For Reel

Safe in Hell (1931)
December 2, 2011, 8:02 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: William A. Wellman

An atmospheric proto-noir in which the Caribbean serves as a fate worse than death, Safe in Hell features a terrific performance from a largely forgotten leading actress of the 1920s and 30s, Dorothy Mackaill. She stars as a woman who is forced into prostitution after the wife of an ex-boyfriend discovers their affair and vows to deprive her the chance of living an honorable life. The film’s success has much to do with its grim setting, a place where even “clean” water is filled with worms (in order to feed on the more harmful bacteria). Occupying the hotel Mackaill stays at are a number of men who harass her endlessly, most despicably the local police chief, played by a terrifically slimy Ralf Harolde. The environment is richly detailed – consider, for instance, the courtroom sequence in which an unbathed judge alternates between pounding his gavel and swatting at flies. Mackaill was a revelation for me – the final act is one wrought with broad melodrama, but she evokes with heartbreaking realism the acceptance of her fate, bravely withholding her tears after an all-too-brief reunion with the one man who had consistently done her right.

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