Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 29, 2023)
With 1931’s Safe in Hell, we get a “pre-Code” tale. That means the movie pushed boundaries that would soon become verboten under Hollywood self-censorship.
Gilda Karlson (Dorothy Mackaill) used to work as a secretary, but Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde) ended that career. Van Saal rapes Gilda and forces her into prostitution.
Distraught by this turn of events, Gilda accidentally kills Van Saal, and this sends her to a remote Caribbean island to hide. Gilda’s troubles don’t disappear, though, as she contends with new challenges.
Safe reflects the more wide-open nature of the pre-Code era in its basic concept. Movies about stories as grim as a rape victim turned prostitute turned murderer would vanish – at least if depicted in an overt manner.
The best filmmakers wiggled around the Production Code to some degree. They could sneak lurid content in their films in subtle ways.
Nonetheless, the more overt thrills of the pre-Code era went away. That makes Safe an interesting curiosity.
Does it turn into anything more than a pre-Code novelty, though? Yeah – to some degree, at least, as it becomes a passable mix of thriller and melodrama, albeit one that emphasizes the latter genre.
Director William Wellman cranked out five features in 1931. At least one qualifies as a true classic: The Public Enemy, the movie that made James Cagney a star.
Mackaill worked steadily from 1920 to 1934 and then only a handful of times after that. Since I never heard of her until I got the Blu-ray for Safe, clearly the film failed to do for her what Enemy did for Cagney.
To be frank, Safe isn’t in the same class as Enemies, partly because it lacks anyone as charismatic as Cagney. Indeed, we fail to find any familiar names in Safe, though that doesn’t doom it to flop.
Instead, the film’s general sluggishness and lack of real momentum. Even at 74 minutes, it feels padded and fails to deliver a lot of impact.
After Gilda arrives on the island, she meanders about and associates loosely with a crop of degenerates, all of whom lust after her. These seedy characters offer some black humor, but they also accentuate the film’s essential absence of purpose.
Safe enjoys the company of these criminals so much that it forgets to deliver much plot for a large chunk of time. Eventually we get to a major plot twist that adds some unlikely intrigue, but it comes across as too contrived to succeed.
Once this curveball arrives, matters become somewhat more engaging, but the story also leans too soap opera. We find a mix of shenanigans that don’t add much to the piece.
I like that I saw Safe because this screening expanded my understanding of film history. Unfortunately, the end product lacks positive impact too much of the time.