William A. Wellman’s seldom-seen Safe in Hell is an eye-opening pre-Code melodrama that pulls no punches and tells a tight, tough little story.
The Production: 3.5/5
In this era of Me, Too when headlines almost daily announce another woman citing sexual abuse and betrayal against men of all races and classes, William A. Wellman’s pre-Code melodrama Safe in Hell seems especially prescient and unquestionably timely. This little-seen tawdry tale featuring names that no longer ring box-office bells still packs a punch and indicates that the predicament our leading lady finds herself in is one shared by many women down through many ages of time.
Certain she has killed Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), a sleazy creature who had raped her and ruined her reputation driving her to prostitution when she couldn’t find other work, Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) is whisked away to an unnamed Caribbean island with no U.S. extradition treaty by her long-time sailor boy friend Carl (Donald Cook). At the hotel run by manager Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) resides a handful of men similarly on the run from the U.S. government, and all of them have eyes for the luscious Gilda, particularly prison warden Bruno (Morgan Wallace) who’ll try every trick he can think of to make the lady his own. But when Piet Can Saal turns up on the island fleeing justice for insurance fraud, Gilda thinks she’ll finally be free to return home. Little does she know that her troubles are only just beginning.
Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton have adapted the play by Houston Branch for the big screen. True to its pre-Code cousins, the movie doesn’t hide Gilda’s prostitution behind some other euphemism, and the lasciviousness of the men (as well as Piet’s rape of Gilda) is directly indicated without pulling any punches. William Wellman’s direction has some chic touches: having the camera show Gilda’s mirror image as she undresses and focusing on her feet as clothes are tossed aside (straight out of silent movie techniques). Though all of the hotel’s male patrons are smitten by Gilda’s allure, Wellman is careful not to portray all of them as slobbering lechers. Victor Varconi’s General Emmanuel Jesus Maria Gomez is courtly in his treatment of her, and Charles Middleton’s attorney Jones becomes almost fatherly as Gilda finds herself on trial for murder. The movie’s climax seems melodramatically shrill as Gilda is given a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t choice to make, and her over-emotional decision seems foolhardy in retrospect negating her earlier steeliness and determination and reducing her to a pitiful victim with no recourse but the fateful one she has chosen.
Dorothy Mackaill’s central performance is both effective and infuriating in turns. She’s gallant in some moments of crisis but weak-willed and idiotic in others with the actress’ negotiating of those differences in irregular and sometimes unsatisfying fashion. Donald Cook as the faithful sailor is fine but off screen for large portions of the movie. Ralf Harolde as Piet and Morgan Wallace as Bruno each play their brutal villains with forcefulness but without much nuance. Better are Charles Middleton and Victor Varconi as the more restrained men smitten by the lovely Gilda but able to control their impulses. As the hotel manager and her porter, Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse walk off with all of their scenes. McKinney also gets to warble the now-classic “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (co-written by Clarence Muse) making one wish she had been cast as the lead of the film with her much more dynamic personality and a better way of delivering dialogue than Dorothy Mackaill. Cecil Cunningham gets a couple of choice telephone scenes in the early going as peroxide-haired chippie Angie, seemingly a kind of pimp for call girl Gilda.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.20:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully reproduced in 1080p using the AVC codec. There are some missing frames you’ll easily notice, and the black levels in the grayscale never reach deep levels of inkiness. But scratches and all dirt and debris are nowhere to be seen resulting in a pristine image even with an over-reliance on soft focused photography in the leading lady’s close-ups. The movie has been divided into 32 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix represents a great achievement for audio elements this old. The recording of the dialogue is sometimes a little reedy rather than robust, but it’s all discernible and has been mixed with music and sound effects quite nicely. Though you might hear just a touch of soft hiss in a scene or two, most of the soundtrack is free of hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Theatrical Trailer (1:11, HD)
Crime Square (8:49, HD): Pat O’Brien one-reeler
George Jessel and His Russian Art Choir (8:03, HD)
Dumb Patrol (7:18, HD): 1931 animated satire of The Dawn Patrol.
William A. Wellman’s seldom-seen Safe in Hell is an eye-opening pre-Code melodrama that pulls no punches and tells a tight, tough little story. The Warner Archive Blu-ray release offers good video and audio quality of a film of this era, and fans of the director will likely appreciate being given a chance to see one of his lesser-known works.
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