The Hour Before the Dawn – Blu-ray Review

3.5 Stars Lake WW2 vehicle debuts on Blu-ray

Today, we look at The Hour Before the Dawn.

After spending time working in the advertising department of Metropolitan Music Bureau in New York City, Frank Tuttle arrived in Hollywood in the 1920’s and quickly became a writer-director for Paramount Pictures, after spending some time at their East Coast studio in Queens neighborhood in Astoria. Over the course of the next two decades – before the advent of the Second Red Scare forced him into a brief exile in Europe – Tuttle established himself as a serviceable director for the studio, often working with some of Paramount’s top talents like William Powell, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant and Clara Bow. One of his more interesting films during this period was an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Hour Before the Dawn. Kino has licensed the movie from Universal for its home video debut.

The Hour Before the Dawn (1944)
Released: 22 Sep 1944
Rated: Approved
Runtime: 74 min
Director: Frank Tuttle
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Cast: Veronica Lake, Franchot Tone, John Sutton
Writer(s): W. Somerset Maugham, Lesser Samuels, Michael Hogan
Plot: A beautiful Austrian refugee in England--who is also a Nazi agent--marries a scholarly English pacifist. He lives near a secret military base she needs to get information about so she can help in Hitler's planned invasion of England.
IMDB rating: 5.7
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 14 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Blue keep case with slipcover
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 06/04/2024
MSRP: $24.99

The Production: 3.5/5

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Jim Hetherton (Franchot Tone) is an assistant headmaster for a private school with a pacifist mentality towards the war and killing in general – stemming from a childhood incident in 1923 when he accidentally shot the family dog when his father, General Hetherton (Henry Stephenson), was teaching him how to shoot a gun. When he’s granted conscientious objector status, he marries the school’s secretary Dora Bruckmann (Veronica Lake), a beautiful refugee from Austria who came to England when Hitler and the Nazis annexed her home country. The reality is that Dora is working for the Nazis as a secret agent and knows about a secret airfield near the Hetherton estate that’s crucial for the plot to invade England. When Jim starts to get suspicious about Dora’s increasingly desperate measures, he must make a crucial decision about whether or not to betray his pacifist principles in order to defend his country from an even greater evil.

The Hour Before the Dawn aspires to be one of the better W. Somerset Maugham adaptations on film but is hampered by a general inconsistency. Let’s start off with the positives: the film itself is exceptionally and beautifully designed on the production aspect; when you have Paramount regulars of the period Hans Dreier (the studio’s chief production designer), Edith Head (the studio’s head of the costume department), John F. Seitz (cinematographer) and Miklós Rózsa (music composer) working on your film, you bound to get a high-quality result. Director Frank Tuttle – who took on the project when the studio’s first two choices Edward H. Griffith and René Clair dropped out prior to filming – does keep the story moving along at a streamlined and brisk pace. However, the streamlining of Maugham’s novel – by screenwriters Michael Hogan and Lesser Samuels – for the screen represent one of two of the film’s greatest flaws; by doing so, much of the lucidity, prose and nuance of Maugham’s work is truncated. The other flaw was the decision to cast some of the actors and actresses here against their usual type; some of it worked, some of it didn’t as it will be mentioned shortly. In the end, The Hour Before the Dawn represents an interesting misfire for the studio, one which the production values are solid but an uneven script and casting leads to a disappointing whole; it’s not terrible, but given the talent involved here, it should’ve been much better.

Cast when Ray Milland, the original choice for the part of Jim Hetherton, couldn’t break away from the production of Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944), Franchot Tone acquits himself well as the pacifist who has to face a reckoning when his beloved bride starts behaving in a very suspicious manner; the same year as this movie, Tone would get a plum part as the villain – a break from the norm for him as a leading man – in the noir Phantom Lady. When Paramount’s original choice to play Dora dropped out – Norwegian ballerina and actress Vera Zorina left Hollywood altogether when she was replaced by Ingrid Bergman in Sam Wood’s production of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) after two weeks of filming – Veronica Lake has her most atypical part as the Austrian refugee who plays on Jim’s beliefs to further more nefarious goals; although she tries her best here, it’s clear that the part is well out of her range and a case of casting outside the comfort zone that didn’t ultimately pay off (Lilli Palmer or June Duprez would likely have fared better in the part in this writer’s opinion). Prolific character actor John Sutton is nicely cast as Jim’s brother Roger while Binnie Barnes and Henry Stephenson likely have the film’s best performances as May (Jim’s sister-in-law) and General Hetherton (Jim’s father), respectively. Rounding out the cast here are Philip Merivale as Sir Leslie Buchanon, Nils Asther as Dora’s supervisor Kurt, Edmond Breon as Freddy Merritt, David Leland as Tommy, David Clyde as a farmer, Harry Cording as a brutish farmhand, Morton Lowry as a conscientious objector who fails to sway the magistrates to grant his request, Harry Allen and Tempe Pigott as the Saunders couple, Otto Reichow as a Luftwaffe pilot and Raymond Severn as Jim in the 1923 prologue; England’s King George VI and the infamous Adolf Hitler can both be heard in archival audio of their respective speeches at the start of WWII, while W. Somerset Maugham himself can briefly be seen before the opening credits in a silent cameo appearance.

