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Blu-Ray : Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: April 25th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1931

Safe in Hell - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

A strange, but fascinating pre-Code drama directed by William Wellman, Safe in Hell has been resurrected from the dead and given a striking makeover by Warner Archive. A new 4K scan struck from the only known surviving 35mm print brings this melodramatic tale of violence, manipulation, and damnation to brilliant life. Solid audio and a few vintage supplements add to the appeal of this little-known film that features an electric performance from the long-forgotten Dorothy Mackaill. Recommended.

Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) thought she had fallen as far as a woman could fall when she got a call telling her a client was requesting her "services." But when the client turns out to be the man responsible for her fall from grace, Gilda flies into a murderous rage. Taking it on the lam, Gilda finds shelter in the arms of a sailor boyfriend (Donald Cook) who smuggles her to sanctuary and safety, or so he thinks. In reality he has booked her a bridal suite in hell. This pre-code crime classic, touted at the time as "Not For Children," is frank, startling and arresting, as gripping today as it was eight decades ago. Directed by William A. Wellman, Safe in Hell is full of terrors and delights, including the most striking ensemble seen this side of FREAKS and a truly twisted stunner of a finale.

OVERALL:
Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Blu-ray
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/MPEG-4 AVC
Length:
74
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.20:1
Audio Formats:
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Special Features:
Theatrical Trailer
Release Date:
April 25th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Any film called Safe in Hell is bound to pique interest, but there's a lot more to director William Wellman's pre-Code drama than its titillating title. A mystical tale of fate, faith, and fury, this brazen, often bizarre movie mixes provocative themes with an exotic setting, quirky characters, bold performances, and assured direction. The resulting brew is certainly spicy - and entertaining - but it's not always a cohesive dish.

The story opens in New Orleans with good-time-girl Gilda Carlson (Dorothy Mackaill) answering a call to "entertain" a traveling businessman, who much to her horror turns out to be Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), her old boss who raped her, ruined her reputation, and left her with no other means of support than prostitution. In a rage, Gilda throws a champagne bottle at his head, rendering him unconscious. The spilled alcohol starts a fire and Gilda flees the scene, only to learn the next morning that Piet is dead and the police are after her.

Enter Carl Bergen (Donald Cook), Gilda's true love who's been toiling in the military and is unaware of her tragic fall from grace. The frantic Gilda confesses all and after the initial shock and disgust wear off, Carl smuggles her aboard his Navy ship and deposits her on a remote Caribbean isle that's a safe haven for criminals because it refuses to extradite them to the U.S. for prosecution. Carl then returns to duty, pledging he'll come back when his tour ends, but that leaves Gilda as the only white woman among a throng of leering degenerates in the hotel where they all shack up.

At first, Gilda confines herself to her room to escape their lascivious gazes and overt advances, but the isolation begins to drive her batty. When she can no longer stand being cooped up and can't abide suppressing her wild spirit for another moment, Gilda emerges in full party regalia ready to drink, flirt, and carouse. Her behavior, though, and the reappearance of a notable bad penny makes her vulnerable to the manipulations of Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the island's corrupt jailer and executioner who's willing to go to extremes to possess her.

What's great about Safe in Hell is it calls a spade a spade. It's obvious from the get-go Gilda is a prostitute. Circumstances may have driven her to make a disreputable living, but shame isn't a word in her vocabulary. Hardly a goody-two-shoes, the feisty Gilda enjoys the freedoms and indulgences a loose life affords her. She likes booze and sex and partying with a bunch of men who can barely contain their desire for her. Though she loves Carl, can she be content with just one man and settle for a quiet existence in a small, stuffy, moralistic town? Or is her appetite for life and all of its temptations too voracious now that she's tasted forbidden fruit?

It's that kind of character ambiguity that fuels Safe in Hell and makes it interesting. Everyone else in the film is either good or evil, but Gilda embodies all the complexities and contradictions of humanity. She's a fascinating specimen, but the script - much like Piet and Mr. Bruno - ultimately betrays her. Though powerful and shocking, the movie's ending is a bit of a head-scratcher and takes Gilda in a direction that doesn't ring true.

Mackaill was a significant star in silent pictures and transitioned well to the talkies, but roles began to dry up and her career petered out not long after Safe in Hell was released. Although I had seen Mackaill supporting Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in No Man of Her Own, I was unprepared for her revelatory work here. Gilda is a tricky part, but Mackaill attacks it with vigor, bringing spunk, humor, attitude, pathos, and rage to the table. Reportedly, Barbara Stanwyck was originally offered the role, but had to decline due to contract obligations with Columbia Pictures. Stanwyck would have been a natural for this rigorous emotional workout, but after watching Mackaill strut her stuff, it's tough to imagine anyone more fully inhabiting the character.

Safe in Hell is certainly not regarded as one of Wellman's most notable movies, but he brings his customary no-nonsense style and understated artistry to the material. The film's narrative may be hard to swallow, but Wellman's visuals and the natural performances of the cast go down nice and easy. If you're a pre-Code fan, you'll definitely want to check out this tantalizing curio.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Safe in Hell arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p?AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

Safe in Hell languished for decades in celluloid hell before Warner Archive and The Film Foundation rescued and restored it from the only known surviving 35mm nitrate print. The resulting 4K scan yields a terrific 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's presented in the movie's original aspect ratio of 1.20:1. Grain is noticeable but beautifully resolved most of the time and the print exhibits only a few errant nicks and marks, thanks to the painstaking efforts of the restoration team. Excellent clarity and contrast enhance detail and depth levels, blacks are rich, whites are well defined, and the grays in between are nicely graded. Costume textures are crisp, sequins sparkle, and sharp close-ups highlight the sweaty faces of the actors during the tropical sequences. Several missing frames disrupt the film's flow here and there, but that's a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing this rare, 92-year-old motion picture, especially in such fine form. Safe in Hell reminds us just how critical film restoration is and the importance of supporting it. 

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, modulated sound. Any shrill or tinny accents that usually plague early sound films have been eliminated, as well as any pops or crackle. Some faint hiss occasionally can be detected during quieter moments, but that's not at all surprising for a 92-year-old film. Sonic accents like gunfire, crackling flames, and sirens are crisp, distortion is absent, and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend.

Special Features

Ranking:

A nice supplemental package enhances this pre-Code Blu-ray release.

  • Vintage Short: Crime Square (SD, 9 minutes) - This 1931 Vitaphone one-reeler stars a young Pat O'Brien as an affable gangster who decides to go straight, but can't shake his shady past.
  • Vintage Short: George Jessel and his Russian Art Choir (SD, 8 minutes) - Comedian George Jessel recounts how he discovered a men's choir in a rural area of Russia, then introduces a few songs in this 1931 short. Two numbers are sung in Russian and one in English.
  • Vintage Cartoon: Dumb Patrol (HD, 7 minutes) - This early, black-and-white Looney Tunes cartoon from 1931 spoofs the popular World War I movie The Dawn Patrol as it chronicles an aerial dogfight between Bosko and a furry creature. The cartoon has been beautifully restored and looks pristine in HD.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 1 minute) - The film's original preview calls star Dorothy Mackaill "the girl with the naughty twinkle in her eye" and hypes the tale's drama, thrills, and romance.

Final Thoughts

Weird, but strangely wonderful, Safe in Hell is a pre-Code curio that classics fans should welcome with open arms. Mackaill's riveting performance holds this bizarre tale together and the beautiful restoration by Warner Archive and The Film Foundation makes every strange twist and turn a pleasure to watch. Solid audio and a fitting supplemental package also distinguish this top-notch Blu-ray presentation of this fiery film. Recommended.