Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Safe in Hell (1931)

by on February 14, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Feb 21 at 1:00, 5:20, 9:40 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

*Triple Feature w/ CENTRAL AIRPORT (1933) & STINGAREE (1934)


Film Forum offers a juicy trio of William Wellman Pre-Codes in the second week of their tribute to the director.


Glenn Kenny analyzes the shaky reputation Wellman has with auteurists, for his blog Some Came Running:

I think there’s maybe some kind of consensus that Wellman’s blunt, meat-and-potatoes brand of cinematic expression found perhaps its fullest flower in the down and dirty space between 1927 and 1934, and this brings us to Safe In Hell… a brisk eye-opener.


Says Alt Screen Editor Brynn White, “There is a real beauty to this offbeat and evocative film, a real misfit even amidst an era of misfits.”
And here’s an Alt-Screen supplied clip illustrating the film’s mesmerizing eccentricities. Dorothy Mackaill lets loose, while Nina Mae McKinney sings the blues:


Alt Screen Editor Brynn White sets the scene:

Safe in Hell opens in the depraved den of New Orleans with Gilda, a lethargic hooker in a kimono accepting her assignment for the evening. (“He’s lonesome, see? He wants someone to go places with him.” “I’ll go right into my dance.”) Mr. Lonesome turns out to be an illicit liaison from Gilda’s past who feels entitled to his former property while his current wife’s out of town. Through a series of rough breaks, Gilda knocks him out cold and accidentally sets the boarding house ablaze. Suffice it to say, it’s time to get out town.
But packing is interrupted by another blast from the past: the return of the noble sailor beau from Gilda’s bygone days of living on the up and up. Though she has an awful hard time informing this doting innocent just how low she’s sunk, he seems inclined to forgive and forget, intent on stewarding her to a notorious gulf island with non-extradition laws until this whole manslaughter thing blows over. But nothing’s that easy. As the sole white woman on the island, Gilda is constantly, lecherously ogled by the island’s other criminal refugees, who are depicted as simultaneously comic and horrifying. The only government minister died the month previous, so there’s no legally binding union for Gilda before her white knight sets back out to sea. She keeps a low but bored profile, veiled behind the mosquito net in her room, seemingly less concerned with her imperiled security than proving her worthiness of a love too pure to be true. Though the island is hardly a tropical getaway; the water’s got “wigglers” (don’t ask) and the the deliciously sinister sherrif boasts that his jail is even worse than his gallows. He warns Gilda that this self-governed oasis is nothing but an illusion of security, that Gilda is little more than “safe in hell.”
Working from a stageplay source and chiefly relegated to one set of rickety staircases staged across multiple planes of action, director William Wellman shoots the moon with mobile camerawork and cantilevered angles. The technique is a piquant contrast to the claustrophobic tale of entrapment and limited options. With the help of Mackaill’s no-nonsense performance (perhaps too natural, she never carried a movie again), Wellman sculpts a tragedy with a gentle, curious sense of salvation.



David Cairns for his blog Shadowplay:

Safe in Hell shows Wellman at his hard-boiled peak. Dorothy McKail is supremely naturalistic, but there are as many kinds of naturalism as there are people. She seems quite unconcerned about looking pretty (Wellman hated actresses who fussed about their looks) and does odd things like continuing her dialogue while kissing Donald Cook on the lips. “Mmmff-mmf-mm!” she’ll say.
The plot sees her as a prostitute fleeing a manslaughter rap with sailor boyfriend Cook, and holing up in the one place without any extradition treaties, a repulsive tropical hell aswarm with caterpillars and fugitives from justice. These include Gustav Von Seyffertitz, Charles “Ming” Middleton and Victor Varconi, who see to it that the atmosphere of grubbiness is soon almost unbearable. Like FRISCO JENNY, this is one of Wellman’s tales of female sacrifice, and it packs quite a wallop.


