Safe in Hell (1931) Review

Director: William A. Wellman

Genre(s): Adventure, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 73 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

William A. Wellman was one of the iconic film directors of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood in the early 1930s, prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. His movies during this period included the James Cagney gangster masterpiece The Public Enemy (1931) and Safe in Hell, released the same year. This drama (with adventure and crime elements) follows New Orleans prostitute Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) who finds herself on the run from the law after she believes herself responsible for the killing of Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man who forced her to take up the world’s oldest profession in the first place. On the lamb, she seeks refuge on a Caribbean island with no extradition treaty with the United States.

Safe in Hell is a picture that thrives on atmosphere. Being based on a play by Houston Branch, most of the action is set in a seedy hotel on the island the main character is hiding out on. It’s not exactly a fast-paced flick, with much of the runtime being dedicated to Gilda biding her time, waiting for her sailor fiancé, Carl Bergen (Donald Cook), to help rescue her.

As bleak as this feature’s tone is, it should be noted that the two major non-white characters in it, hotel manager Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and hotel porter Newcastle (Clarence Muse), are treated with a surprising amount of dignity (this was a period when non-whites in cinema were typically stereotyped characters that would be considered offensive today). The runtime’s pretty short – only a little over 70 minutes – so the story is handled economically. That ending seems pretty sudden, though.

Safe in Hell is a gritty, street-tough drama that classic film fanatics will probably be entertained by. It’s not as good as some of Wellman’s other motion pictures, like the aforementioned The Public Enemy or the World War I aviation actioner Wings (1927), but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a bit of trivia: Boris Karloff was originally intended to have a small role in this movie, although he doesn’t actually appear in it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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