‘Safe in Hell’ – Dorothy Mackaill takes refuge on Criterion Channel

The Hollywood films of the early 1930s pushed the limits of what was permissible to show on screen and few directors used that freedom as well as William Wellman. 

Her directs the pre-code drama Safe in Hell (1931), a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama), with a merciless brutality. It stars the largely forgotten Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda, a scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and she is amazing as Gilda, a New Orleans hooker who is whisked off to a Caribbean island after killing the man who raped her (Ralf Harold).

The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. Gilda endures it all while waiting for her fiancé (Donald Cook) to rescue her.

They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet they have a glimmer of humanity compared to the island’s police chief (Morgan Wallace), who uses every crooked ploy he can to make her his mistress. The film manages to give the criminals a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense.

Wellman is snappy and sassy as he drives the story from the cynical to the sentimental (a touching wedding scene that plays out on the getaway ship) to the spiritual with equal commitment.

Charles Middleton and Gustav von Seyffertitz costar and African-American performers Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse play the hotel hostess and waiter/bellhop, respectively. Though they call out the restaurant orders in song, they defy the stereotypes most black actors were forced to play and are afforded the same dignity as the film’s heroes.

Black and white

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Safe in Hell [Blu-ray]
Safe in Hell [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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