Matthew Flanagan for MUBI:

Safe in Hell is built around a sense of the terseness of time. Plenty of Wellman’s mannerisms are present: tracking shots following two people talking their way to somewhere, low pans and no-bullshit set-ups with a feel for industry and transit, eateries and hang-outs; here the serving of cheap brandy and weight of saloon stairs—the sources of what Manny Farber called Wellman’s “minor achievements,” sharp fictions where there’d be “no reason for any movie realist to handle the subject again.” The world of the film is a small, unstable one, made smaller by the sweat of loneliness, the memory of crime, the threat of violence and rape. So it’s entirely devoid of sentiment, and, at its conclusion, stunningly downbeat—even Lang would bristle. Seems Wellman made a film about this sort of patriarchal hell because, faced with a choice that isn’t, we’d be better off dead.


William K. Everson in his NYU program notes:

“Safe in Hell” is another of the prodigious number of obscure and now forgotten plays that became movie fodder in the early days of sound. So many of them had basically good little stories that still needed good directors and casts to make anything out of them. They didn’t revolutionize the talkies, but they did contribute strong and off-beat stories that were ofen far meatier than those contrived by the contract studio writers. “Safe in Hell,” with its roots in “Sadie Thompson,” is a curious little film. Most of it takes place in a basic set, solid and well designed to permit camera movement. And of course the theatrical flavor of the plot, characters and dialogue has a richness in itself; rarely in one film have we seen so many lecherous rascals lusting over “the only white woman on the island.” Too grim to be a “fun” movie, too insignificant to be “art,” it really offers no valid reason for having been made – yet its startling, holding, and moving in turn. It fills us in just a little more on Wellman, and reminds us once more what a warm and sensitive actress Dorothy Mackaill was.


Dave Kehr recently took note of the unjustly forgotten Mackaill, for The New York Times:

Dorothy Mackaill may be having her moment. When this British-born actress, a star in silent films and early talkies, died in 1990 at 87, she merited only a 153 word obituary in The New York Times. And the unsigned article didn’t even mention the movie most responsible for her current revival: “Safe in Hell,” a 1931 melodrama that seems remarkably lurid and sordid even by the loose standards that prevailed before Hollywood began enforcing the production code with vigor in 1934.
Gilda may be safe from prosecution in her island refuge, but she’s also the only available woman in a fleabag hotel otherwise populated by a collection of lecherous reprobates, who make a morning ritual of lining up their wicker chairs to watch her descend the stairs. It’s a situation that can’t end well, and it doesn’t under the blunt and forceful direction of William A. Wellman, who drives the film to its stunningly bleak conclusion in a thrifty 73 minutes.
None of Mackaill’s other films are as striking as “Safe in Hell,” but all give evidence of an engaging performer with a strong, self-reliant attitude toughened by the rough pragmatism of the early Depression years.



Bertrand Tavernier in Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2004):

Night Nurse and Safe in Hell are remarkable films, among the major successes of the Pre-Code period. They give us detailed portraits of the world of labor, and they tackle any number of topics that would soon become taboo. In the even stranger Safe in Hell, a crime melodrama gradually turns into a wry, sarcastic fable. The heroine, clearly a prostitute, believes (mistakenly) that she has killed a man and is wanted for murder (the opening sequences are stunning, their openness and pace still amazing today). She seeks refuge on a Caribbean island from which criminals cannot be extradited. There she must deal with a collection of characters who represent, more or less, the most depraved aspects of civilization. The film at times brings to mind Jean Genet’s The Balcony. In Pre-Code Hollywood, Thomas Doherty writes that Sinclair Lewis felt that the cabaret singer played by Clarence Muse was one of only two exceptions to the demeaning portrayal of blacks in Hollywood films.

Roger Fristoe offers an “interesting footnote” for TCM:

In the unfairly neglected Safe in Hell, Wellman works his magic with Dorothy Mackaill, an actress who is little-remembered today but turned in a powerful performance in this grim pre-Code drama.

