EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?
|SAFE IN HELL (director: William A. Wellman; screenwriters: Maude Fulton/Joseph Jackson/from a play by Houston Branch; cinematographer: Sidney Hickox; editor: Owen Marks; cast: Dorothy Mackaill (Gilda Carlson), Donald Cook (Carl Bergen), Ralf Harolde (Piet Van Saal), Morgan Wallace (Bruno), Nina Mae McKinney (Leonie), Clarence Muse (Newcastle), John Wray (Egan), Victor Varconi (General Gomez), Cecil Cunningham (Angie), Charles Middleton (Jones), Ivan Simpson (Crunch); Runtime: 74; MPAA Rating: NR; Warner Bros.; 1931)|
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
William A. Wellman ("So Big"/"Battleground"/"A Star is
Born") directs with force this neglected gem. This is a steamy pre-Code
film that openly talks of prostitution, and gets a tremendous
performance from Dorothy
Mackaill as the ill-fated prostitute on-the-run. It's based
on a play by Houston Branch, and
is written by Maude Fulton and
Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) felt
abandoned by her sailor boy childhood love interest, Carl Bergen (Donald Cook), away on long tours of sea duty, and
turned to prostitution
in New Orleans for the last year when sexually harassed by a horrible
insurance man she worked for as a secretary and was fired by his wife
when she was found in his room. When Gilda goes to keep a business
date, the john turns out to be the seamy Piet Van Saal (Ralf
Harolde). He's the same jerk
she rejected when she worked as his secretary. Gilda refuses to do a
trick with him, and conks him on the head with a bottle of gin. As a
result the hotel burns down, and she's wanted by the police as Piet's
killer. Carl smuggles her in his boat to a Caribbean island named Tortuga, where
there's no extradition. He marries her without a minister, knowing it's
not a legal ceremony but one that they intend to respect--both swearing
to be faithful to each other. Carl leaves for sea duty, promising to
pay her monthly hotel bill and write regularly.
The slimy island jailer and
executioner, Bruno (Morgan
Wallace), tells Gilda "You are safe from jail and gallows -
safe in Hell." Gilda avoids any sexual contact with the lusty male
criminal guests staying in her seedy hotel, who try to make passes at
the only white woman on the island. But she becomes despondent when not
hearing from Carl, not knowing Bruno has stolen her mail and the money
sent. One day Piet shows up on the island, saying he faked his death to
collect the life insurance money. When he stole that dough from his
wife, she turned him in to the authorities.
The film builds to its tense
climax, where Bruno gives Gilda his gun for protection. Although guns
are illegal on the
island, Bruno says she can have one with his permission. When Piet breaks into her room and tries
to rape her, she plugs him. The crooked lawyer hotel guest (Charles
Middleton) successfully defends her at the trial, as
acting in self-defense. She is about to be acquitted
when Bruno tells her he intends to jail her for
possession of the weapon. Rather than sleep with him and break her
wedding vow, good girl Gilda confesses to murdering Piet and is hanged.
Gilda makes a life and death decision that she'd rather have her
self-respect than live by breaking her word to her husband to be
an astonishing film of a call girl redeemed by finding love, but it's
not without some questionable histrionics.
cast two popular black actors of the day, Nina Mae McKinney, as the
hotel manager, and
Clarence Muse, as the cheerful hotel porter, who loom large as the
reputable and likable characters. Nina does a nice turn imitating the
great Satchmo in song, which puts a cherry on this treat.
REVIEWED ON 3/9/2011 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