Plenty of pre-code films pushed the envelope, but director William Wellman’s Safe in Hell is a particularly nasty little movie.
In the opening scene, we meet the lead character Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a New Orleans prostitute who, after a call from her Madame, throws on a slinky dress and heads out to meet her next “client”. To Gilda’s surprise, her “date” for the evening is Piet (Ralf Harolde), a former employer who had forced himself on her. Piet is a married man, and when his wife found out what happened, she not only blamed Gilda, but made the poor girl’s life a living hell from that point on.
Gilda wants nothing to do with Piet, and when he grabs her, she breaks free, throws a bottle at him, and believes she has killed him (the incident also sparks a fire, which burns down the hotel). Now wanted for murder, Gilda is shuttled out of the country by her sailor fiancé Carl (Donald Cook), who stows her away on his ship and drops her off on the island of Tortuga, the only place in the world that doesn’t have extradition laws.
Naturally, being a safe haven for fugitives, poor Gilda must share a hotel with some pretty shady characters, all of whom intend to cozy up to their pretty new “neighbor”. Carl pays for one month’s rent and hands Gilda enough cash to live on, then hops back on his ship, promising he will send more money as soon as possible.
Alone and surrounded by a bunch of horny criminals, Gilda spends her days shacked up in her room, with only the hotel’s employees, Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and Newcastle (Clarence Muse), tending to her needs. Weeks pass, and Gilda, who hasn’t heard from Carl, goes a little stir crazy.
But she has bigger problems: Gilda has also drawn the attention of Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the local jailer, who has taken a keen interest in the island’s prettiest resident. But that’s nothing compared to the surprise she receives when the hotel’s newest occupant / criminal on the run checks in!
Can Gilda stay out of trouble long enough for Carl to return, or will the island’s misfits get the better of her?
It’s a sordid tale, yet is bolstered by the fine performance of Mackaill as Gilda, the fallen woman who, whenever she tries to pull herself out of the muck, seems to get dragged down into it again. We feel for her throughout the movie, and we root for Gilda and Carl (also well played by Cook) to somehow live happily ever after.
Alas, the story is not on their side. Gilda is constantly hounded by the men on Tortuga, all of whom lust after her. Try as she might to fend them off, they never give up, with Mr. Bruno being the most dangerous of the bunch. As the jailer, he attempts to frame Gilda for a crime that will keep her behind bars for six months, with the intention of keeping her safe and comfortable in exchange for certain “favors”.
Under the crisp direction of Wellman, Safe in Hell features a number of twists in the final act that will keep audiences on their toes, never quite sure which direction the story will go, or how the film will end (the conclusion turns out to be the biggest surprise of them all).
I always marvel at how far some of these pre-code films go, taunting the censors with steamy tales and characters of questionable morals (in a nice twist, two of the most likable supporting characters in Safe in Hell are played by African-Americans McKinney and Muse, who avoid stereotypes that were prevalent at the time to deliver heartfelt turns as Gilda’s only friends on Tortuga). Yet even by pre-code standards, Safe in Hell manages to shock the hell out of us!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10