Snapshot Reviews: “Untamed” & “You’re Never Too Young”

“Untamed” (1955)

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Gone with the Wind meets wagon train Westerns…in South Africa in the mid-19th century.

The actual plot is slightly complicated, dramatic, and epic.  Katie O’Neill (Susan Hayward) meets Paul van Riebeck (Tyrone Power) in Ireland, where he’s buying horses for his Boer cavalry commandos back in South Africa.  They fall in love, but Paul decides it wouldn’t work out, and heads back home.  Not long afterwards, Katie’s father dies, Ireland is hit with the potato blight, and Katie decides to turn pioneer.  With a new husband (John Justin) and baby, she journeys to the colonial promised land of South Africa, a decision which has nothing at all to do with the fact that Paul is out there someplace…

From there, we move into a series of stunning landscapes as a Boer wagon train treks across South Africa.  Naturally, Katie and Paul will meet again.  Katie will also meet Kurt (Richard Egan), one of Paul’s commandos, who takes an instant shine to Katie and pursues her regardless of husband, baby, and his own girlfriend/mistress.

This is one of those melodramatic soap opera sagas that covers multiple years, long-running love quadrangles, and tempestuous weather events.  It brings in a smattering of South African history and politics (the accuracy of which I can’t vouch for).  It’s also one of those movies where you want to shake the main characters into their senses.

Why bother watching, if the plot is so hokey?  Because it’s filmed well.  Despite frustrating lulls in spots, there’s a sense of slow tension running throughout, and nothing is resolved until it really is resolved, at the very end – unlike lengthy plots which seem to resolve, and then continue on for reasons unknown to the viewer.  Both Hayward and Power are strong, scene-commanding leads, with visible chemistry, and Richard Egan convincingly delivers a villain who oozes slime, yet isn’t without a few good points.

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But the No. 1 reason to watch: Seriously gorgeous cinematography.  The lush African landscapes are stunning (“African sequences photographed at Zululand by courtesy of the Natal Parks Board”), and were probably even more breathtaking in their original CinemaScope.

Other entries on the credit side of the ledger:

  • Director Henry King films a Zulu attack on the wagon train that must rank among the Top 10 Western “attack on the settlers” scenes, if you stretch the definition of Westerns to include other countries.  There are Westerns in which the settlers are supposedly outnumbered 10:1, but the viewer remains unruffled.  This isn’t one of them.  The Zulu attackers look like they actually know what they’re doing, and the settlers are both seriously outarmed and outnumbered, and faced with unfamiliar enemy tactics.
  • Susan Hayward’s character might be selfish and scheming at times, but she’s got the guts that Scarlett O’Hara lacked.  At any rate, she doesn’t whine.
  • Solid performances from Rita Moreno as Egan’s longsuffering love interest, and Agnes Moorehead as Aggie O’Toole, Hayward’s maid/housekeeper/fellow pioneer (a sort of Irish variant on the Hattie McDaniel role in Gone with the Wind).

On the debit side:

  • As mentioned, the soap opera plot, combined with some of the negative stereotypes of a typical Western transplanted to South Africa. (You will shake your head at some point, guaranteed.)
  • Significant lack of screen time for Tyrone Power, combined with too much for Richard Egan.  Not that Egan is bad; he’s very, very good at being a louse.  But Power flat-out disappears for a stretch that’s just a little too long for a movie like this.

Random commentary that didn’t fit anywhere else: A moment of silence is in order for John Justin’s character.  Justin plays the man Hayward marries after Power leaves Ireland, who goes with her and their child to South Africa.  I felt sorry for him.  He seems like a decent guy, but he marries Hayward in the first fifteen minutes, and Tyrone Power is still out there.  You’re left making bets with yourself as to whether he’ll die right off the bat, or stick around to provide drama for a tragic love triangle.  Poor guy didn’t deserve his fate.

At 111 minutes, Untamed is half the running time of Gone with the Wind, just long enough to wrap things up before they threaten to overwhelm the viewer.


“You’re Never Too Young” (1955)

This movie had me fooled.  Up to a certain point, it looked like a comedy starring Dean Martin and Diana Lynn, and Raymond Burr and Veda Ann Borg as jewel thieves.  And then it devolved into a showpiece for Jerry Lewis acting like an overgrown 12-year-old on helium with a sugar rush, shoehorned between musical numbers and nearly word-for-word scene repeats from The Major and the Minor.  Jerry Lewis, it must be said, is no Ginger Rogers.

