“First Impressions” will be an ongoing series, looking at some of the most memorable opening scenes and the way they win our attention, make us interested, set the tone for what’s to come, and even provide us with a strategy for how the film should be watched.
Any given film scene is a building block within a greater structure, so it’s pointless looking at it without considering how it functions in relation to the film as a whole. But the first shots, like the opening lines of a good book, hold a privileged position; they are our introduction to the world we’re about to enter. Hence these first impressions shoulder a heavy responsibility. Of course there are countless ways for a film to lead us in, so the idea is that over the course of this series, we shall mix it up and look at very different types of opening scenes.
For this first entry, we look at Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, which attempts to put us on the edge of our seats from the word go!
Those who have seen a few Sam Fuller films will be familiar with the blow to the gut his low-budget, high-adrenaline pulp classics consistently delivered. Brimming with swagger and independent spirit, Fuller was a larger-than-life character, who battled studio-driven conditions to exercise as much control over his films as possible. He strove to oversee every step of the creative process by writing, producing, and directing his films. No wonder the brigade of young critics over at Cahiers du Cinema saw in him a prototype of the new ideal of the ‘auteur’ director.
Truffaut admired his bluntly effective storytelling that seemed primitive yet was so hard to replicate, and Godard famously dedicated an on-screen caption to his ‘teacher’ Fuller in Made in U.S.A. (1966), as well as offering him a cameo in Pierrot le Fou (1965) — more on that later. All this approval from the nouvelle vague aficionados notwithstanding, the Hollywood system in the 1950s and ’60s was far less enthusiastic. Stubborn mavericks wishing to impart a definite vision over every scene were a nuisance to studio heads, who much preferred dependable pilot-directors driving movies home to bankable profit. Eventually, facing increasing difficulties in getting financed in the US, Fuller moved to France and never worked in America again.
Fuller always remained an American eccentric through and through, and a brief overview of his life goes some way towards accounting for his unique filmic style. Born in Massachussets in 1912, he was just 12 years old when he got a small-time job at the lowest rung of his local newspaper, working his way up to a promotion as crime reporter in NYC while still a teen. Later, his murder-scene experiences would inspire his spell as a pulp novelist, and this remarkable apprenticeship from the university of life would only be further enhanced by his much-decorated WW2 service — which etched into him a committed anti-war sensibility.
Needless to say this worldliness fed into his methods when he started writing for the movies, and even more so when he was finally, at age 36, given the chance to direct B-movies of his own. But what extended into the personality of his cinema, more than all else, was the pioneering spirit of free journalism he’d witnessed first-hand from such a young age (and never stopped admiring, as seen from his 1952 ode to press reporters Park Row). His eye-grabbing visual style modelled itself on screaming newspaper headlines. His own restless social exposés dealt with all kinds of topical issues, including the Korean War, racism and civil rights, McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, and many others. Throughout his career, Fuller tried to achieve this tabloid (in the best possible sense) cinematic approach with what long-time fan Richard Linklater calls a ‘cinema-punch’ style. Nowhere in Fuller’s work is this moniker more appropriate than in the opening to his 1964 film The Naked Kiss.
Most films begin with an establishing shot, letting us get used to our surroundings and setting the mood. No such thing here. Fuller’s films attempt to be, in his own characteristic words, “ball-grabbing” and The Naked Kiss grabs onto any part of us it can right from the get-go. We’re propelled into the thick of an ongoing fight between two people, in medias res, without a chance to get our bearings or even catch breath.
At this stage we do not yet know their names or anything about them, but we’re inside an apartment and the scene is of Kelly (Constance Towers) clouting her handbag hell-for-leather against the dazed and hapless Farlunde (Monte Mansfield). She swings…. he wobbles… she pulls back her arm and takes aim again… he stumbles under the flurry of oncoming blows… she swings again… Meanwhile the chaotic jazz improvisations on the score marry with the frenzied pace of events, as does the editing’s tempo, going at about 1 cut per second during this first segment of Kelly’s relentless onslaught.
This rapid-fire editing barely allows us to realise what’s going on, we’re disoriented, and Fuller does more to fully implicate us right in the firing line: every shot is a frontal point-of view shot, switching between Kelly and Farlunde both head-on and pretty much in close-up. We feel the blows she gives and he receives, because we’re right in their axis of action, and for added rawness the shots are shaky, jittering side-to-side and back-and-forth as Kelly advances and Farlunde retreats. In fact, these shots were filmed with the camera alternatingly strapped to Towers’ and Mansfield’s chests, indicating the sort of bag of tricks wily Fuller could conjure up to get the desired impact, and influencing Martin Scorsese to do the same for Harvey Keitel’s famous drunken amble through a club in Mean Streets. In Fuller’s film, each actor looked right into the camera as the other wore it, and Towers delivered her pummelling each time. The resulting shots were cut together into this exchange, a sort of one-sided cinematic tennis rally where one player is going for her adversary’s jugular.
