I don’t usually go into old movies blind, but I was excited to finally watch The Hour Before the Dawn (1944), one of Paramount’s elusive archive that has never been released on DVD. All I knew was that Veronica Lake was in it, that she played a German spy or sympathizer, and that the title sounded appropriately dramatic. Full of eager anticipation at watching one of Lake’s more obscure movies, and one with WWII espionage elements at that, I settled in for a good watch.
The fact that nobody in recent memory had reviewed it as “a lost classic” or “a real gem in the rough” should have been a tip-off that it wasn’t on anybody’s must-watch list…
The first thing that strikes the unsuspecting viewer, as the titles roll, is this.
Veronica Lake and…Franchot Tone?!
Okay, then. Unlikelier pairings have been successful: Fredric March and Veronica Lake, anyone? Besides, I like Lake and tolerate Tone. Hmm…credits, credits, more names…ooh, Miklos Rozsa score…
The second thing that strikes the viewer (after the Miklos Rozsa credit), is the director: Frank Tuttle. Three years earlier, Tuttle had directed Lake in This Gun For Hire, a tersely plotted, bona fide noir classic, and incredibly stylish to boot. We also note, in passing, that the movie is based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham. Well, not exactly “in passing.” We pan in on a giant leather-bound book, with “W. Somerset Maugham” in gilt letters.
This is your tip-off that the action-packed, thrilling spy story promised by the poster is going to have a distinctly literary flair. Because it’s Maugham, however, it’s not a tip-off that the film is going to plod along at the pace of a cracked quill pen on vellum – to wildly mix a metaphor. But mixing metaphors is okay, because The Hour Before the Dawn isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be, either.