Wellman cast two popular black actors of the day, Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse, as what are practically the movie’s only positive and reputable characters. And this was a period in which blacks were routinely stereotyped or exploited. Frank T. Thompson, in a biography of Wellman, points out that, while the film’s written script was filled with “a white writer’s idea of ‘Negro dialect,’ no such talk reaches the screen. Either McKinney and Muse had enough clout to demand that they speak in normal language or Wellman just wanted to avoid a convenient cliche.”



Phil Hall for Film Threat:

The film is also a testament to a pair of remarkable performers who never received the level of adulation that they deserve. Dorothy Mackaill’s Gilda is one of the most refreshingly tough broads to come across the Pre-Code screen, holding her own against the roughest element and still maintaining life-of-the-party status.
“Safe in Hell” is also offers the rare opportunity to enjoy Nina Mae McKinney). The vivacious performer created a sensation in King Vidor’s all-black 1929 film “Hallelujah!”, which landed her a contract with MGM (the first time an African-American was signed by a Hollywood studio). However, MGM had no idea what to do with McKinney and thus did nothing except loan her out to other studios (“Safe in Hell” was a First National release). After appearances in this movie, a few musical short films and the British version of “Sanders of the River” as Paul Robeson’s wife, MGM finally cast McKinney in the 1935 feature “Reckless” – and then cut her substantial supporting part to a near-cameo appearance. In “Safe in Hell,” McKinney breaks the racial barrier of the time by playing the manager of the hotel where Gilda is staying. In an era when black women were only used in films as domestic servants or nightclub singers, this was a very unusual example of nontraditional casting. McKinney offered a sensual and light comic personality, and even sneaked in a playful rendition of the song “Sleepy Time Down South.” As with Mackaill, the film shows a talent that Hollywood squandered.
A fun old film that can still raise an eyebrow and a smile.


Lou Lumenick for the New York Post:

Notorious, eye-popping… Cited as the pre-code to end all pre-codes in several books and documentaries in recent years, “Safe in Hell” doesn’t offer anything extraordinary in the way of skin or innuendo, but it’s chockablock with the kind of situations and characters that would be verboten on screen for nearly three decades commencing in mid-1934. Under Wellman’s blunt direction, “Safe in Hell” makes the 1929 version of “The Letter” (released by WAC earlier this year) look like family entertainment by comparison. The acting is uniformly better than in many early Warner talkies of this era.


Sean Axmaker for Parallax View:

Safe in Hell, a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a brutally by William Wellman, and its star Dorothy Mackaill are the most exciting of [a new crop of Pre-Code] discoveries.
The forgotten Mackaill is a kind scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman makes it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the almost spiritual with equal commitment.


Glenn Kenny on the film’s ending:

In any event, tension not only mounts but breaks when a VERY unexpected new fugitive arrives on the island and not only directly makes trouble for Gilda, but stirs up the already nearly-aboil resentments of all the other guys who she’s not sleeping with. Soon it’s almost literally, erm, do-or-die time for Gilda, and this point yields up, for me at least, the most startling sequence of the film, in which the specific object of disgusting hangman Mr. Bruno’s lust is highlighted in an iris-in that also provides a disquieting example of the Kuleshov effect.

It’s a perdition-steeped shot sequence to warm the cockles of a sadism-savvy surrealist’s heart, and it pole-vaults Safe in Hell briefly into a realm that transcends its tawdry moralism, which is in fact about to rear its head most definitively directly after this bit. Whether Wellman meant for this particular juxtaposition to jar so resonantly…well, would to aver so be special pleading, or is it really just anybody’s guess.


  • Michael Guillen

    What a wonderful write-up on SAFE IN HELL, which recently screened in San Francisco at Elliot Lavine’s pre-Code series at the Roxie Cinema. Thank you so much for taking the time to assemble this critical overview.

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