Then, suddenly, comes one of the film’s great iconic images, as if this hadn’t been an eye-catching enough start to proceedings already. Farlunde, desperate and losing balance, lunges at her hair… her wig falls off to reveal her shaven scalp. For a split second she stops aghast but only to then get even angrier. (Later we’ll find out this humiliation was actually caused to her by this man she’s currently attacking, who shaved her head.) Now a veritable woman possessed, Kelly has Farlunde on the ropes, she knocks him down and sprays soda water in his spluttering face. At this point Farlunde is out for the count and the visceral struggle is over, the action coming to rest on a more static low-angle shot of the apartment. Kelly crouches down over the near-unconscious Farlunde and proceeds to take cash out of his pocket. She counts $75, exclaims that she’s only taking ‘what’s coming to her’ (an early sign of her principled nature) and flings the rest of the money at his face.
The camera tilts up slightly as she gets back up, the victor standing over her well-defeated opponent. Cut to a frontal close-up of her, this time static, and, as if the camera were a mirror, she looks right into it and defiantly readjusts her wig back on. Cue the title credits, and the jazz being replaced by a string orchestra score, over this continuing shot of Kelly. We finally get a chance to catch our breath and stare down the protagonist of this remarkable first 90 seconds right in the eye. As the credits end, we’re back to the low-angle shot and the jazz returns, as Kelly has one more thing to do before she leaves. Walking to the bookshelf with its line-up of photos of different young women (the biggest clue here as to Farlunde’s occupation and what his ‘relationship’ to Kelly is), she takes down the one of herself and rips it up.
On that note she exits, having at the very least very firmly grabbed our attention, if not outright won our admiration. But the scene still has time for one last typical Fuller flourish in order to show the passage of time and lead into the next scene. Farlunde comes to, picks up the banknotes and deposits them on his desk, leading to a zoom-in to a calendar telling us we’re in 1961, before an instant cut to a street banner showing a date more than 2 years later. When we next see Kelly, she’ll have moved on, in an effort to put the life we just glimpsed behind her.
What follows is 90 minutes of a stereotype-reversing, moralist exposé of a seemingly decent middle-American town, whose citizens will prove to be seedy characters and hypocritical cowards. Kelly, immediately looked down on by many for her past as a prostitute, will show herself to be far stronger in virtues and morals than all the supposedly respectable people forming the social-system Fuller is intent on debunking. Interestingly, before the film’s later fireworks and hyper-melodrama, the section right after the first scene is comparatively calm, even slow, by Fuller standards — not to mention in relation to that blistering opening gambit. But little matter if it’s a quiet first act, that beginning has already worked its impact; we may not know or like Kelly yet but we have been drawn in by her energy and are ready to follow her warpath-like march on which she’ll be our (moral) compass.
Fuller indeed takes us into battle alongside Kelly, as she sets off to wage combat against a flawed society that turns against her. In spirit, Fuller’s curtain-raiser here is sort of a distant cousin to the Dardennes’ Rosetta (1999), in which dynamic camerawork thrusts us right into the war-like state-of-mind of the female protagonist, literally right behind her shoulder at all times. Kelly, being the archetypal outsider Fuller loved to root for, is perhaps more easily likable than Rosetta, whose aggression and choices are harder to understand and empathise with. But, despite the two characters being 35 years apart, the tenacious determination, the will to get ‘what’s coming to them’ even if they have to fight for it, is shared between them.
As for war, it was a setting Fuller kept returning to — The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980) rank among his best work — even though he had been scarred by the horrors of his war-time experience. Always remaining staunchly anti-war and committed in his goal to de-glamorise it in his movies, it nonetheless offered him situations in which he found the potential for the emotionally intense type of drama he wanted to make. It’s impossible not to think of his cameo in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou: chomping on his cigar, he quips that “Cinema is like a battleground. Love, hate, action, death… In one word, emotion.” And so The Naked Kiss’ opening scene epitomises his vision. It’s all there: the unsubtle tabloid-headline-like close-ups and editing, the punchy visceral depiction of violence reaching out to grab you, the deliberate ploy to get you behind a marginalised character. In one word, it’s Fuller.