Gilda Karlson (Dorothy Mackaill) had been working as a secretary until she g0t involved with a man named Piet (Ralf Harolde), who caused her to lose her job. Unable to get any other work, she turned to working as a lady of the night to support herself. One night, she’s called to entertain a gentleman and when she arrives, she realizes the gentleman is none other than Piet. The two of them get into a fight that ends with Piet being knocked unconscious and Gilda accidentally starting a fire. Gilda flees the scene and is ready to flee the whole country when it’s reported that Piet is dead. Luckily for her, her old sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) comes home and agrees to help her get to Tortuga, where she can’t be extradited. When they get to Tortuga, Gilda and Carl are married before Carl has to leave for work again.
Gilda stays in a hotel where she instantly becomes the object of affection for all the other men staying there. But Gilda mainly just holes up in her room to avoid the attention. Eventually, the loneliness gets to her and she goes downstairs to be her old, life of the party self again. But when she makes it perfectly clear that she won’t be breaking her promise and the men accept that fact. Bruno, the executioner, is the only one who doesn’t want to give up so easily. He does anything he can to make Gilda think that Carl has abandoned her. After a surprise visitor shows up at the hotel and tells everyone about Gilda’s past, Bruno gives Gilda a gun to protect herself even though guns are illegal on the island. When one of the men attacks her, she shoots him. She is put on trial and Bruno announces that even if she’s cleared of murder, he’d still send her to jail for having the gun he gave her. The only way she could save herself is to be to start seeing Bruno. Realizing she’s been set up, Gilda decides she would rather be executed than be unfaithful to Carl and confesses to a murder she didn’t commit.
Oh, how I love Safe in Hell. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie announce its pre-code status faster than Safe in Hell did. The first scene is the scene of the phone ringing and Dorothy Mackaill answering it, lounging with her feet on the desk and wearing a robe. Pure pre-code. I love how complex Gilda is as a character. She may be a hooker, but she isn’t a bad person. She doesn’t become a lady of the night because she wants to, she did it because she had no other choice after being completely ripped off. At heart, she is a truly faithful and honest person. When she promises to be loyal to somebody, she goes out of her way to remain true. As we see in the end, she would rather die than be unfaithful. Dorothy Mackaill did a phenomenal job playing her. Safe in Hell is also noteworthy for the fact we get to see two black actors, Noble Johnson and Nina Mae McKinney, regularly interacting with white actors and not playing stereotypes. Pretty much my only complaint about this movie is that the big twist was extremely far-fetched. I didn’t see it coming, but that’s because it was such a stretch of the imagination. But otherwise, it’s a fantastic movie. It’s a pre-code through and through. I can’t believe this wasn’t released as part of one of the Forbidden Hollywood collections.