Dorothy Mackaill was an actress I had never heard of before. I knew nothing about her background in silent films, her British background and her native Yorkshire accent, nor her tumultuous career. But then a little film called SAFE IN HELL was released by the Warner Archive and I was hooked. Not only on Ms. Mackaill but on this amazing and fearsome film from William Wellman.
New Orleans prostitute Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) gets a phone call from her madame, telling her that she has been specifically requested by a man whose wife is out-of-town. Gilda glams up and heads downtown only to find out that her client is Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), an insurance salesman and her old boss. Clearly he and Gilda have a past, and one that she is in no hurry to relive. Piet continues to try to get his money’s worth out of Gilda telling her that there is “no chance of the wife walking in this time”, but Gilda is having none of it. She fends Piet off and manages to get away from him but when it looks like he is coming for her again, Gilda heaves a wine bottle at him. Shocked she watches as Piet crumples to the floor and she hurries from the room, not noticing the small fire starting in the corner.
The next morning Gilda wakes up to the sound of the telephone ringing off the hook. It is her madame again, this time calling to tell her that the police are on the way over to her apartment. It seems that the hotel where she met with Piet last night has burned to the ground and Piet was killed, not only that but Gilda was seen leaving the apartment by a bell boy. Gilda takes advantage of the heads up and begins packing her things when the door to her apartment opens. In walks her old lover Carl (Donald Cook), a naval officer who has been at sea all this time. Gilda is stunned at first but quickly runs into Carl’s arms, embracing him gratefully. Carl is full of kind words and lovely presents for Gilda but soon she has to break the news to him.
It seems that before Carl shipped out he managed to get Gilda a job working for Piet at his insurance company. It was going well until one night, as Gilda says, Piet came into her room “and never left”. After his wife found them Gilda left the company to make money the only way she could, which lead to the madame and her fateful evening with Piet and the wine bottle. Carl takes this about as well as you might expect him to and he belts Gilda across the face (real nice guy), but is stopped by the approach of police sirens. Gilda knows they are coming for her and Carl now resolves to help her escape, bundling her off to his ship down at the docks. For the next few days Gilda remains secreted below decks, thanks to Carl, in spite of the APB sent out by the police. Carl’s plan is simple, he will take Gilda to the small island of Tortuga from where she cannot be extradited even if the police find her. From there Carl and Gilda will try to figure out their next move, after Carl comes back from his current assignment. Once docked on the island Carl takes Gilda to the local hotel, run by Leonie (Nine Mae McKinney) and Newcastle (Clarence Muse). Leonie takes a liking to Gilda right away as they are both from New Orleans, and Newcastle takes her bags upstairs. Carl prepares to take his leave but first he and Gilda head to the local chapel. Because the pastor died a few months back, Carl and Gilda hold their own little marriage ceremony promising to be true to each other. Before heading back to the ship Carl admonishes Gilda to stay away from the other hotel patrons, recommending that she keep to herself and stay in her room while she waits to hear from him. Gilda agrees and promises that there will be no other man in her life ever again. One last big kiss, one to last a long long time, and Carl is gone leaving Gilda behind.
As the only white woman on the island, Gilda soon finds herself the center of attention among the cast of unsavories at the hotel. There is Eagan (John Wray) the safe cracker, Crunch (Ivan Simpson) the pickpocket, Gomez (Victor Varconi) the president killer, Larson (Gustav von Seyffertitz) the arsonist/murder, and Jones (Charles Middleton) the crooked lawyer. There is also Bruno (Morgan Wallace) the friendly, local executioner. Each man takes his turn trying to seduce Gilda and each one is turned down, Gilda holding true to her promise to Carl and staying in her room. Eventually most of the men are duly impressed by Gilda’s sincerity and back off, all but one. Bruno still has designs on Gilda and he has a plan to get her to betray Carl. Whenever the mail is delivered Gilda rushes to see if there are any letters from Carl, bringing both news and much-needed money. But each time she is disappointed and returns to her room empty-handed. There is a simple reason for this and it is Bruno. He has been intercepting Gilda’s mail and pocketing her money, all in an effort to get her to believe that Carl has abandoned her. His plan is working and Gilda begins to go stir crazy in her room, just as the men downstairs decide to have a party.
Gilda finally lets loose and spends the night drinking with the men, hearing their stories, sharing her own, and rebuffing Bruno’s continued advances. The next morning, or rather afternoon, Gilda is awakened by a knock on her door. Leonie enters bearing a gift from Gomez, a bottle of alcohol with the gentleman’s compliments. Gilda refuses the gift and tells Leonie that the men downstairs mean nothing to her, that she only did what she did because she needed one night to let loose or she would have gone crazy. Now that she has gotten it out of her system she intends to go back to doing just what she was doing before, ignoring the men and Bruno. Leonie advises her to reconsider saying, “You’re mighty high-handed now, but the rent’s coming due and you’ve got to eat. Why they all got money … and maybe you’re gonna need somebody before you get through, because I’ve been fooled by them sailor boys myself.”
Spoiler Warning…we are going to talk about the ending of the movie now so if you don’t want to know what happens from here this would be a good moment to duck out.
Later on Gilda is walking down by the docks, hoping to find a boat that carries mail, when she spots a familiar face. Following the man’s retreating back to the hotel Gilda finds herself face to face with…Piet! It turns out that the wine bottle didn’t kill Piet as much as knock him silly and he managed to escape the fire, before spending a few days hiding out in a motel. Once the press assumed he was dead, Piet and his wife decided to cash in his life insurance policy and have a little insurance scam. Of course once he had the money, Piet decided to cut his wife out of the deal altogether and hightailed it to wait out the ensuing police investigation. And now that he has found himself with Gilda again Piet is ready and willing to pick things up where they left off, but Gilda has bigger things on her mind namely the fact that she is no longer a murderess! This means that she can leave the island and she runs off to the telegraph office to let Carl know the good news. On her way back to the hotel she runs into Bruno and she can’t help but tell him that she will be leaving the island soon, something he doesn’t seem as thrilled about.
