When I applied to join the Large Association of Movie Blogs (The LAMB) (I am thrilled to now be a member!), I was asked to name no more than three of my favorite films. That’s a tough order for any Gemini, let alone a moody female, but rules are rules. So one of the films I listed, which certainly makes nearly any of my Top 20 Movie lists (no matter the category), was Safe In Hell (1931).
Safe In Hell is one of my favorite Wellman films and a great example of work prior to full force of The Motion Picture Production Code — so it’s no coincidence that it provides a feast of discourse for females.
A film history tidbit about Safe In Hell, from TCM, explains a lot about the quality of the film too:
An interesting footnote to Safe in Hell is that Wellman cast two popular black actors of the day, Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse, as what are practically the movie’s only positive and reputable characters. And this was a period in which blacks were routinely stereotyped or exploited. Frank T. Thompson, in a biography of Wellman, points out that, while the film’s written script was filled with “a white writer’s idea of ‘Negro dialect,’ no such talk reaches the screen. Either McKinney and Muse had enough clout to demand that they speak in normal language or Wellman just wanted to avoid a convenient cliche.”
Surely the cliched speech would have made the movie more corny & less memorable — or memorable for less-than-good reasons.
The story centers around Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a woman who, before we are introduced to her, had been seduced away from pining for a sailor at sea & tricked into dating a married man, Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde). Gilda was a good girl caught in a bad situation, only made worse by the married man’s wife who did what she could to ensure that Gilda’s name was “Mud” — or worse. Left both with a ruined reputation and a need to survive, Gilda does what you imagine a woman — especially a “Wild Bill” Wellman woman — would do; she becomes a prostitute.
While all of this has happened before the film begins and told to us through film dialog, it’s an important part of the movie’s story. It not only sets Gilda up as a “good girl at heart,” a victim of circumstance, but provides the cultural context of a woman’s powerlessness. Not only are women secondary to men, but there’s a social order used by women to keep or push other women down the ranks. To some extent this is still done today, with women blaming “the other woman” for their man’s cheating ways; and societal disapproval of “loose women” turning into a very real disowning, as these women are abandon and left to whatever “mercies” they can find & scrounge for in the crumbs of men.
When Gilda responds to a phone call from her Madam to meet a “John” at a hotel, she’s surprised to discover that her client is none other than the married man who deceived her and put her in this position. She refuses to stay — and when he says she’s in no position to deny him, she declares, “Any man but him.” A struggle ensues, a fire starts, the man is declared dead, and Gilda is suspected of the damages and death.
Warned by the Madam, Gilda prepares to get out of town & live a life on the lam — just as the good sailor, Carl Erickson (Donald Cook), returns from sea.
Carl doesn’t know the whole story, but he’s desperate to help his girl. Being a sailor, he both knows of a place where there’s no extradition laws, (Tortuga, a Caribbean Island) and has the means to smuggle her there.
When they arrive at the only hotel on the island, Gilda quickly discovers she’s not just the only white woman in the hotel but the only white woman on the whole island. The other hotel residents, also criminals hiding out from the law, begin to drool and dream at the site of Gilda. (Their leering lust is so comical that you might be reminded of old cartoon wolf “aaooga”s — which, as a woman, I feel isn’t so far off from male reactions of today lol)
Before Carl’s ship leaves, he & Gilda run off to church where they hold their own marriage ceremony, promising their love & dedication to one another. She is to wait, alone in her room, and be a good girl until he returns.
Gilda does her best. Endless days alone in her room playing solitaire, lounging, and staring out the window to look at the sea for Carl’s ship to return, punctuated by quick trips to the front desk (or dockside) in search of mail from Carl.
She’s bored out of her mind.
Meanwhile, conversation among the lust male criminals, as you might imagine, revolves around two things: competition for Gilda’s attentions and life on the island.
As she bats away invitations & advances in lady like fashion, we learn that this is no island paradise. The law on the island, Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), is happy to not extradite because he prefers to play God, leveraging hanging and prison work camps into prosperity for himself. The prison work camps are so bad that hotel guests debate which is worse, death or the camp — leading them to conclude that they are, as the movie’s title states, safe in hell.
Of course the shady lawman, Bruno “The Hangman,” has eyes for Gilda. But more than eyes, he has the means to maneuver her into his arms.
