Landing smack-bang in the middle of Hollywood's Pre-Code era, William Wellman's fifth movie of 1931 (his notable others being James Cagney's star-making, grapefruit-smashing 'The Public Enemy', and the squalid thriller 'Night Nurse') proved to be of his tawdriest. No mean feat for a director who seemed intent on pushing boundaries throughout his career.
'Safe In Hell' stars Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda, a New Orleans prostitute, who, thinking that she's killed the man responsible for her career, goes on the run with the help of her sailor boyfriend, Carl (Donald Cook).
Stowing away on Carl's ship, Gilda lets off at the island of Tortuga, a haven for criminals on the run, as it has no extradition treaties. Promising to return for her when his current trip is finished, Carl boards his ship, and leaves Gilda in a rundown, squalid hotel, that plays home to an assortment of the world's most-wanted.
Strengthened by Carl's love for her, and his selfless act of helping her to escape, Gilda resolves to leave her seedy past behind her and reform, literally saved by the love of her man.
The hotel's other residents, on the other hand, a motley collection of murderers, embezzlers and ne'er-do-wells, all take it in turns to try to seduce her. At first, she simply resolves to stay in her room until Carl returns, having her meals sent up, but the island heat, and the ever-pervasive buzz of tedium ultimately lead Gilda to venture outside her room, and into the waiting pack of jackals downstairs.
Rather than succumb though, she ends up befriending her new housemates, forming alliances with the unlikely mob, who all come to form a protective band around the lonely Gilda. All that is, except Bruno, the island's sweaty, unshaven executioner, who determines have his way with Gilda at all costs.
Upon release, the film was advertised as "Not For Children" (this was a long time before age ratings were used), and it's not difficult to see why.
From its opening salvo of Gilda, legs rested on her desk, displaying her stockinged legs, to the sight of a line of men in their chairs, lined up in the hotel bar, eyes trained on Gilda's bedroom door, 'Safe In Hell' is a movie that screams its sexuality, and tugs at your clothes.
Never mind being not for children, the warning outside theatres should have read "Bring Light Clothing". Every frame of the film is drenched in a stifling, sticky heat. Don't expect to see any collars buttoned up. The heat is so tangible, that it's easy to imagine Wellman having to halt takes in order to wipe the fog from the camera lens every few minutes.
Mackaill is her sultry, provocative best here, even in the film's final third, when the heat begins to give way to histrionics. She's ably supported by an affable Cook, but to be honest, he was never the best actor in the world anyway (witness his wooden turn alongside James Cagney's inferno in 'The Public Enemy'). Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse turn in a couple of wonderful supporting performances as Leonie and Newcastle, the staff of the hotel, who thankfully don't play the cliched negro staff that seemed to be so prevalent at the time. Muse and McKinney were thankfully respected enough to be able to put their foot down, even contributing to the film's musical soundtrack.
The standout performance though, comes from Morgan Wallace as the despicable Bruno, all sweat stains, three-day beard and wet tobacco, eyeing up Gilda's flesh through the slits he calls his eyes, all the while dreaming up dastardly ways of ruining Gilda's resolve. The plan he finally puts into action turns the plot on its head; from a clammy, clinging melodrama into a brutal tragedy that lingers long after the final shot.
As an example of Pre-Code film-making, 'Safe In Hell' is certainly the sweatiest; the sex bubbling just under the surface at all times. It's also definitely histrionic, definitely sordid, and definitely not for children.