Piet meanwhile has been bragging to the hotel tenants about his previous relationship with Gilda, even going so far as to claim that Gilda and he are going to continue their relationship as before. The other men seem doubtful and this is the moment that Gilda returns, followed by Bruno. Gilda goes upstairs to pack and Eagan, who has taken a particular interest in Gilda, confronts her on the stairs about her relationship with Piet. He is angry at the assertion that Gilda, who until now has rebuffed all men because of her vow to Carl, had a relationship with Piet and might be ready to continue with it now. He lunges for Gilda and Bruno stops him, while Gilda hurries up the stairs. Once in her room she begins to pack only to be interrupted by Bruno, who claims to be worried for her safety. He offers her a gun, for her protection of course, which she at first refuses but finally agrees to take. Bruno then heads out but tells his guard to make sure that Gilda does not leave the hotel because “she has a gun in her room!” This is strictly against the law and Bruno goes off to draw up the warrant for her arrest.
Piet now deems this the perfect time to go up and try to put the moves on Gilda, telling the men to watch how its done. Gilda is less than thrilled to see him and naturally turns him down flat. Piet won’t take no for an answer and the two begin to struggle. Downstairs the men are waiting when a shot rings out and rushing upstairs they find Piet dead, and a stunned Gilda holding the gun.
Gilda is put on trial for Piet’s murder but, defended by Jones, seems to be likely to be let off. While waiting for the jury to come back with a verdict Gilda is listed by Bruno, who has some news for her. Even though she will most likely be acquitted for Piet’s death there is still the matter of the illegal firearm, and Bruno is not willing to come forward to admit his part in giving it to her. What he is willing to do is make her as comfortable as possible in his prison camp, complete with house calls of course. Gilda is horrified at the prospect of being Bruno’s personal call girl for the next six months and worse, the prospect of betraying Carl. Bruno laughs, saying that Gilda can do nothing to escape her fate but she rushes out to the judge confessing to murdering Piet.
Now condemned to die, Gilda is preparing herself to meet the hangman’s noose when she hears the blast of a ship horn. Carl comes rushing towards the hotel and Gilda pleads with everyone to let her speak to him alone, not wanting Carl to be drawn into Bruno’s web of control. Carl enters the hotel and they embrace as Carl asks if Gilda got his last letter. Realizing that Carl never forgot her, Gilda tearfully embraces him as Carl tells of his plans to take a new assignment in New Orleans and start a life there. The horn blasts again and Carl has to leave but before he does he turns to Gilda and asks if she is alright. Yes of course she is, she says, and Carl makes her promise to send him a wire when she leaves and they will meet in New Orleans. Gilda promises and with one more kiss to last a long long time, Carl leaves. Resigned to her fate, but at peace with the knowledge that she never betrayed Carl, Gilda goes out to meet her fate at the gallows.
Watching this movie I found myself wondering how a dynamo like Gilda ended up with a wet blanket like Carl. I know that he is supposed to be on the straight and narrow to help to redeem Gilda from her wicked ways, and I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves him, but he almost seems too good and pure to ever have been much fun for Gilda even in her more innocent days. But perhaps he is there to indicate what Gilda has lost because of her sordid past. If you consider that she must have been just as pure and good in order to attract Carl, then it makes her transformation to call girl all the more shocking. But regardless of how good and pure she was, Gilda has had to change in order to survive. The difference between her and the other “crooks” who inhabit the hotel however, is that Gilda never seems to enjoy her baseness and never seems happy to be among the more unsavory element. She seems to want to be better than her circumstances allow but is continually prevented from doing so. When Carl comes back into her life she expects him to hit her, to hate her for what she has becomes, to abandon her to the police. When he doesn’t she realizes that there might be hope for her after all, that if Carl can forgive her and still love her then maybe there is a chance for her to redeem herself. When he marries her and then asks her to stay away from the other men in the hotel she agrees, after all it would only be her rightful penance to do so.
When Bruno keeps Carl’s letters away, Gilda begins to wonder whether he has abandoned her. When it seems like he has, she wonders if he really did love her and forgive her, or was he just trying to get rid of her? It seems futile to continue to keep her promise much longer and she finally gives in. It is telling that when she joins the party downstairs she is wearing her call girl outfit once again because that is what she feels like she is, a crook and a floozie. The next morning she resolves to go back to her promise to Carl, resolving to continue to have faith that Carl will still come through for her. How many of us have had the same thing happen? To spend a night feeling one way and then wake up the next morning to realize how silly we had been?
Her decision at the end, to reject Bruno and confess to murder rather than betray Carl, is a bit more than just a woman redeemed by the love of a good man in my opinion. I think it is the first time that she sees herself in the way that Carl does. She finally sees that she is a good person and that she can be better than the people and places around her. Her pledge to Carl is more than just a promise, it is a penance and a road back to the person she wants to be. She lost her virtue at the hands of a man, sold her body to many men, but she redeemed herself by refusing all the men at the hotel. Because of that she is no longer just Gilda the call girl or even Gilda the mistress of Piet. She is finally back to being Gilda, back to being herself or at least on the road there. So when Bruno comes and tells her his plans she makes a decision, one that will mean her life, but one that for the first time will allow her to feel proud and worthy. At the end she is remorseful to lose Carl but look at her walking into the sunset. Her head is held high and she isn’t afraid, and even Bruno has to walk behind her.
This is my second posting for The Pre-Code Blogathon! Check out my other posting on THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN!