Plot: Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) is a New Orleans prostitute and her introduction to the business was a brutal one, as a man raped her and then forced into the lifestyle. Her latest engagement has called her to a hotel room and when she arrives, she discovers the client isn’t who she expected. The man in the room is Piet (Ralf Harolde), the same cad who gave her the nasty entrance into the prostitution racket and he plans to revisit those sadistic memories. But she doesn’t intend to let that happen, so she nails him with a liquor bottle, which then breaks and starts a fire, burning up the hotel room and Piet in the blaze. As she scrambles to go on the run, she runs into former flame Carl (Donald Cook) and the two have a chaotic reunion, leading to Carl sweeping her off to an exotic island to lay low. Will Gilda find sanctuary in this remote, tropical locale or has she left one hell for another?
Entertainment Value: I’ve seen and reviewed a good number of pre-code sizzlers, but Safe in Hell is a full on scorcher, to say the least. This has pre-code spice in spades, with prostitution, rape, domestic abuse, free flowing booze, and an island full of sketchy, shadowy men surrounding our female lead. I also love how the movie treats the black characters with much more dignity and respect than most films of this era, so Safe in Hell is progressive on numerous fronts. The narrative is a dark one, but never shies away from the social elements involved and puts a bright light on sexual power, never flinching from the topic at hand. Gilda is taken from a tragic start into an environment of constant danger it seems, but the scenario is never played for exploitation and keeps a serious, even dark tone. There are some bursts of humor of course, used as a pressure valve in the otherwise intense narrative drive. The humor is natural and suited to the material, which couldn’t have been easy to work out, as Safe in Hell deals in some heavy, dark subjects. The story keeps you hooked, but the visuals are excellent as well and William A Wellman’s direction is fantastic, so all of the tumblers just fall into place with this one. I’ve become a huge fan of the pre-code era and I would easily rank Safe in Hell as one of my favorites, so it is highly recommended.
This kind of darker, serious material needs believable, authentic performances and the cast here more than delivers. Dorothy Mackaill has the central role and the more of her work I am able to track down, the more I am amazed at how consistently excellent her performances are. Safe in Hell tasks her to go on a roller coaster of emotions and moods, but she never stumbles here. As usual, she has incredible screen presence and even in this kind of dark material, manages to showcase her charisma and charm, as well as her dramatic abilities. This had to be a tough, demanding role and Mackaill rises to the challenge, simply a fantastic effort. Donald Cook and Ralf Harolde have prominent roles as the men on either side of Mackaill’s Gilda, both turning in solid work and standing out in a colorful, interesting ensemble. Clarence Muse and Nina Mae McKinney play the tropical resort owners and are given terrific material to work with, easily some of the more progressive black characters from this time. The cast also includes Charles Middleton, Cecil Cunninggam, and John Wray.