Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) is a New Orleans prostitute who has just arrived at a hotel to meet with a client. The client turns out to be none other than Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), her former boss and the man responsible for ruining her career.
The encounter ends in conflict, with Gilda hitting Piet with a bottle and accidentally starting a fire. Sure that she has killed him, her plan is to skip town. Her old beau Carl (Donald Cook), just returned from the Navy, decides to help her get to an island with no extradition treaty — an island full of criminals.
Safe in Hell was directed by William Wellman. The film is based on a play by Houston Branch, with its adaptation and dialogue written by Joseph Jackson and Maude Fulton.
I find it difficult to gather my thoughts on Safe in Hell, but I’ll try my best here because this film deserves a lot more attention than it gets. It’s been a while since I’ve been so floored by a new-to-me watch.
The basic theme of the movie is a simple one: Men are pigs. That’s nothing unusual for a pre-code, but this pre-code is unusually bleak. It tells the story of a woman forced into prostitution after being assaulted by her boss — and being blamed for it when his wife finds out. With her reputation ruined, she can’t find any other work. Later, she ends up living on an island full of criminals and fending off their advances.
The story is tragic on paper, and the film brings it to life with such a tangible hopelessness. The mood is very successfully built and appropriately reflects the reality of Gilda’s situation.
Much of the film’s success can also be credited to Dorothy Mackaill, leading the film as Gilda. She’s not an actress I’ve paid much attention to before, having only seen her in a few of her smaller roles, but from her first spirited confrontation in this film, I became a fan of Mackaill. What a performance! Her knack for angry rants reminds me somewhat of the great Barbara Stanwyck (who came very close to starring in this film but had to drop out due to a contract issue).
I rooted for Gilda immediately not only because of Mackaill’s performance, but because despite all she’s been through, she never hesitates to speak her mind or stand up for herself. Another highlight for me was Nina Mae McKinney, playing a genuinely good person (one of the film’s only genuinely good people) rather than a stereotype.
Safe in Hell is a unique and important film with a stellar performance from Dorothy Mackaill. Recommended.