Thursday, July 2, 2015

Satan in High Heels (1962)

Director: Jerald Intrator                                    Writer: John T. Chapman
Film Score: Mundell Lowe                                Cinematography: Bernard Hirschenson
Starring: Meg Myles, Grayson Hall, Mike Keene and Robert Yuro

One of my all-time favorite stories about the cinema has to do with this film. A writer who was working on a piece about jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe wanted to interview a musicologist about his 1962 film score for Satan in High Heels, so he screened it for him in preparation for their discussion. After it was over the musicologist asked to watch it again, and the writer thought he was going to get some great stuff about the music in the film. When they had finished the second viewing the writer asked the musicologist, “So, what did you think of the film score?” The musicologist then gave him a puzzled look and said, “There was a film score?” One can hardly blame him, and not just for the obvious reasons. The film is impressive in the way that it emulates the French New Wave, and could almost be considered on par with Bresson or Truffaut--in its own twisted American way. While the film falls into the category of sixties sexploitation, there isn’t any real nudity in the picture, and minimal titillation in general. Instead it fits in far better with that European style of relationship film.

The film opens on a carnival, a Ferris wheel and a carousel, organ music in the background. The well-endowed Meg Myles plays a stripper at a burlesque show, underappreciated and underpaid, and none too happy about it. She’s thinking of leaving and taking a bus to New York. Then Earl Hammond shows up in her dressing room, desperate, but Myles is clearly not interesting in him anymore. That is, until he flashes the nine hundred dollars he earned, then she pretends that she’ll go to New York with him and takes off with the cash for the airport. The title sequence is shot over a rousing jazz number that shows her getting on a plane and flying into the city. She meets Ben Stone on the plane and he offers to share his hotel room. After he gets her an audition at a nightclub, she accepts. The club is run by Grayson Hall and she calls the owner, Mike Keene, to come over and hear her. Myles’ sultry delivery of a jazz tune wins everyone over and she is given a spot in the club’s upcoming show. At first Myles rooms with Hall, but it’s not too long before she’s living with Keene. That is, until she meets Keene’s son, Robert Yuro. She takes Yuro on a whirlwind twenty-four hours of sexual fulfillment, and when they return to the city he wants to take Myles away from his father.

Of course, this sets up all kinds of conflict, not only between Myles and her men, but between her and the other star of the show, the British entertainer Sabrina. But the ending, just like the rest of the film, defies expectations and is that much better for it. It’s actually fantastic. The story itself, and most of the screenplay, is straightforward enough and there are some nice lines in the script. In some ways the main character is a reflection of the Barbara Stanwyck character in Babyface in the way that she manipulates the men using sex to get what she wants. And the way that they beg pathetically for her not to leave her definitely earns her the name in the title. The acting in the beginning of the film seems a big shaky, almost no-budget, but when it moves to New York City, the skill of the actors really comes through. Again, there’s a definite European style at work, an amateur actor feeling. As good as Myles is, however, Grayson Hall steals every scene she’s in. It’s as though she’s straight out of Cabaret. Mike Keene and Robert Yuro make a great father and son team, but the weakest actor of the bunch is Sabrina. All the women, with the exception of Hall, have over-exaggerated hourglass figures with huge breasts, tiny waists, and big hips. Pat Harner is the one actress who actually strips, but it’s kept hidden from the viewer.

The thing that brings the whole film together is the soundtrack by Mundell Lowe. He assembled an exceptional big band with terrific soloists, and wrote some swinging charts. One of the odd things about the film, however, is that none of the musicians appear in the movie itself. The conceit is that they are all just out of camera range on the stage behind the singers, but it’s clear director Jerald Intrator didn’t want to try to match the playing with the soundtrack and opted not to hire them for the shoot as well. The soundtrack was released on the short-lived Charlie Parker records--which produced a ton of great LPs that haven’t been reissued on CD yet--and was well-received by jazz critics at the time. The film was shot in a crisp black and white, with all of the sound looped in afterward as was the practice with many films of that era. The cinematography is uniformly excellent and the camera angles are well-chosen, again, with that European influence. Satan in High Heels is a remarkably good film, and certainly defies it’s sixties sexploitation tag and deserves to be judged on its own merits rather than any lowbrow expectations one might have going in. It comes highly recommended.

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