy. Despite her gifts as a nurse and her efforts to stop Candy from luring a fellow nurse into prostitution, circumstances make her a sad figure – she faces hypocrisy and judgments beyond her ability to alter, thus making her a victim despite her strengths.
Though Kelly was a prostitute, she lacks the moral shortcomings or character flaws (“hamartia”) that Grant has, and his prove fatal for him but also tragic for her, because they show that others still consider her “sick” and her dreams of an idyllic life are dashed. The townsfolk, who condemned her after she killed Grant, laud her as a hero once Grant’s true nature is revealed – but she can no longer tolerate their hypocrisy and leaves.
The Naked Kiss is a tragedy because it demonstrates how forces beyond one’s control undermine the protagonist’s strengths and efforts to change her life for the better. Despite Kelly’s successes, her past continues to work against her, making Grant mistake her past for genuine depravity such as his own. Though Kelly is freed in the end, her story is tragic because her desires are thwarted, and though she leaves prostitution behind, she is unable to rid herself of the stigma or others’ judgments.
The Naked Kiss. Dir. Samuel Fuller. Perf. Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante. Allied Artists, 1964.