Video: 4/5

3D Rating: NA

The film is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio, taken from a brand new HD master created from a 2K scan of the original 35mm fine grain print. Film grain, fine details and gray scale are all presented faithfully with minor cases of scratches, tears and dirt present on the transfer. Overall, this Blu-ray release is likely the movie will ever look on home video.

Audio: 4.5/5

The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue, sound mix and Miklós Rózsa’s music score are all presented faithfully with minimal cases of distortion like crackling, clicking, popping or hissing present. This release is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.

Special Features: 3/5

Commentary by author/film historian Paul Talbot – Newly recorded for this release, Talbot goes over details about the film’s production and the bios of the cast and crew, as well as differences between the film and W. Somerset Maugham’s novel.

Theatrical Trailer (2:10)

Bonus KLSC Trailers – SaigonSo Proudly We Hail!The Lives of a Bengal LancerFive Graves to CairoLucky Jordan The Web

Overall: 3.5/5

Receiving a mixed reception from critics and an underwhelming performance at the box office, The Hour Before the Dawn represents a notable departure from the norm for Veronica Lake that unfortunately didn’t pay off. Kino should be commended for bringing the movie to home video with a solid HD transfer and an informative commentary track as a bonus feature. Highly recommended, especially for Veronica Lake fans wanting to see her outside of her famed persona.

Amazon.com: The Hour Before the Dawn [Blu-ray]: Frank Tuttle, Veronica Lake, Franchot Tone, John Sutton, Binnie Barnes: Movies & TV

Mychal has been on the Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2018, with reviews numbering close to 300. During this time, he has also been working as an assistant manager at The Cotton Patch – his family’s fabric and quilting supplies business in Keizer, Oregon. When not working at reviewing movies or working at the family business, he enjoys exploring the Oregon Coast, playing video games and watching baseball in addition to his expansive collection of movies on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD, totalling over 3,000 movies.

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Robert Crawford

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I haven't watched my Blu-ray yet but plan to do so. Thank you for your review as this will be my first viewing of this movie.
 

timk1041

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Interesting though is that Veronica Lake's last film was "Flesh Feast" made in 1967, but not released until 1970. She creates a clone of Hitler and also develops flesh eating maggots supposedly for research purposes, but actually uses them for something else. I won't reveal what she does with them. You can read somewhere online for the rest of the plot if you never already watched it. I never saw this movie, only read about it. It sounds rather disgusting even for a horror film and has a very unbelievable storyline. I wonder why she agreed to be in this type of film. Making a statement about Hitler and Nazis?????? Anyway, she was in a number of good movies mostly during the early part of her career, but later got stuck in some much lesser ones, along with having many personal problems before she died in 1973. "The Hour Before The Dawn" might be worth checking out even though it isn't considered one of her better films.
 

Douglas R

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I have the Blu-ray. It’s an interesting, original story but I didn’t think enough was made of the main plot involving Veronica Lake. There’s too much domestic chat amongst the household (plus that irritating child!). I know there was a lot of criticism about Veronica Lake’s casting but I actually thought she was good in a difficult role. Not surprisingly for a film made during WWII the propaganda element is very strong.
 

Osato

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I stumbled across the news that this film and Saigon are now on Blu-ray. I ordered both too! I can’t wait to give this one a watch!

Thanks for the post and the review of the disc!!
 

Robert Harris

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Interesting though is that Veronica Lake's last film was "Flesh Feast" made in 1967, but not released until 1970. She creates a clone of Hitler and also develops flesh eating maggots supposedly for research purposes, but actually uses them for something else. I won't reveal what she does with them. You can read somewhere online for the rest of the plot if you never already watched it. I never saw this movie, only read about it. It sounds rather disgusting even for a horror film and has a very unbelievable storyline. I wonder why she agreed to be in this type of film. Making a statement about Hitler and Nazis?????? Anyway, she was in a number of good movies mostly during the early part of her career, but later got stuck in some much lesser ones, along with having many personal problems before she died in 1973. "The Hour Before The Dawn" might be worth checking out even though it isn't considered one of her better films.
Miss Lake receives an Exec. Prod credit on Flesh Feast. Would be interesting to know why.
 
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