Satan In High Heels (1962)
By Peter Conheim
Reading time 6 Minutes
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Satan in High Heels (1962)
The restoration of Satan in High Heels presented a case for much internal and highly film-nerdy debate at Restorationists HQ. As with all three of the films in this Volume, it was decided to present the film in its 1.37:1 “full frame” Academy aspect ratio, as opposed to cropping the top and bottom of the image into a widescreen format, such as 1.85:1. This is actually a quite unusual decision for an American film made in 35mm in the mid-1960s, let alone three of them in a row. But these are unusual films.
When the (much wider) CinemaScope format had its debut 1953, as a gimmick to lure audiences away from their televisions and back to movie theaters, the entire movie exhibition landscape was forced to make a profound change. Every studio had to immediately convert to shooting their films in some type of widescreen format, and competing processes simply “masked” off the top and bottom of the filmed image, to varying – and specifically chosen – degrees. Films, of course, were very carefully photographed with this masking in mind. And the advantage to shooting films “open” was that the prints could – if absolutely necessary – be shown in theaters that hadn’t yet adapted their screens and projectors to widescreen setups. There would be more picture seen on top and bottom than was intended, but you could get away with it if you absolutely had to. You might call these “screenings of last resort.”
Unfortunately, much confusion and misinformation persists today about the 35mm widescreen process, and sometimes video companies “give in” to the pressure from misguided consumers who think they know how something is “supposed to look”… which is why there are versions of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), a 1.85:1 widescreen film, on DVD in both 1.85:1 and 1:37:1 in the same package, so the consumer can “choose.” The latter is completely erroneous, a mere fetish object which allows people to see more of the sets… not more of the film Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty intended.
Which brings us back to Satan in High Heels. It became very clear to The Restorationists as we began working on the film that it looked “correct” to our eyes at 1.37. Virtually every shot seems carefully composed for the square frame. The opening title sequence, however, is clearly composed to be shown widescreen (projectionists have often used how opening credits appear when masked to know at what aspect ratio to set up the screening). And then there was the question of the film’s original intended market. Was it possible that the producers were actually aiming to sell it to television, which would explain the framing...? Not so much of a stretch when you consider that the film is actually quite “clean” – the sole nude sequence (Meg Myles’ skinny dipping bit) almost feels like an insert. Or could it have been intended for the European market, where the aspect ratio would more likely have been a less narrow 1.66 or 1.75:1? Answers to these questions were not available.
So, in the end, we opened it up to full-frame. It is a near-certainty that any U.S. theaters which would have shown the film in 1962 would have rather grotesquely lopped the top and bottom of the picture off, which can’t at all be how it was intended to look in this case. But since cinematographer Bernard Hirschenson is no longer around to weigh in, The Restorationists had to go with the gut.
The camera negative of Satan in High Heels had also sustained some frustrating mishandling, possibly in a previous video transfer. We discovered that the last third of the picture was particularly beset by problems, namely scratches and gouges down the very center of the image. Many hours of digital correction was done, in some cases having to hand-paint out the worst of it, frame by frame; Illuminate Studios’ Mike Volland and Andrew Drapkin really knocked it out of the park with their attention to detail on this project. Restorationist Ross Lipman spent hours carefully crafting the differing monochromatic palettes in the interior and exterior sequences. As a result, this exquisite new restoration is likely far more detailed than the original 35mm prints of 1962.
Peter Conheim is a film curator and preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. He is also the co-founder of the performing group Wet Gate, which uses only “found footage” and 16mm film projectors to create a live cinema collage, sampling the sound from the film tracks in real time, as well as Mono Pause, a long-running “Situationist rock” group (and its Southeast Asian music spin-off, Neung Phak) and a member of “culture jamming” legends Negativland. His Cinema Preservation Alliance non-profit organization is dedicated to the long-term survival of endangered motion pictures of all stripes.