Monday, 22 April 2013

Pre-Code Hollywood: Safe in Hell (1931)

Bloody hell.  Pre-code Hollywood movies have the reputation of putting it all out there, showing every possible facet of human emotion and interaction, with no censroship to speak of and a willingness to explore the seamier side of life.  And I've seen a lot of them, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer bleakness of  Safe in Hell.

The ending's obviously the bit people tend to comment on and it's true that it's about as dark as cinema every gets, like a black and white version of Lars von Trier's 21st century melodrama, Dancer in the Dark, but far more purposeless (in some ways).  But that's only the tip of the iceberg, and William Wellman (later to make the equally astonishing Public Enemy) makes sure that this is one movie which you won't leave bouyed by the essential goodness of the human spirit, for all that the heroine is driven throughout by the need to keep a vow made in church.

The plot's a simple enough one - girl loves boy but he sods off to sea; in his absence girl becomes a prostitute to survive; girl thinks she's killed a client (who she hates in any case); girl is smuggled by sailor-boy to the only Caribbean island with no extradition treaty with the USA.  You'll need to watch the movie to know how that last decision turns out (clue: not well).

The best thing about the film isn't the plot though, it's the cast of scumbags and ne'er-do-wells who inhabit the island's single hotel (where sailorboy goes and dumps her on her own - again!).  A south american general who struts like a slimy peacock and boats of the three presidents he's killed; a ship's captain who burned his ship for the insurance money, killing all the passengers and crew on board; a crooked lawyer and a lecherous thief (who at one point is cearly accused of being capable of having sex with a chicken - you really don;t get that sort of joke post-Hays Code!)  Worst of all though is Bruno, the island's executioner and warden of the jail.  Suffice to say that it's through the machinations of this sorry group that Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda ends up as she does, though there are some surprising returns to grace amongst the horrible supporting cast.

You'd know the director  is top-notch even if you didn't know it was Wellman incidentally.  Plus point go to him for allowing Clarence Muse and Nina Mae McKinney to talk like normal human beings instead of soft-shoe shuffle comedy black islanders, but its touches like the scene where every man turns his seat round to watch Gilda's bedroom door, then settles himself in place for the show, or Gilda and her sailor fiance whispering to one another with a crate in the way, which really mark this out as more than a run of the mill theatre filler.