It seems to me as if 1931 was a great year for William Wellman. He made five films that year, four of which I have now seen and loved – including his masterpiece The Public Enemy. (I hope to write about that one in due course, but am slightly daunted by its fame and the amount which has been written, so thought I’d watch and write about a lot of his other 1930s movies first to see if they give me any different perspective on the film.)
The others I’ve seen from that year are Other Men’s Women, Night Nurse and now the melodrama Safe In Hell, starring Dorothy Mackaill and Donald Cook, which is one of the best yet. It’s a pity Warner didn’t find room for it in their Forbidden Hollywood 3 set, but I suppose the fact that it doesn’t have a big-name star worked against it. Perhaps it will turn up in their Archive series. At present it is only available via the “grey market” and by downloading, though I gather it is sometimes shown on TCM in the US.
This is one of several early Wellman films giving a sympathetic portrayal of women driven to murder – Beggars of Life, Frisco Jenny and Midnight Mary all have plots turning on this. Mackaill is not an actress I’d previously come across, and is best known as a silent movie actress, but I think she is wonderful in this talkie – with a blend of toughness and vulnerability which makes it almost impossible to tear your eyes away from her and look at the other actors. Barbara Stanwyck was originally lined up for the lead role of Gilda, a woman struggling to leave behind her life as a New Orleans prostitute. I’m sure she would have been great, but can’t think she would have made the heroine quite as tough and world-weary as Mackaill makes her. Her performance reminds me a little of Joan Blondell (they also look slightly alike), especially in her flashes of wise-cracking, sardonic humour.
The first time I watched Safe In Hell, I couldn’t quite believe how good it was – so I watched again and, if anything, I admired it even more the second time. For me this is one of the strongest early Wellman films I’ve seen yet, with all the terseness of his best 1930s talkies, and the feeling that not a scene or line has been wasted. The cinematography by Sidney Hickox is also striking. It is full of dark shadows and unusual angles, and the heroine is constantly seen through bars, or just her eyes or her feet glimpsed, as with Loretta Young in Wellman’s slightly later Midnight Mary. Mackaill is also shown in mirrors, rather than being seen directly, in many scenes – I’m not sure why this is, or whether it is a technique Wellman used in other films, but I find it interesting and arresting.
The script is based on a stage play, by Houston Branch, and it is one of those movies where the stageiness is an asset, as much of the action is set in the claustrophobic world of a hotel on a Caribbean island. The opening titles set the mood for melodrama, with the words “Safe In Hell” appearing in silhouette with flames leaping in the letters. Gilda is then seen for the first time, wearing a dressing gown as she takes a call from her madam giving her an address to visit. However, when Gilda arrives, she discovers the client waiting there is Piet (Ralf Harolde), the man who ruined her. She tells him he is the only man she won’t touch – and, when he won’t take no for an answer, she hurls a piece of furniture at him. He falls to the ground, apparently dead. Gilda, who smokes cigarettes in a seductive way all through the film, leaves a cigarette burning on the ground which sets fire to the building – and the next morning she discovers that she was seen fleeing the scene and is now wanted for murder.
At this point, an old lover turns up – sailor Carl (Donald Cook, playing an idealist with a thin grasp on reality, as he does in The Public Enemy and Frisco Jenny). He comes bearing a ring and promising to marry Gilda, with no idea she has been driven on to the streets while he was away at sea. When she tells him “I made my living… in the only way I could”, he slaps her – an example of the violence against women which is a feature of many pre-Codes . But he instantly repents, says he still loves her and sets about trying to save her. Apart from that disturbing flash of violence, Carl seems utterly devoted to Gilda and determined to marry her. However, although she adores him, he seems a somewhat weak and ineffectual character, always heading back to sea and constantly preaching how Gilda must trust in the Lord and pressing Bibles into her hand. Like the heroine of another Wellman pre-Code, Frisco Jenny, Gilda also believes that “God helps those who help themselves.”
Carl smuggles Gilda aboard his ship and hides her in a crate, where only her eyes are seen through the bars – one of the many examples of her being seen behind bars all through the film. She then discovers that he is dropping her off at a tropical island while he finishes his journey, but this is no tropical paradise. It’s said to be the only island where no extradition treaties apply, meaning Gilda will be “safe” there from extradition to the US, but also meaning the hotel where she has to stay is full of male criminals who see her as easy prey. “Are you sure this ain’t the YMCA?” wisecracks Gilda when she arrives and sees a row of men lounging around, all devouring her with their eyes.
Most of the Caribbean scenes are indoors, but the feeling of heat is convincingly conveyed, and there is also a feeling of rottenness – as even the drinking water here has “wrigglers” in it to get rid of yellow fever germs. The motley band of displaced Europeans and Americans hanging around the bar remind me of a number of films I’ve seen focusing on small groups of ex-pats, but this must be one of the least appealing bunches. They are all loutish and on the make – with the only trustworthy characters being the black hotel manager, Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and porter Newcastle (Clarence Muse). According to the article about this film at the TCM website, Leonie and Newcastle’s parts were originally written in stereotyped dialect, but Wellman dropped all this, possibly after the actors objected to it. As it is, they are not stereotyped at all as far as I could see – there is some stereotyping of black characters in other early Wellman films, but perhaps he felt freer to leave this behind in a film set in the Caribbean. In any case, McKinney in particular gives a warm, sparkling performance, showing her beautiful singing voice in a scene where she performs Sleepy Time Down South, a song written by Muse.
Warning – in this next bit I give away the ending of the film.
By a surprising coincidence, Piet, the man Gilda thought she had killed, turns up alive and well. She is delighted to think she is now no longer a murderer(there seems to be no worry about an arson charge!), and eagerly writes to Carl to come and rescue her – but, when Piet tries to rape her, she kills him for real. A kindly judge and jury seem about to clear her, on the grounds that she was defending herself from sexual attack – but then she learns that she would still face a six-month sentence for gun possession, and the island hangman, the sinister Mr Bruno (Morgan Wallace), intends to use her sexually during that time. “The only time you’ll touch me is when you put a noose around my neck” she snaps, and, in a wildly melodramatic plot twist, goes on to confess to murder, so that she can be true to her promise to Carl that there will never be another man. The very final scene is a visually striking moment, as Gilda starts to walk away towards her death. The screen fades until all that can be seen is her neck. This is a film full of shadows and strange angles, and that final shot comes as the culmination.