Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Safe in Hell

TCM is honoring director William Wellman tomorrow morning and afternoon by showing several of his movies. One that I've never recommended before is the interesting Safe in Hell, at 8:30 AM.

Dorothy Mackaill stars as Gilda, a woman in New Orleans who's got a sailor boyfriend named Carl (Donald Cook), but needs money because he's away all the time. So she's turned to prostitution, which presents its own problems since she doens't have any legal protection. Matters come to a head when she gets in a strugle with one of her clients, and accidentally kills him and burns the place down. She was spotted leaving the building, too, so what's a woman to do? Carl has returned, and has a bright idea. Smuggle her aboard his boat, which is going to the one island in the Caribbean that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the US.

Needless to say, things don't quite go as planned. Carl marries Gilda but, being a sailor, has to leave to do his job, and Gilda quickly learns that she's been stranded on a sort of island of lost souls. All of the men are lechers and want her. This is particularly true of the local police chief, who's busy looking for a way to frame her on some dubious charge or another so that he can have her to himself in his island prison. And then who shows up again? No, not Carl, but the man Gilda thought she killed in New Orleans. It turned out that he was only knocked out, but regained consciousness in time to escape the fire, and committed insurance fraud by having his wife claim the life insurance money. So the only place for this man is the same island Gilda is on.

Safe in Hell is interesting and highly atmospheric. The island is one of the more creepy places you'll see on screen, at least in an understated way. The subject matter is stuff that would have no chance of reaching the screen a few short years later after the folks behind the Production Code started enforcing it more closely. The result is a bunch of lesser-known actors making a story that's still somewhat shocking 80 years after it was first released. Safe in Hell doesn't seem to have gotten a DVD release, not even to the Warner Archive collection. So you'll have to catch the rare TCM showing.

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