Safe in Hell
Review by Kelly
“After accidentally killing the man who raped her and forced her into prostitution, a New Orleans woman flees to a Caribbean island. While she awaits her fiancé, the vicious local police chief sets his sights on her.”
For the final review for revenge month, I decided to do an obscure movie that I read about in Rape-Revenge Films by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Safe in Hell. This movie is an early tale of rape (attempted and suspected)-revenge released in 1931.
The movie opens with Gilda, our beautiful protagonist, who is told to go visit a client at his home. Gilda is a prostitute, you see, and what she finds at the clients’ home is Piet, a man who essentially ruined her life. He has assaulted her in the past and when his wife found her in his home, prevented her from getting any jobs outside of prostitution. He assaults her again during this visit and she accidentally kills him. Or so she thinks. Carl, her beloved partner, comes home from being away and she tells him what has happened. Since he cares for her well being, he wants to help her through this. However, not before he slaps her and calls her a whore for being a prostitute. Carl brings her to this isolated island where criminals can’t be extradited for their crimes. The hotel she stays at is filled with leering male criminals. They all hit on her and she responds physically by shoving their faces away or throwing water onto them. Gilda is a strong willed women who likes to smoke and drink. Though physically she is representative of women’s idea of beauty in the 1930s, she holds herself in a non-gender conforming ways by slouching her shoulders while standing and slumping in chairs. Gilda, played wonderfully by Dorothy Mackaill, is also the star of the movie which is quite uncommon for the time period where women were given mainly supporting, uninspired roles.
During a conversation between the Executioner, Bruno, on the island (because there is a jail, police force, etc just for it), and Gilda, he calls being on the island being “safe in hell”. It sounds like it’s worse than death. Also around this time, Piet has made his way to the island. As a surprise, he actually isn’t dead! Gilda is over the moon happy because she now can leave the island and marry Carl, like she so deeply desires. However, Bruno, under the guise of protection, previously had given her a gun and later uses it to frame her for his own sexual desires. Piet comes to her room, expecting them to pick up where they left off. He assaults her and she shoots him.
Gilda continuously encounters trash men who can’t just sit with a beautiful woman and have a normal, non-sexual time. There is a constant threat of sexual assault and harassment. In a world ruled by men, her choices are limited and the only way she can gain some kind of agency is through lethal means. From Heller-Nicholas’ book, “...Safe in Hell also allows it’s story to be Gilda’s and Gilda’s alone; there is no man to save her (not even Carl), so she makes the only choice she feels she can in the circumstances. That her decision is so bleak not only underscores the futility of her entire existence….”. Backed into a corner, Gilda chooses an end of the that is unfortunate and sad but seemingly necessary.
Movies in the 20s-40s were often short in length, with this one being only 73 minutes long. I enjoy the conciseness of them but relish more character and relationship development. It would have made the movie more impactful. Beyond the intriguing narrative, the movie itself isn’t all that remarkable. It is obviously a product of its time and I am still glad that I watched it. I hugged my partner afterwards as he was also disturbed by the characters of the men in the movie and thankfully is a feminist.
If you enjoy old black and white movies, bleakness or interesting narratives, then I would recommend checking this one out!