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Isle of Lost Souls

by Shawn Stone on November 16, 2011

Safe in Hell
Directed by William A. Wellman

Melodrama doesn’t get much juicier than William A. Wellman’s precode sizzler Safe in Hell. We meet the heroine, a New Orleans hooker named Gilda, as she gets an outcall and dresses for work. She meets a customer at his hotel, recognizes him, spurns him, cracks a bottle over his head, and leaves the whole joint engulfed in flames on her way out. With the help of her newly returned sailor boyfriend, Gilda lams it out of New Orleans in the cargo hold of a boat bound for the West Indies.

That’s just the first 10 minutes or so. Then the boat docks and the fun really begins.

Safe in Hell is an early example of director Wellman digging into a situation he returned to again and again: a group of mismatched people forced into a confined place or state of mind and left to stew in their own juices. Mostly, he-man Wellman lets them claw at each other, urged on by their inner demons: a lynching party consumed by viciousness in The Ox-Bow Incident; bickering passengers on a doomed plane in The High and the Mighty; and in the best of the lot, a grotesque frontier family marooned by winter in their cabin and stalked by a mountain lion in Track of the Cat. (They’d be better off if the cat ate them.) Ocassionally, the fight is about lust: outlaws angling for hidden gold in Yellow Sky’s ghost town; a trio of Manhattan wolves sniffing after a Broadway ingenue in the small hunting grounds shared by high society swells and no-class gangsters in Love Is a Racket. Here, the claustrophobic setting is a seedy hotel on the island where our heroine plans to hide out, and conflict is both inner-directed and over someone—Gilda.

Safe in Hell was adapted from a stage successs, and when Gilda and her sailor reach land, we learn the cheesy-but-irresistible hook on which the play was built: The island has no extradition treaty with the United States, so she’s safe. It is also a haven for criminals, so our heroine is safe . . . in hell.

Most of the action is on the hotel set as the characters sweat and snarl at each other. While the prologue described above is all cinematic flash—in particular, the sequence in the cargo hold is imaginatively shot—the island scenes are simplicity itself.

Gilda is played by Dorothy Mackaill, a silent-era star (in one of her last leading roles) who possessed a fragile beauty, but whose characters could turn fierce, almost feral, when threatened. Mackaill’s Gilda knows the score. She sizes up the mangy all-male bunch and deadpans, “Sure this ain’t the YMCA?”

After the heroine’s “sailor boy” returns to sea, Wellman ratchets up the sexual tension as the exiles pursue “the only white woman on the island.” Violent undercurrents are leavened only by amusing gallows humor—and a couple of moderately progressive characterizations, by scene-stealing Nina Mae McKinney (a charismatic presence who hadn’t had much to do since her breakout role in King Vidor’s Hallelujah two years before) as the hotel’s manager, and Clarence Muse as her right-hand man. Muse’s dialogue originally had been written in sterotypical black movie-servant dialect; Muse wanted to play it with an English accent, and Wellman agreed.

The exiled scumbags are (mostly) likable rogues: a slick lawyer, a preening mercenary, a childlike safecracker, a slimy Cockney murderer, and a wily old sea captain. In one of the film’s most delicious moments, the captain (Gustav von Seyffertitz) describes setting ablaze and sinking his ship, thereby “roasting” the passengers and crew; he expresses a sincere wish to live happily ever after with the insurance money, to which Gilda adds, sincerely, “Amen.”

Since this is a melodrama, there is a first-act villain who, against all logic, reappears. Religion, which makes a fulsome appearance when Gilda and her sailor reach the island, rears its haloed head at the end, and the film turns into a tale of self-sacrifice and redemption. Wellman’s tough-mindedness and Mackaill’s toughness transform this, however, adding resolve and dignity to the three-hankie ending.

The Warner Archive edition of Safe in Hell was mastered from the only surviving source material, a less-than-pristine 35 MM print at the Library of Congress. This is as good as it’s ever going to look, so there’s no point complaining.

Bargain Bin

Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla is slated for a Criterion Collection release on Blu-ray in January, which means that heavily discounted copies of the very nice 2007 Classic Media DVD edition are turning up here and there. Like the promised Criterion disc, this version has both the fascinating original and the heavily re-edited U.S. release starring Raymond Burr. Last week, I found the Classic Media DVD of Honda’s 1964 monster-iffic sequel Mothra vs. Godzilla at the FYE at Rotterdam Square Mall for $5. It’s a honey of a disc, and includes both the original Japanese release in Tohoscope and the dubbed and cropped U.S. version, titled Godzilla vs. the Thing. There are commentary tracks for both films and a featurette on composer Akira Ifukube.

The film itself is entertaining as heck. The miniature work is superb. The Godzilla suit is awesome. Who needs CGI?

The story is simple. Mothra—a giant moth, of course—her equally massive egg, and her sidekicks, a pair of twin mini-princesses who wear matching outfits and keep breaking into song, are pitted against humankind and Godzilla. Mothra and company represent ecological balance, sympathy and honor; humans, with their bottomless greed, and Godzilla, the bastard offspring of man’s atomic tests, represent the nihilistic impulse to fuck shit up. Typically, the humans wait until they’re threatened with incineration and/or a good stomping by Godzilla before they side with, and beg the help of, Mothra.

Mothra’s the hero(ine), but because we are Godzilla and can’t help but love it when he, um, fucks shit up, the filmmakers have to pull a trick at the end to make the big lug completely unsympathetic: They have him go out of his way to threaten a weepy group of schoolkids. Boo-fucking-hoo. Because, clearly, no one would care if Godzilla flattened the entire Japanese army.

Other overstock DVDs recently obtained for $5 or less at Big Lots in Troy and Colonie include Warner Home Video’s superb two-disc edition of Curtis Harrington’s crime classic L.A. Confidential, which contains a series of genuinely illuminating making-of featurettes and a bonus CD of music from the film; Half a Sixpence, Paramount’s roadshow musical flop of 1967—meh, it has its moments—which is based on H.G. Wells’ Kips and stars the way-too-irrepressible Tommy Steele; and Cousins (Paramount Home Video), Joel Schumacher’s 1988 remake of a hit ’70s French romcom. Cousins stars Ted Danson, Isabella Rossellini and William L. Peterson and is not unwatchable after all these years. (I orignally saw it in its only local booking, at the Northway Mall Cine 10.)