Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Safe in Hell (1931) at the Noir City Film Festival

And so, as Sunday night drew to a close, we finally came to the last movie of both the 17th Annual Noir City Film Festival and the evening's "Proto-Noir" marathon.

SAFE IN HELL was the fourth film of the day, and the 20th film I saw in 10 visits to this year's Noir City festival. That number broke my previous record of 18 films seen at the 2012 festival! There were only two evenings I was unable to attend this year's festival.

I had actually seen SAFE IN HELL, directed by William A. Wellman, at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival, although I use the term "seen" advisedly; although I remember William A. Wellman Jr.'s talk before the movie, I was tired that evening and at some point "zoned out" -- my eyes were open but I suddenly realized that the movie was about to end and I had no clue what was happening!

I initially intended to revisit the movie on the Warner Archive DVD, but hearing quite some time ago that a William Wellman series was coming to UCLA, I decided to wait and see if I could watch it there.

As it happened, SAFE IN HELL is not part of the Wellman series currently in progress at UCLA, but it turned up instead at Noir City! I stayed with SAFE IN HELL from start to the bitter end tonight, and wow, was that a bitter end indeed! SAFE IN HELL is one strange movie, almost like a nightmare put on film.

Dorothy Mackaill plays Gilda, who has become a prostitute in order to survive. One night she fends a man off by hurling a bottle at him -- she knocks him cold but later the room catches fire and the police want to arrest her for his death.

Gilda's sweetheart, a sailor named Carl (Donald Cook), returns from the sea just as Gilda needs to go on the lam; he forgives her her recent past and helps her escape to a Caribbean island where she cannot be extradited. Unable to find a priest, they marry themselves, but then he must return to sea while she remains in a hotel with a bunch of very sleazy characters who are also hiding out from the law.

The money Carl sends Gilda is intercepted by the island's hangman (Morgan Wallace) and, well, the whole thing just gets weirder from there, with an ending that has to be seen to be believed.

Mackaill gives an excellent performance, and it's a film which should be seen as an example of the pre-Code at its wildest, but I can't say I exactly enjoyed my 73 minutes spent with SAFE IN HELL, as it's both ugly and depressing.

There are many pre-Codes where it's rather fun watching disreputable behavior -- I'm thinking of movies like RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932), BABY FACE (1933), and EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE (1933) -- but SAFE IN HELL is unrelentingly dark and grim, with a jaw-dropping finale.

Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse play hotel employees and are the most appealing supporting players. The cast also includes Ralf Harolde, John Wray, Ivan F. Simpson, and Charles Middleton.

In closing, thanks to everyone at the Film Noir Foundation and the American Cinematheque for another great Noir City Festival!


Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Hi, Laura - Thank you for your insightful reviews of SAFE IN HELL and HEAT LIGHTNING. The edgy, stunning performances by Dvorak, MacMahon and Mackaill deserve recognition. I think their talents were ahead of their time. I can easily envision them in contemporary films by Soderbergh, Tarantino and the like. Mackail in the finale of SAFE IN HELL still haunts me . . . Jane

9:33 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jane! Thanks so much -- I completely agree, all three actresses are wonderful, though I loved one film but not the other. Both movies were unforgettable, largely because of these three women.

Hope to see you again soon!

Best wishes,

12:17 AM  
Blogger Hal Horn said...

SAFE IN HELL is another I reviewed several years back at The Horn Section; truly unforgettable, and pretty bleak even for a Pre-Code film. I agree completely on Mackaill's performance, and I'll add that Nina Mae McKinney was as lovely and talented as any actress of the era. Her playful rendition of "Sleepy Time Down South" (co-written by SAFE IN HELL co-star Clarence Muse) is another of the film's highlights.

1:43 PM  

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