TNB Night Owl — Noir Side Street Presents “Safe in Hell”

Incoming Day. Photo by Emanuele Toscano.

Given the tumult of yesterday (hope everyone celebrated Arraignment Day responsibly!), I figured you’d need a bit of a change of pace. And, seriously, how great is this title, “Safe in Hell”?

“Safe in Hell” is a 1931 pre-code crime drama from Warner Bros. Studios, starring Dorothy Mackaille (Gilda Karlson), Donald Cook (Carl Erickson), Ralf Harolde (Piet Van Saal), John Wray (Eagan), Ivan Simpson (Crunch), Victor Varconi (Gomez), Nina Mae Mckinney (Leonie), and Clarence Muse (Newcastle). Directed by William A. Wellman; cinematography by Sidney Hickox. Produced by First National Pictures; distributed by Warner Bros. Screenplay by Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton; based on a play by Houston Branch.

The film runs 73 minutes and was released Dec 12, 1931.

I mentioned this was a pre-code film. What that means is that it was produced before the Hays Code (Motion Pictures Production Code) was put into place. When film was in its infancy, producers didn’t feel constrained to limit their subject matter and how they told those stories. This caused a great deal of consternation from religious and political leaders who believed the loose morals displayed on the big screen were corrupting the youth of our nation. (Sound familiar?) In 1915 the Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment didn’t apply to films, since they were a business rather than an art form.

Before the code was enforced, films were still being produced which contained sex, violence, or something else which violated the code. That’s what we mean by the pre-code era, and that’s where today’s film falls. [By 1934, the Production Code Authority (PCA) was created and it would review films before release to ensure they met the standards of the Hays Code.]

What makes this a “racy” film is the central character, Gilda Karlson, is a prostitute. Gilda is given a job to meet a john at a local hotel, only to discover it’s Piet Van Saal, who had once been her employer who attempted (or succeeded) to rape her at the time. Piet’s wife found out about this and forced him to fire Gilda. Then she hounded poor Gilda every time she got a decent job; thus Gilda ended up making a living “the only way I could.”

When she realizes who this john was who asked specifically for her, they have an argument and she hits him with a vase. He falls to the floor; Gilda believes she’s killed him and runs out. But as she flees, she knocks over a lamp, which catches the curtains on fire. The hotel ends up burning down to the ground.

The next morning Gilda is told by her madame about the “manhunt” for her. She decides to leave, but has no idea how she can escape or where she’ll go. It’s literally at this point that her boyfriend sailor Carl Erickson arrives with news that he’s been promoted to an officer position and can now afford to marry her. Gilda tells him she can’t marry him but at first refuses to tell him why (due to her shame). But he insists he won’t leave until she tells him, so the whole sordid tale comes out. Carl starts to leave, enraged that she’s become such a sullied woman. But when he hears the police sirens nearing, which she confirms are looking for her, he realizes he still loves her and takes her to his ship, to hide her down in the hold.

Carl tells her the ship is headed for Tortuga, which doesn’t have extradition to the US, so she can hide out there indefinitely. When they reach the island, Carl pays for a month of her stay in advance at a local hotel (more of a seedy resort than a hotel) and expresses the desire to marry her. Told the priest is on the other side of the island, they try to rent a carriage, but are unable to. So the two head for a church where they perform a private ceremony between the two of them and agree they’re bound by these vows. Carl then heads back to his ship while Gilda promises she’ll avoid the creepy guys hanging out in the hotel lobby.

Gilda arrives at the hotel.

The creepy guys include a generalissimo who had to flee his country after a failed coup attempt, a ship captain who let his ship sink so he could collect the insurance money, and a crooked lawyer. Gilda spurns all their advances at first. But then when she’s been there nearly a month with no word from Carl (we discover the local lawman has been swiping Carl’s letters to help bring Gilda to him), she spends the evening drinking with the creepy dudes.

The next morning, Piet Van Saal shows up! He’s not dead after all!

Gilda figures she can go back home, because she’s not a murderess after all. (But, of course, she’s still liable for the fire she started when she fled the room; but that point gets overlooked…) She cables Carl with the good news and decides to wait for his return. (And will be a good girl until that happens.)

Well, Piet isn’t having any of that “good girl” stuff, and tries to rape her again. She ends up shooting him with a gun the local lawman had given her for her protection, and things fall apart for Gilda at that point…

The film isn’t noir but rather a crime drama. But it does share some of the elements of noir: criminal themes; a flawed hero(ine) trying to get out of a hole, but managing only to dig herself in deeper; and the possibility of redemption via Carl. Sadly, though, redemption proves an impossible thing because of the lawman who decides to press his own desire for Gilda.

Visually and stylistically, though, the film isn’t noir at all. It certainly is a precursor of the noir movement, though.

Wellman does a great job directing and British actress Dorothy Mackaille shines as the doomed Gilda. Special mention to Nina Mae Mckinney, whose singing voice was so good that they added in a song for her to perform.

Nina Mae McKinney performs her musical number.

Overall, I give this 3.5 unfiltered cigarette puffs.

About the opinions in this article…

Any opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this website or of the other authors/contributors who write for it.