Monday, January 17, 2011

Movie: Satan in High Heels (1962)

That’s a hell of a title. Too bad the movie doesn’t live up to it. But for a while it comes close, thanks to its star Meg Myles.

Meg plays Stacey Kane, headlining the carnival burlesque circuit. Before the titles finish she shakes down the show’s manager for some extra scratch; reunites with her junkie writer beau only to swipe the cash he’s made from selling his story of recovery; and hops a flight to New York wearing nothing but a raincoat over her corset. By the time the wheels hit the tarmac in Idlewild she’s already roped a new sugar daddy and gotten an audition at the allegedly swellegant club Pepe’s, presided over by its world-weary namesake (Grayson Hall).

So far, so good. There’s a true seediness to the proceedings, as well some zip in the dialogue and the performances. (Most of them, anyway.) I start to think I’ve hit the mother lode. Is this the first exploitation movie that won’t bore me stupid? Have I found the cinematic equivalent of a Gold Medal paperback: fast, sleazy ... and good?

Then something interesting happens. Nothing.

Stacey, already involved with the club’s wealthy backer, starts dallying with his son because ... I couldn’t figure that out. The movie idles for the next forty-five minutes, not actively bad but never compelling, before having a plot spasm that doesn’t resolve much.

I stuck with it for the actors. There’s Sabrina, the buxom British bird who was briefly the U.K.’s answer to Jayne Mansfield. Several military vehicles were nicknamed after her for carrying a little more in front, wink-wink. And Hall brings a Weimar Republic grandeur to Pepe. A well-regarded stage actress, she would be nominated for an Academy Award in 1964 for The Night of the Iguana and had a long run on TV’s Dark Shadows. She never acknowledged appearing in this movie.

That it works at all is a tribute to Meg Myles. She’s believable both as a burlesque queen and a cabaret performer. Myles can sing and act, but she’s also, to be blunt, built.

The Seattle-born redhead was fabled for her dimensions, first earning fame as a pin-up girl. She moved into acting even though she asked, “How many actresses with 40-inch busts have ever won an Oscar?” She debuted in the 1954 film of Dragnet, where she is credited in the IMDb as “Bosomy Girl at Agency.” That led to roles in other films including the one where I first saw her. In The Phenix City Story, Myles has an incendiary song that establishes the title town’s lowdown reality instantly. It’s such a potent moment that I wanted to see Myles in something else. Satan in High Heels was her only chance at a starring role, and the movie isn’t worthy of what she brings to it. Even worse, photographs from her brief nude scene ended up in men’s magazines at the time, souring her on the film.

But Meg Myles persevered. She kept singing, releasing several albums. She studied with Lee Strasberg and has a successful career in the theater. And at last report at age 77 she was tending to New York’s wounded birds. She may not have had the career she deserved, but it seems like she’s having an interesting life.

I can’t close on that note. It’s too sweet for me. Here’s the trailer for Satan, and Meg doing her dominatrix routine.