The 1964 film noir The Naked Kiss by Samuel Fuller can be clearly seen as a tragedy, showing the demise of a former prostitute who tries without luck to get away from her past life. Although she does well in leaving her previous life behind her, it is the ironic weaknesses of other people in the film, and the corruption, vindictiveness and hypocrisy of the people living in her town, and certainly her depraved fiance, that are the seeds to her fall.
The tragically poignant crux of the film is something which takes the audience by surprise, thanks to Fuller's cleverness in film writing. The audience is misled into believing that the town sheriff Griff will be the source of her downfall, because he knows of her illicit past, and never accepts her for it. In actuality, her fiance is the cause when she discovers that he is a pedophile, and that the only reason for him proposing to her is that he expected her to tolerate his perversion given her history. While she comes under question, when Grant is revealed to the town as a pedophile her name is cleared. However, it is the culture of the town people, and their eagerness to condemn her, that causes her to flee from town, quelling her best attempts to begin a new and respectable life, and to gain respect from others.
The crux is presented when Kelly is exposed to the horrifying situation of walking in on Grant at his home, to find him molesting a young girl. Devoid of surprise, embarrassment or anger when he is caught, he simple displays a strange look and tells Kelly that know she knows why he could never marry a 'normal' woman. He states that "You've been conditioned to people like me" and that she will live with him in a new and "exiting" life. It is completely evident from what we know of them both at this point that he has completely misunderstood her, assuming that she was as evil and deranged as he, and that she would tolerate his practices. Here is one important piece of the tragedy, as the one person who would supposedly provide her happiness is false.
Through Kelly's eyes we see the realization that Grant, and similarly the whole town, are not the moral people that she previously though. Grant's initial characteristics are jubilant, and he is presented as a warm kind hearted person, and heroic for saving the life of Griff, and charismatic with the locals. This remains the case right up until that pivotal moment – instead of being the person we though he was, he is actually a monster. Kelly becomes the heroine when she kills him.
If it was not for Kelly's many redeeming characteristics, such as courage, intelligence and morality, she would come across as a far more tragic and pathetic figure. Despite her courage, the audience has pity for her because of the events of her former life, and of course for the events in the film. Despite her gift for nursing and treating people with care, along with her efforts to stop prostitution, the surrounding events made her a sad person, because while she has character, the issues in her life are insurmountable, making her the victim overall.
While we cannot forget the fact that she was a prostitute, she still has the moral uprightness and the quality of character, which contrasts heavily with Grant. Despite his demise at her hands, she is unable to find retribution from the townspeople, and her hopes of a happy life are ruined. There is a silver lining; she is condemned after Grant's murder, but when his true nature is revealed, the townspeople suddenly begin to praise her. Kelly is not fooled by this fickleness and hypocrisy, and so leaves them.
The prevalent characteristics of a tragedy include a morally upright person, who has to face past troubles, and a world of immorality around them, which despite the best efforts of the protagonist to solve, there is too many uncontrollable circumstances which the protagonist is unable to fix. Kelly's past haunts her not just personally, but her life with Grant and the townspeople's' view of her. While she is free by the end, it is still a tragedy because her dreams are not realized. It is not quite the tragedy of despair however, because there is a thread of hope for the future by the film's end.
The Naked Kiss, Dir. Samuel Fuller. Perf. Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante. Allied Artists, 1964.