SAFE IN HELL (director: William A. Wellman; screenwriters: Maude Fulton/Joseph Jackson/from a play by Houston Branch; cinematographer: Sidney Hickox; editor: Owen Marks; cast: Dorothy Mackaill (Gilda Carlson), Donald Cook (Carl Bergen), Ralf Harolde (Piet Van Saal), Morgan Wallace (Bruno), Nina Mae McKinney (Leonie), Clarence Muse (Newcastle), John Wray (Egan), Victor Varconi (General Gomez), Cecil Cunningham (Angie), Charles Middleton (Jones), Ivan Simpson (Crunch); Runtime: 74; MPAA Rating: NR; Warner Bros.; 1931)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
William A. Wellman (“So Big”/”Battleground”/”A Star is Born”) directs with force this neglected gem. This is a steamy pre-Code film that openly talks of prostitution, and gets a tremendous performance from Dorothy Mackaill as the ill-fated prostitute on-the-run. It’s based on a play by Houston Branch, and is written by Maude Fulton and Joseph Jackson.
Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) felt abandoned by her sailor boy childhood love interest, Carl Bergen (Donald Cook), away on long tours of sea duty, and turned to prostitution in New Orleans for the last year when sexually harassed by a horrible insurance man she worked for as a secretary and was fired by his wife when she was found in his room. When Gilda goes to keep a business date, the john turns out to be the seamy Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde). He’s the same jerk she rejected when she worked as his secretary. Gilda refuses to do a trick with him, and conks him on the head with a bottle of gin. As a result the hotel burns down, and she’s wanted by the police as Piet’s killer. Carl smuggles her in his boat to a Caribbean island named Tortuga, where there’s no extradition. He marries her without a minister, knowing it’s not a legal ceremony but one that they intend to respect–both swearing to be faithful to each other. Carl leaves for sea duty, promising to pay her monthly hotel bill and write regularly.
The slimy island jailer and executioner, Bruno (Morgan Wallace), tells Gilda “You are safe from jail and gallows – safe in Hell.” Gilda avoids any sexual contact with the lusty male criminal guests staying in her seedy hotel, who try to make passes at the only white woman on the island. But she becomes despondent when not hearing from Carl, not knowing Bruno has stolen her mail and the money sent. One day Piet shows up on the island, saying he faked his death to collect the life insurance money. When he stole that dough from his wife, she turned him in to the authorities.
The film builds to its tense climax, where Bruno gives Gilda his gun for protection. Although guns are illegal on the island, Bruno says she can have one with his permission. When Piet breaks into her room and tries to rape her, she plugs him. The crooked lawyer hotel guest (Charles Middleton) successfully defends her at the trial, as acting in self-defense. She is about to be acquitted when Bruno tells her he intends to jail her for possession of the weapon. Rather than sleep with him and break her wedding vow, good girl Gilda confesses to murdering Piet and is hanged. Gilda makes a life and death decision that she’d rather have her self-respect than live by breaking her word to her husband to be faithful.
It’s an astonishing film of a call girl redeemed by finding love, but it’s not without some questionable histrionics.
Wellman cast two popular black actors of the day, Nina Mae McKinney, as the hotel manager, and Clarence Muse, as the cheerful hotel porter, who loom large as the movie’s most reputable and likable characters. Nina does a nice turn imitating the great Satchmo in song, which puts a cherry on this treat.
REVIEWED ON 3/9/2011 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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