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We enjoy pre-Code "shockers" for their frequently uninhibited strong language and near-nudity, but also for their frank approach to all kinds of subject matter. Just when we think we've seen everything, yet another of these fascinating attractions comes along to set us back a few paces. The great director William Wellman made a steady string of provocative dramas in the pre-Code years 1929-1934, including a film or two that all but call for a social revolution. It's no surprise that Wellman's The Public Enemy is the most socially conscious of the classic gangster pix. 1931's Safe in Hell leans in a different direction for its sordid shocks. Early-'30s writers were as interested in gloom and doom as anybody but I have yet to see any show as utterly obsessed with misery. Original playwright Houston Branch isn't interested in moral statements but his film makes us think hard about injustices toward women, past and present. The strongest message in Safe in Hell would seem to be the same as that for Edgar Ulmer's Detour: "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no reason at all". Lovers of that movie will want to run, not walk, to this show. Safe in Hell is even more stubbornly pessimistic: its heroine is an innocent victim, and not a closet masochist like Detour's Al Roberts, who seems to perversely enjoy his fall from grace.
The premise of Safe in Hell resembles that of H.G. Clouzot's later The Wages of Fear, a political thriller about a group of men trapped in a South American hell-hole. It may have partially inspired the horrifying conclusion of Jim Thompson's pulp fiction novel The Getaway. Betrayed by a ruthless man and all but forced into a life of prostitution in New Orleans, Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) has given up waiting for her sailor boyfriend Carl Bergen (Donald Cook). Taking a call to a hotel, Gilda discovers that her John is Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the very the man that caused her fall a year ago. When Piet ignores her protests, Gilda floors him with a bottle and leaves. In the morning she learns that a fire broke out and burned both Piet and the building. That's when Carl returns. He assures Gilda that her past is not a problem and helps her flee from the police. Now promoted to an officer, Carl is able to smuggle Gilda on board his freighter and take her to an island in the Caribbean that has no extradition treaties. Carl has no choice but to leave her in a hotel while his ship continues on its voyage. The hotel turns out to be populated by criminals that, like Gilda, are avoiding punishment for their crimes. She must stick to her room to avoid constant harassment from this group of degenerates. They are soon joined by the island's jailer-executioner Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), a swarthy thug who also propositions Gilda, the "only white woman on the island". Gilda is going mad with desperation and despair when events spin completely out of control. Already in "hell", trouble with Mr. Bruno and a mystery man from her past lead to yet another charge of murder. The loathsome Mr. Bruno has figured a way to force Gilda into his bed, even if she's found innocent.
Safe in Hell must have the slimiest cast of characters ever seen in a studio film. We're accustomed to relatively glamorous tropical "hell holes" such as the one pictured in MGM's Strange Cargo, where Joan Crawford's makeup is never out of place. Poor Dorothy Mackaill looks good under the circumstances but the lineup of creeps and vermin in the hotel lobby makes one's stomach turn. They include a sneering fugitive general (Victor Varconi), a captain who sunk his own ship (Gustav von Seyffertitz), a crooked lawyer (Charles Middleton of Flash Gordon) and a lecherous safecracker (Ivan Simpson). These idle lizards amuse themselves drinking and bragging, and become a leering chorus when Gilda arrives. Gilda is met with various forms of crude courtesies, all with an indecent proposition attached or implied. Unable to locate a preacher, she and Carl 'marry themselves' in a ceremony in an empty church. Gilda is determined to live up to her vow. 1
It goes without saying that anyone raised on "normal" sanitized movie fare will watch Safe in Hell in a constant state of surprise. The movie makes no attempt whatsoever to hide its salacious content. Gilda is a call girl, plain and simple. Her rotten ex-boyfriend thinks he can have her for the price of a phone call. It is presumed that the New Orleans justice system will railroad her to Death Row on a murder and arson rap on. The help in the island hotel consists of Newcastle the porter (Clarence Muse) and the cook-bartender Leonie (saucy Nina Mae McKinney of Hallelujah). Leonie takes one look at Gilda and decides that she'll become somebody's bed-mate in short order. Leonie croons the sultry jazz song When It's Sleepy Time Down South while setting the table for a big party. Of all the characters, only these two treat Gilda with any decency until the surprising ending. We're told that the script as written gave Newcastle and Leonie standard "sho-nuff" Hollywood dialogue, but that director Wellman allowed the actors to speak normally.
The island certainly is a hell. Gilda is never really safe, not even in her locked hotel room. She must strain the "wrigglers" from her drinking water: she's told that they're tolerated because they eat mosquito larvae. Mr. Bruno cannot arrest any of the hotel guests for their foreign crimes, but the local laws are so harsh that all are afraid of him. Bruno's work camps are like a death sentence, and any serious crime means a quick trip to the gallows. As Gilda discovers, Mr. Bruno is not above framing people to get what he wants. He is already hiding Carl's letters from Gilda, adding to her distress. Under these conditions the sight of the open sea out Gilda's window holds no appeal. She finally breaks down and joins the other hotel guests in a drunken party. For perversity, the only point of comparison is the wedding party in Tod Browning's Freaks.
The conclusion of Safe in Hell is right up there with the most twisted and horrible finales in film history, and it wouldn't be fair to describe it more fully. More successful as a silent star, Ms. Dorothy Mackaill's film career came to a halt only a few years later. That's a shame because she's excellent as a tough woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Donald Cook is appropriately virtuous as Carl, but he's just not there when she needs him. Mackaill would have made a supreme Sadie Thompson in Rain. Her Gilda Carlson is defeated by one awful male-concocted trap after another. Just the look on her face while sizing up the hotel's clientele seems "R" rated -- she can sense the sexual threat literally oozing off this human trash. Safe in Hell goes beyond tragedy in its portrait of total despair.
Wellman's personal directorial signature can be seen in a shot in which Carl and Gilda hide in a packing crate on board his ship. Seen through a missing board, their lips move but their eyes are hidden. Wellman pulls off a similar eccentric shot in many of his pictures. Noble Johnson of King Kong plays one of Mr. Bruno's policemen, and Rondo Hatton and Chris-Pin Martin are easily spotted among the jurors at Gilda's trial.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Safe in Hell is a good but not exeptional transfer of a slightly soft film element. The show is intact and the audio clear enough, if not up to the level of some WAC releases. I saw a scratched "x" for a film changeover mark so the source might actually be a surviving print. Knowing the WAC's policy of remastering films, this source might be all there is.
Looking pristine is an original trailer that comes off as a surreal oddity. Using no scenes from the film, it combines images of Ms. Mackaill with oversized text messages that alternate "greatest love story" lines with "shocking content" come-ons. The music changes with every see-saw between these two themes. The lettering is dramatic but can't compete with the film's main title, in which the words Safe In Hell are filled with roaring flames.
I was tipped off to Safe in Hell through a Turner Classic Movies festival last summer in which TCM employees recommended their favorite titles, much like was once done in old VHS home video rental stores.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Safe in Hell rates:
1. The creeps in the hotel actually try to look up Gilda's dress when she climbs the stairs. There are probably other profane allusions that I missed, but an indication of the tone of Safe in Hell is a scene where one of the hotel guests grabs a chicken. He eventually offers it to Gilda as a "gift" for her room, so it can eat the centipedes that bite. Before he runs upstairs with the chicken, another guests jokingly implies that he might have captured the bird to have sex with it.
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T'was Ever Thus.