11 October 2014

The Essence of Pre-Code -- Safe in Hell


The denizens of the island menace Dorothy Mackaill


William A. “Wild Bill” Wellman is usually thought of as a man’s director; most of his best-known films – "The Public Enemy," "Wild Boys of the Road," "Call of the Wild," "Battleground" – are pretty macho. But despite his persona as a man’s man, Wellman always displayed respect for women, and interest in their problems. He doesn't treat his female characters as prizes standing around waiting to be won by men, or as window dressing; they usually have their own independent agendas. Think of such films as “A Star is Born” or “Lady of Burlesque.”
Wellman’s most woman-centric movies are the pre-code, possibly because the code limited what could be said about women’s experience. Drama wants to take the audience to the extreme of danger; but some of the extremes women face became unmentionable with the production code. Before the censorship kicked in, however, Wellman made two astonishing films with female protagonists, “Lilly Turner” with Ruth Chatterton and "Safe in Hell" with Dorothy Mackaill. The latter in particular takes pre-code frankness just about as far as it can go.

This extraordinary and disturbing film concerns Gilda, a young woman forced into prostitution, who kills a would-be rapist in self-defense.  She flees, escaping to Tortuga, an island outside the law's jurisdiction (just like in the old pirate days), where she is surrounded by a collection of thugs and racketeers similarly hiding out. As it turns out, she might have been better off standing trial -- she's almost the only woman on the island, and these guys aren't exactly trustworthy.

This film contains the single creepiest display of lechery I have ever seen in any film. The local low-lifes hang out in the lobby of the island's only hotel, lounging in the lobby in a row of armchairs. When the attractive Gilda first steps through the door, you see each one of them change position, his legs falling open, aiming his crotch directly at her. It is extremely gross, and it certainly makes clear the new danger the heroine is facing. I don't know how Wellman got away with it.

Luckily, poor Gilda is a resourceful girl, for she has to spend much of her time fending off these specimens. There are startling twists to the story; the man she was supposed to have killed turns up alive, but ironically this doesn’t help her much. The film is also notable for presenting completely unstereotypical black characters. 

As always, Wellman draws detailed, motivated performances from his actors – everyone from the direst villain to the bellhop knows what he’s doing and why -- and Dorothy Mackaill is always wonderful. This isn’t a cheerful or happy picture, but it is a gripping drama. In the production code years, some of the tools for creating that drama – the specific threats of rape and violence -- were forbidden. Despite the fact, of course, that they remained just as real in the real world.

Dorothy Mackaill