When his advances are refused, he makes sure that Gilda receives no mail and suggests that Carl’s intentions were if not pure to begin with, that he’s changed his mind… Leaving Gilda to feel abandoned and alone.
Eventually, Gilda gives into the loneliness, fear and boredom of her isolation and accepts one of the endless invites to have dinner with the other hotel residents.
After just one night of partying with the men, Gilda, who still desperately hopes for Carl’s return, returns to keeping to her room. She hasn’t done anything unforgivable (i.e. no sex), but decides that she must remain faithful to Carl and her promise.
One afternoon, during yet another hopeful-turned-soul-crushing trip to the docks for mail which isn’t there (because, remember, Bruno is intercepting it), Gilda spots Piet, the married man she (and the law) believe she’s killed is alive!
Piet is alive and hiding out on the island because he used the fire to fake his own death and is now on the run from authorities for the insurance fraud. Both are happy to see each other; she because she’d like to clear her name, but he because he’d like to continue the “romance.” When he refuses to help clear her name & she refuses, again, his advances, Piet begins a smear campaign. He informs the hotel residents and the island law that Gilda is anything but a faithful bride, a dutiful & faithful girlfriend, or a lady — she’s a prostitute. The thin veneer of respect removed, all the men’s lusty leering turns into dirty scheming.
Stripped of whatever dignity & hope she’d had, Gilda finds herself without any defenses — save for the locked door of her small hotel room.
While Gilda’s vulnerability is something most women can identify with (to some extent, anyway), Bruno’s not only furious to discover that it’s a prostitute not a lady who’s been refusing his advances, but, because he has Carl’s letters, he knows that his time is short — Carl’s on his way to bring her back to America with him. Furious and with the circumstances forcing his hand, he has to make his move.
Spoiler Alert! What follows may ruin the film for you; so don’t read if you’d rather watch the film & have it unfold for you as film should.
Using Piet’s arrival as a threat to her own safety, Bruno gives Gilda a gun for her own protection; guns are illegal for anyone but the law on the island, but “she’s his friend, so it will be OK.” Then he arranges it so that Piet, who is still under the all-too male assumption that he has rights to Gilda, can gain access to her room.
When Piet tries to rape Gilda, she defends herself, using Bruno’s gun — killing Piet for real this time.
One of the hotel-hide-out-residents is a lawyer. He defends her and it looks like he will escape The Hangman’s noose — but while she hopefully awaits the jury’s decision, Bruno The Hangman himself comes to visit her and he explains that even should she be found innocent of the murder, there’s still the matter of her illegal possession of a gun…
That’s when it hits her: Bruno has set her up to get her in his prison where she’ll be his.
Gilda runs from the room and throws herself at the judge — for the kind of mercy you can only find in film noir. She confesses that she killed Piet in cold blood; he’d never attacked her, that she shot him in the back. Then she turns to smarmy hangman and says, “The only way you’ll touch me is when you put that rope around my neck!”
She is sentenced to hang, of course, but given a brief escorted visit back to the hotel to pack up her things. Carl, who has impeccable timing regarding Gilda’s packing activities, arrives now. Gilda convinces her guard to give her a few minutes alone with the happy — and oblivious — Carl. (And she convinces her lawyer to go along with the skit to follow.) She then convinces Carl that she’ll follow him back to the states on the next ship; there they will live virtuous lives of happiness and love. As he leaves happy & hopeful, Gilda instructs her lawyer not to inform Carl of the truth ’til after the deed is done and she is gone.
Affairs in order, Gilda now turns to accept the fate of her own construction.
As Pagan Moon plays, we are mesmerized by a moment… The beautiful exposed neck of Gilda, presented with the film lighting version of an aura of goodness… The smarmy tear-covered face of Bruno, who now realizes what he’s done…. And then glorious Gilda, resplendent in the power of good & finally in control, strides off to her execution, leaving the impotent & evil law man trailing behind her.
And that’s why Safe In Hell is a movie that I categorize as film noir — other critics be damned.
Sadly, Safe In Hell is not available in DVD (or even VHS); we must ait for another airing on TCM — and while we do, pressure Warner Brothers to release it:
Warner Home Video
4000 Warner Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91522-0001