Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- The opening shot of the movie goes straight up Dorothy Mackaill‘s legs to her garters. Here’s a publicity still of this shot, for, you know, context:
- Next, she goes to a man’s hotel room to turn a couple of tricks. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Ralf Harolde‘s character Mr. Van Saal; previously he’d raped her, his wife had found, and she was forced her into destitution, AKA her current predicament. He reassures her, “There’s no danger of the wife walking in this time!”
- The island nation that Mackaill ends up on allows booze: “Oh, yeah, it’s a free country!”
- Clarence Muse (who I pondered on back in my Night World review) is back playing hotel owner named Newcastle. Newcastle’s wife, Angie (Nina Mae McKinney) runs the hotel’s bar. They’re both vibrant, flirt with each other, don’t talk with any ridiculous accents, and are pretty much the most respectable people in the entire film. Oh, and they’re black; that’s worth noting.
- Safe in Hell is about a woman trying to keep an island full of criminals from sexually assaulting her. Making a movie that calls out the patriarchy for doing horrible things to women? Yeah, that’s pretty Pre-Code.
The Particulars of the Picture
| Piet Van Saal
| Mr. Bruno
Nina Mae McKinney
|Directed by William A. Wellman|
The Tropical Inferno
“Just when everything’s going so well for us, you gotta cry!”
“Yeah, us women ain’t got any sense…”
Gilda, a prostitute in New Orleans, just arrived to turn a trick at a hotel when the man who’s there turns out to be the man who drove her into the business in the first place. He’s Piet Van Saal, and his wife is out of town for the weekend. After he attempts to make his way with her again, she snaps and clocks him with a bottle of alcohol. This starts a fire, and, in a panic, she rushes out of the room.
She packs up her sparse room and is just about to flee when Carl, her old beau, busts in. He’s been in the Navy, and completely unaware to the depths that Gilda has sunk. After he showers her with gifts, he slaps her, but once he hears the police siren in the air he agrees to help her out.
Carl smuggles her to a tropical Caribbean island that has no extradition treaty. The island is rather backwater and filled with centipedes and other nasty bugs. It’s only inhabitants are natives and others who are on the run from the law, a gallery of despicable men who greet the arrival of a white woman– the only white woman– with lip smacking glee.
Carl has to get back to the Navy, but before he leaves, he takes Gilda to the island’s mission and performs a small wedding ceremony between the two of them. He has her promise her fidelity and then he departs.
The island is run with an iron fist by Mr. Bruno. Everyone else slinks away from him when he enters the room, and he chortles as people engage him in worried conversation. “So they say my jail is worse than my gallows, eh?” he smiles. One man notes that they’re all safe thanks to Bruno’s autocratic ways, and Bruno responds with the titular line, “Yes, safe in hell.”
As Gilda undertakes thousands of games of solitaire, the atmosphere in the hotel begins to whittle away her defenses. Mr. Bruno, quite interested in her himself, intercepts letters from Carl and keeps her off balance. She finally breaks down and allows herself one night of partying, where she reveals to the other hotel residents how she ended up on the island. This endears her to them, and soon many of the men find themselves feeling protective rather lecherous.
But when a surprise guest appears on the island, Gilda’s given a chance to escape… until the gun she’s given has to be used to its logical ends. There’s a trial, and Mr. Bruno’s attempts to blackmail her backfire, as she instead opts for the gallows. Carl arrives only too late, and she leaves him with the impression that she’ll be following along shortly. That’s not what’s going to happen, though, and instead she marches into the sunset, redeemed.
A note on the long forgotten Dorothy Mackaill: count how many times she gets away with slapping people in this movie. She’s an aggressive firebrand who does some excellent work as she swings between terror, anger and hope.
Safe in Hell is about how ugly the need for sexual power can get. Director Wellman’s camera is so energetic and crazy that it’s a dizzying experience, and matches Mackaill’s feisty spirit perfectly. Wellman takes rather stodgy material, most of it set in one hotel, and imbues it with a lurid sense of anger and dread. It’s an amazing experience, and something I really want to go into some depth on.
The Wellman Style
I wanted to run through a few (okay a lot) of screenshots of the film in order to talk about Wellman’s visual sensibilities, since I think this film proves just how far ahead of the game he was of other commercial directors of the time.
