"Crushing the Bastard": Films by Sam Fuller
It's Sam Fuller week in the Bay Area. From 1949 to 1964 the doughty, cigar-smoking legend -- who died last October at the age of 86 -- wrote and directed 17 furious films that together comprise a tabloid tapestry of America in the postwar era, stitching in corrosive character studies of strippers and thugs crosshatched with zigzag patterns of violence, sentimentality, and editorials in boldface. In addition to The Naked Kiss (1964), which opens for a week's run Friday at the Roxie, the UC Theater in Berkeley screens a double bill of Fuller noirs this Wednesday -- and as a footnote, the Red Vic is running Fuller's last film appearance, an effective turn as Gabriel Byrne's aged father in Wim Wenders' The End of Violence, from Sunday to Tuesday. The soft-spoken Wenders is just one of many recent filmmakers swayed by the call of Fuller's high-decibel cinema into paying him homage: L.A. Confidential's Curtis Hanson and James Ellroy testified to the potent effect Fuller's films had on them as youths at a tribute to the director in Los Angeles last fall. One of the director's more extreme films, The Naked Kiss may well scald Fuller neophytes as it traces a bald prostitute's search for small-town sanctuary. The harsh, haunted Constance Towers plays the depilated Kelly, who can sense perversion from a kiss. Her face is her only reference as she starts life anew, aided by silent film star Betty Bronson as the daft old lady who takes her in.
Bronson is one of many motherly crones in Fuller's cinema -- Thelma Ritter and Beatrice Kay, respectively, play similar roles in the UC's double bill of Pickup on South Street (1953) and Underworld U.S.A. (1961). Towers, meanwhile, is the smarter cousin of the B-girl heroines of those other films, Jean Peters and Dolores Dorn, actresses literally, liberally bruised by their luckless choice in men. Unlike them Kelly shakes free of the male animal -- more than that, she crushes the bastard. Fuller reveals himself in The Naked Kiss not as the canny carny-style exploitation filmmaker he's often taken for, but instead as naive as D.W. Griffith, or David Lynch, as his heroine romps with crippled children and batters evil with a phone receiver. For all the power of Fuller's cartoon-bubble dialogue and plots, however, he'd be just a curiosity if not for his mastery of the B-movie camera, piloted here by the great cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter). The Naked Kiss is yellow journalism that takes itself for truth, and thus qualifies as art.
The Naked Kiss screens Friday through Thursday, Jan. 16-22, at the Roxie. Pickup on South Street and Underworld U.S.A. screen on Wednesday, Jan. 16, at the UC Theater in Berkeley. See Reps Etc., Page 66, for times.