Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Underrated: Constance Towers

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Underrated: Constance Towers

by Tony Dayoub

A stunning blond prostitute is engaged in a fight with her procurer, what we'd call a pimp nowadays. She slaps him about with her handbag, as he, half-drunk, staggers backwards with each blow to his face. The scene unfolds in a series of alternating point-of-view shots, the camera (and by extension, the viewer) by turns leering at the scumbag and knocked around by the hooker's purse. Then, something shocking occurs. In all the commotion, this woman flips her wig... literally. Her hair falls to the ground leaving a bald snarling Fury in the woman's place, any measure of civility that may have existed quickly vanishing from her as she finally brings the pimp down to the floor. Straddling him, she takes money owed to her—and no more—from the groaning worm. She stands, looks straight into the camera as she dons her wig again, and straightens it forcefully as the film's title card flashes onscreen: The Naked Kiss (1964).

Yes, this lurid episode of violence happens before the credits even begin to roll in Samuel Fuller's classic neo-noir. And in retrospect, it was probably necessary to kick off the film in this manner in order to establish actress Constance Towers as the tough broad she plays in the film, Kelly. This was my first brush with the statuesque beauty whose crisply angled face, down-slanting eyes, and frowny lips brought her to the attention of two notable American film directors and nearly no one else.

It was John Ford (The Searchers) who properly "introduced" her in 1959's The Horse Soldiers* as a proud Southern lady caught between two rival Yankee cavalrymen played by John Wayne and William Holden. Barely into her twenties then, her features gave her a measure of gravitas which allowed her to hold her own quite well with the two male mega-stars. Ford obviously found this mixture of apparent vulnerability and inner toughness compelling enough to invite Towers to reprise this type of character in the forward-looking Sergeant Rutledge (1960). Here she plays Mary Beecher, a pivotal witness in the court martial of a black cavalryman, First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Woody Strode), and love interest to his dashing attorney, First Lieutenant Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter). Tower's patrician qualities mask a compassionate, empathetic, and pragmatic frontier woman who never doubts the innocence of Rutledge despite the accusations of rape lodged against him. More importantly, her testimony is portrayed as almost a sacrificial act, selflessly opening herself up to ostracizing given the era's prevailing attitudes towards Rutledge's race.

*According to The Horse Soldier's trailer, at least; she had debuted years earlier in a forgettable Blake Edwards musical, Bring Your Smile Along.

While Ford saw the strength behind Tower's tenderness, Fuller saw the inverse. Both The Naked Kiss and Fuller's previous collaboration with Towers, Shock Corridor (1963), are lit by Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter) in the harsh high-contrast key one expects from film noir, as if to highlight the hard edges of her long slender face. In Shock Corridor, she plays Cathy, the stripper girlfriend to reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck). She discourages Barrett from going undercover as an asylum inmate to investigate a murder. Even so, Barrett can't help but be distracted by the thought that Cathy is enjoying the attentions of her skeevy spectators. In the hospital, he is repeatedly haunted by a vision of her, teasing him with the insinuation that she is leaving him. In fact, Towers' portrayal of the dancer borders on the deviant, her swinging hips choreographed closer to the burlesque artists of the time like Lili St. Cyr rather than the harmless version of striptease seen in musicals like Gypsy (1962). Towers' provocative sexuality is a quality she is unafraid to bring forth in Fuller's films.

Indeed, in The Naked Kiss, Towers and Fuller mix such conflicting desires as the primal urge for motherhood, a ferocious survival instinct, and an honest need for physical gratification into the psychosexual stew. Fuller's brutality is never more forceful than when he pulls the rug out from under Kelly, the now-reformed prostitute who thought she found happiness in her engagement to billionaire J.L. Grant (Michael Dante). Confronted with Grant's ugly secret (one worth keeping for those who still haven't seen this superb film), Kelly's reaction is imbued with no small measure of horror by the sadly underestimated Towers.

Though cinema largely—and unjustly—ignored her, Towers did quite well for herself on the stage, in an extended Broadway run of The King and I opposite Yul Brynner. And she has been quite prolific in her TV appearances, culminating in her current run as the villainous Helena Cassadine on General Hospital. She is the rare woman who has grown more beautiful with age, and appropriately enough is married to the handsome actor and former Ambassador to Mexico, John Gavin (Psycho).

The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor have just been remastered and reissued by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray.


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Towers had made quite a few rounds on TV soap operas--I think the one for which I remember her best was the short-lived Capitol, because it was like the home for every B-list character actor and actress who ever stepped in front of a movie camera. Ed Nelson, Richard Egan, Julie Adams, Rory Calhoun, Carolyn Jones, Paul Brinegar, Paul Picerni--daytime drama kitsch at its finest.

RedSoxFaninVA said...

What a wonderful essay on my all-time favorite actress! I agree with you that she is criminally underrated--with her looks and talent she should be a household name. While I first discovered her on General Hospital, I enjoyed her performance on the soap so much that I checked out some of her other work, including the Ford and Fuller films. The interview with Ms. Towers that is included in the new Criterion releases of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss is wonderful and she has aged very gracefully. I had the pleasure of meeting her once and she is very warm and down-to-earth in person--someone who takes the time to get to know her fans. I wish the rest of Hollywood could have seen what John Ford and Sam Fuller saw in her.

Anonymous said...

Constance Towers was one of the most attractive actresses in the movie industry. She is not only better looking but is more talented than many of the so-called "stars". Too bad we don't have more films to appreciate her looks and talents. I have owned The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor for many years. Very hard to top Sam Fuller and Constance Towers.