director William A. Wellman
“She’s the only white woman on the island.”
Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a prostitute in New Orleans, accidentally kills an old lover who played her dirty. And now she needs to get out quick!’ Enter her seafaring beau, back from long months all over the globe.
“I’ve made my living the only way I could.”
Initially taken aback by this, Gilda’s fiancee still loves her and secrets her away to a small island nation in the Caribbean with no extradition policies. She’ll have to hide out, “Safe in Hell” while he ships out again.
William A. Wellman’s Safe in Hell bears it’s origins as a play, but it’s also primo pre-code storytelling and characterization: those on the outsides of “polite society” who would not find their lives depicted after the Hays Code kicked in, plus frankness about sex, and in some cases, a very humanitarian outlook.
I’d just watched Wellman’s Frisco Jenny of the following year, which held some very similar aspects. The lead Gilda is a strong woman, acting in self-reliance, doing what she has to in order to live. True, both Jenny and Gilda end up taking noble stances that ultimately lead them to the gallows, though this tragic ending further empowers their noble motivations rather than acting as pure punishment.
Another great bit of repartee:
“May I ask you senior what are your intentions for the chicken? Honorable I hope?”
Safe in Hell also has a pretty nice jazzy score, and a all too brief singing performance by Nina Mae McKinney (“The Black Garbo”).