The Body as a Commodity
“On the level? I never thought you’d end up like this!”
This is the fourth movie in so many weeks I’ve watched that has dealt with the act of women using their body for monetary gain. A lot of critics are quick to point out the similarities with with Rain (and the 1928 silent version of that film, Sadie Thompson), which is similarly about a woman trapped on an island with lecherous men running afoot. While that certainly informs the setting as a forebear, the characters and situations couldn’t be much different. Thompson has a ball as a prostitute, while Gilda most certainly does not.
A couple of sites I saw lamented Gilda for becoming a ‘good girl’ during the course of the film, which strikes me as more than a little wrongheaded. They seem to view sexually voracious as a person’s natural state, which it doesn’t seem to be for Gilda. Gilda was forced into being a prostitute– her penance for being raped by Piet. Her character is abused by the wrong man with the wrong wife, and death is her only escape. Having her go out as the full Sadie Thompson would have been hollow, horrible, and wrong.
Safe in Hell is more similar to the Kay Francis movie I reviewed a few weeks ago, Mandalay, though that one came out three years later. Mandalay may represent a sort of regression, as its heroine finds personal redemption through murder rather than patriarchal damnation. While I won’t condemn Mandalay, the conflict in Safe is a more interesting examination of societal ills. Mandalay is a weepy, Safe is a lightning rod.
And that’s because the film’s portrayal of the white male sex is so inflammatory that it’s hard not to resent the whole lot of ’em! Running down the male characters, it’s awful. Besides the cadre of drooling islanders, there’s Piet, who is so interested in having sex with her, he even easily forgives her for trying to murder him. There’s also Mr. Egan on the island, who designates himself as Gilda’s protector and then grows furious when he finds out that she’s had sex before. Making it worse, during her murder trial, he consoles her and then immediately leads it back to a pickup line. Basically “I bet you won’t be convicted… now do you want to have sex?”
I think Egan’s in the film, though, to make Carl look good. Certainly Carl is cautious since the last time he left her, Gilda, you know, went into prostitution, but he still demands her total isolation while he’s away. Is he being safe or is he being a monster? His demands make any pleasure Gilda experiences become illicit, which complicate her morally and help further imbue her with the guilt complex that winds up being her end. He’s so terrified of the slippery slope that he keeps her precariously perched on a pillar.
But then it could still be argued that Carl is the ‘good man’, a person that someone needs for help. The thing about Safe in Hell is that it’s a condemnation, not a solution, of the situations that men force women into. It’s vicious, beautiful, and well worth seeking out.
Trivia & Links
- Man, a lot of my work was done for me this week as Alt Blog lists out a dozen links with quotes about the film. It’s pretty handy, and I wish they did this for every film I watched…
- It did miss this fun post from Krell Laboratories, which points out a couple of things I missed, like the camera placement during Mackaill’s transformations and how Bruno’s cigar reflects his current mood (up and erect when powerful, down when Mackaill is telling him off).
- I like the illustration used in the film’s poster (it comes from one of the screenshots above):
- Mordaunt Hall over in the Times (you have to scroll down a little bit) seems to like the movie well enough, though his entire review hinges on this:
The most accurate criticism, pro and con, was delivered by a couple in the adjoining seats. The young woman wept piteously and the young man reassured her: “It’s only a motion picture.”
- Goddammit, Mordaunt, what does that even mean?!
Tars Tarkas · September 21, 2012 at 2:21 am
This one looks pretty cool, especially with the black characters treated like normal people (gasp!) I’ll add it to the ever-expanding list of films (which at this point looks like Wonka’s contract…)
Danny · September 21, 2012 at 12:04 pm
I know how you feel, but, yeah, definitely worth checking out. Good stuff here.
GD · July 5, 2013 at 1:18 am
I think it’s so uncanny how much MacKaill looks like Ellen Barkin in that first shot.
Danny · July 7, 2013 at 6:30 pm
I see that too now that you mention it. Crazy.
Priscila · November 18, 2013 at 12:56 pm
I watched Safe in Hell last week and maybe it is because i don’t always understand Spoken English well,but i thought that Van Saal had raped her when she was his secretary.
