Satan in High Heels (1962) is a drama/exploitation film most notable for being produced by Leonard Burtman. Burtman was a major publisher and entrepreneur in the American fetish scene in the 1950s and 1960s. This film and a 1953 film short called Cinderella’s Love Lessons, starring Lili St. Cyr, were his only producer credits. Jerald Intrator, the director, had previously made Striporama (1953), featuring Bettie Page, Lili St. Cyr, and other 50s burlesque queens.
If Bonanza and The Andy Griffith Show were 1962 America as it dreamed of being, Satan in High Heels is the seedy underbelly. Stacey Kane (Meg Myles), a burlesque dancer on a skeezy midway, robs her junkie ex-husband and heads for the big city, where she becomes a nightclub singer and gets involved in the twilight world of quasi-mobsters and sexual deviants. Everybody in this movie smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish.
Stacey knows exactly how this world works. This is how she plays her husband, Rudy; the talent scout she meets on the plane, Louie; the lesbian nightclub manager where she sings, Pepe; the club’s mobbed-up owner, Arnold; and his ne’er-do-well son, Larry. Her schtick is positioning herself as an object of desire, working her way up the rungs by promising a lot more than she ever delivers. People project their desires on to her, just like they buy the fetish outfits that she wears.
There’s a lot less fetish content than I anticipated. The sadomasochistic content, like the sexuality, is more implied than explicit. Stacey wears high heels and leather or vinyl outfits for much of her scenes, bought by her admirers. They’re not her style, just something she lets them put on her. She says she likes them, but she’s used to molding herself to the expectations of others. Sabrina, a poor man’s Jayne Mansfield-type, also drops by to show off her jutting breasts and tiny waist.
A lot of what makes this film interesting requires reading between the lines. That how we know that Pepe, the club manager who gives Stacey a makeover, is a lesbian, and about as butch as you could get away with in a commercial movie. Or that the bartender whom Stacey snarkily calls “Paulette” is gay. When Stacey asks about the relationship between the club’s owner Arnold and the fading movie actress Felice, Stacey says, “Must I draw you a map?” Squint a bit and you can even see that Stacey and Pepe are sleeping together, when Stacey chafes under Pepe’s mentorship. “What I need is some fresh air, and a man,” she complains.
That man turns out to be Larry, Arnold’s feckless son. Stacey skips out on her rehearsals with Pepe and has a day in the country with him, then breezes back into town.
Arnold is enraged. Stacey makes no secret of what she’s doing with Larry, or that she is openly defying Arnold. She says she can walk away and find somebody else to put her up, like Louie or Pepe (never mind that both of them are employees of Arnold). Arnold slaps her. Stacey barely reacts, as if she’s received this treatment before. Arnold collapses and begs her forgiveness, literally on his knees. “Please don’t leave me. Please. I’ll give you anything you want but please don’t leave me.”
Stacey smiles, smugly. “Give me a while, Arnold, to think how I want it.”
This is perhaps the biggest unreality of this film, that Stacey has some kind of power over Larry or Arnold. Maybe Larry would be smitten with her, but Arnold is in a position where he has plenty of access to beautiful women. If he’s tired of Felice, there’s a long line of women ready to take her place as his mistress. To be crassly transactional about it, Stacey’s not that special. She’s just a replaceable commodity. Powerful men like Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein operated on the principle that if any one woman won’t do what they want, there were a dozen, more-or-less identical women who would.
When Stacey has her big debut, singing “The Female of the Species is Deadlier than the Male”, in her equestrienne dominatrix outfit, complete with riding crop, there’s a lot of irony. Whatever power she possesses is precarious. Not only is she entangled between father and son, her ex-husband Rudy has somehow tracked her down and is closing in on her.
After her big number, the ex-husband corners her in her dressing room with a switchblade. Stacey beats him down with her riding crop and then, fearing Arnold’s control, send the ex-husband to kill Arnold.
Rudy fails in this. The movie ends with all three men Stacey has manipulated confronting her in her dressing room; the patriarchy is reaffirmed. They “destroy” her by turning away from her; if men don’t obey her, she’s powerless.
Thankfully, the film ends with Stacey just walking down the street, subdued but not defeated. Somehow, I think, she’ll get by.
Though the focus is on Stacey as protagonist, she remains a tabula rasa for the desires of others. It’s actually Pepe (Grayson Hall) who is the more interesting character. How did a masculine-of-centre lesbian attain such a high status in Arnold’s organization? How did she gain the authority to order around men twice her size? As scuzzy as this world is, at least it provides a place for queer people like Pepe and Paul. Their job is to provide a few bohemian thrills for the straight people who then go home and catch the late show.