Danny · November 18, 2013 at 5:15 pm
I haven’t seen it in quite a while, but you may be correct. I’ll have to check next time I watch it.
keri · September 10, 2014 at 12:42 pm
I just watched SAFE IN HELL tonight, and I gotta say – the thing with Piet changes the tone a fair bit. Gilda didn’t have an affair with him at all while Carl was gone, not in the usual sense. She was working for Piet and he forced her to have sex with him, as her boss. His wife found out and blamed the whole thing on Gilda, then spread rumors so that Gilda was fired from subsequent jobs – leaving prostitution as her only way to earn any money, as she explicitly tells Carl.
So “Her character made one mistake of passion and fun with the wrong man with the wrong wife, and death is her only escape.” and the “penance” of prostitution is flat-out wrong there. Instead, it’s another example of the societal ills and wrongs done upon her by men. Gilda’s choice to admit guilt and go to the gallows is perhaps the one and only thing she does on her own terms and for her own benefit, the one thing that completely spoils any men’s plans for her.
Anyway, I appreciated reading this review after watching the picture – a lot of what you pointed out helped me organize my own thoughts about it. I just figure that it’s not fair to leave up the bit about Gilda having an affair with Piet when she explictly said it was otherwise. 🙂
Danny · September 12, 2014 at 1:57 pm
Shoot! When I took my notes, I must have just made a point of their first encounter without writing down what happened when she explained things to Carl. That’s really embarassing, and I apologize. I changed a few places it was mentioned up top to clarify. Thank you so much!
Bruce Paddock · March 14, 2014 at 4:34 pm
The picture, above, that’s identified as Cecil Cunningham, is actually (the underrated and wonderful) Nina Mae McKinney. Cunningham (who plays horny Aunt Patsy in The Awful Truth) wasn’t black. McKinney, sadly, was always shoved onto the back burner in spite of her singing and dancing talents…plus she was a good actress. In today’s world she would achieve greatness. She is very recognizable in the black chorus of the Carioca number in Flying Down to Rio, but is uncredited.
Danny · March 17, 2014 at 3:11 pm
Oh man, that’s embarrassing. I went ahead and fixed it above– thanks for the correction! And I agree, Nina definitely would have made it big nowadays.
RL · December 18, 2014 at 11:21 pm
Trivia I picked up from the latest Stanwyck bio (didn’t see it mentioned in your review, but I may have missed the reference): Stanwyck was determined to do Safe In Hell, but involved in contract disputes with Columbia at the time. If I recall the bio correctly, she was already in pre-production costume fittings, with Mackaill brought in by Warners as backup because of the litigation. Stanwyck lost and was forced to drop out.
Danny · December 28, 2014 at 2:09 pm
I haven’t finished that particular bio yet (I think I got worn out around the 300 page mark), but that’s interesting trivia. It definitely feels like a role Stanwyck would have excelled in, though there’s something about Mackaill’s weariness that makes me still glad that the movie ended up the way it did.
JennyG · April 14, 2020 at 6:04 am
Safe in Hell is currently streaming on TMC, so I was finally able to see it. It’s the perfect movie to see in quarantine! Watching MacKaill be bored in confinement was perfect for me.
Great review, too. I love your mis-en-scene analysis. I think the only theme you missed was Gilda’s cigarettes: Gilda helps herself to a cigarette at Piet’s before she knows he’s the John; her cigarette starts the fire that allegedly kills Piet; on the ship, Carl doesn’t want her to smoke because it could blow up the ship; in the hotel, whom she takes cigarettes from & lights signal whom she is letting in and rejecting. Cigarettes are bad, but they are her habit and she never gives them up, even after she tells Carl she will always be good. She takes her last one off her guard against his will and helps herself to the light, too. That action tempered the self sacrifice of the ending for me and helped me detect the subversive ending Keri saw: “Gilda’s choice to admit guilt and go to the gallows is perhaps the one and only thing she does on her own terms and for her own benefit, the one thing that completely spoils any men’s plans for her.” I love the juxtaposition shots of Mr. Bruno and Gilda in their last confrontation: miserable, Bruno is trapped in his own game. He wanted her, not her execution, and he will have to do it himself by law. In contrast, as you point out, Gilda is victorious and she offers her neck like Christ’s “turn the other cheek.” Her salvation is her own, not Carl’s.
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