The genders are swapped: Diana Lynn, who played the precocious teenager in The Major and the Minor, plays half of the Milland role, and the love interest, in this allegedly comedic revamp.  Dean Martin also has part of the Milland role, and as a bonus, Martin has a fiancée (Nina Foch), aka the Rita Johnson role in TMATM, who shows up for a few scenes because the plot demands it.  The school is a girls’ school, Jerry Lewis is an incompetent barber turned fake teenager because he’s escaping a jewel thief (Burr), who he (Lewis) thinks is a jealous husband (don’t even ask).  (Short version: Burr drops a stolen diamond into Lewis’ pocket, and has to get it back, involving a series of misadventures as he follows him via plane, train, and around the school.)  The jewelry thief subplot is a welcome distraction, and it’s probably the only reason anyone who watched The Major and the Minor kept watching ’til the bitter end.

A few genuinely funny scenes, and the presence of a skilled cast, can’t make up for the lack of plot focus and comedic spark.  On the plus side: less creep factor.  The age difference is played purely for laughs, not real drama, and the ending is different, as Lewis’ character doesn’t really fall for Lynn.  (He does, however, fall, jump, speed, and skim over and into multiple objects on a pair of waterskis during the final chase scene.)

Watch if you’re a fan of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or stick to the musical numbers, or utilize the fast-forward button.  Or watch UntamedYou’re Never Too Young clocks in at 102 minutes, and Untamed has better scenery.

1967 in Film: “Fitzwilly”

Fitzwilly (1967) is a delightful comedy, slightly old-school for 1967.  It’s a heartwarming tale of loyalty, friendship, love, laughs…and a touch of grand larceny.

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Fitzwilliam (Dick Van Dyke) is a butler – one of a long line of butlers.  His father was butler to the Woodworth family, and his father before him.  Fitzwilliam serves the now-elderly Miss Vicki Woodworth.  It’s a noble calling, if a little old-fashioned in this modern age.  “And,” as Fitzwilliam points out, “terribly, terribly expensive.”

Miss Vicki maintains the enormous family home and creme-de-la-creme lifestyle to which she was born, and writes $20,000 checks to charities on the regular.  Her mansion includes an impressive retinue of servants, who spend less time polishing the furniture than polishing a few skills that are, shall we say, less than 100% legal.

Fitzwilliam & Co. are hiding the awful truth: when her father died, she was left without a cent.  Everything since has been provided by low cunning.  Household expenses are funded by a shocking variety of illegal schemes.  Servants pluck Miss Vicki’s charitable checks from visitors’ pockets while helping with their coats, or poach them from the outgoing mail.  Fitzwilliam is the brainpower behind this high-class hub of crime, and he’s refined the discreet procural of cash to an art and a science.

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The grand dame in question, Miss Vicki, is a strong-minded, strong-willed little old lady, wonderfully portrayed by Edith Evans.  She has the total disregard for propriety that exists only in the best and wealthiest old families.  She calls Fitzwilliam “Fitzwilly,” scolds policemen who pull her over, says “Poppycock!” to anything she deems silly, and has a warm heart beneath a crackling aristocratic exterior.  She’s the leader of the Platypi (“as in ‘many platypuses’?”) – a sort of not-a-Cub Scouts group with principles based on Miss Vicki’s unique life philosophies.  (Among other things, she believes it’s “the height of impertinence” to help little old ladies across the street.)  Miss Vicki’s other pet project is a dictionary for people who can’t spell, which actually sounds brilliant in a pre-Google era.

It’s the dictionary project that knocks down the first domino in Fitzwilly’s perfectly run household.  Miss Vicki, forgetting to inform Fitzwilly, engages the services of a secretary to assist with the dictionary.

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Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon, AKA “Agent 99” of Get Smart) shows up.  A surprised Fitzwilly makes a major error in judgment, tries to brush her off, and fires up every suspicious neuron in Juliet’s brain…for all the wrong reasons.  Assuming she won’t get the job, she blasts the butler with a scathing rebuke: “Whatever you’re up to with that wonderful old lady, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

Fitzwilly makes his second error; in a fit of pique, he offers her the job at double the salary, because “she was so sure I wouldn’t.”

With an outsider in the house and a complicated plan worth $75,000 in progress, the gang frets over the potential for disaster.  Piece of cake, Fitzwilly says.  She’ll see that there’s nothing going on, they’ll make up an excuse for Miss Vicki to take a vacation, and she’ll be out within the week.

Fitzwilly is mistaken.

After Juliet unwittingly thwarts one too many schemes by her intrusions (including a disastrous incident involving one of Miss Vicki’s checks), Fitzwilly resolves to date her and make a pass, figuring that she’ll be so insulted she’ll quit.

This does not go as planned.  Romance blossoms!  And Fitzwilly is now juggling so many different schemes that he’s bound to drop one sometime.

One by one, the dominoes keep falling, until they decide it’s time to call it quits.  There’s just one big Last Heist to be finished before going straight…

All I will say about that is: If you’ve never seen a boldfaced robbery of Gimbel’s Department Store on Christmas Eve involving upturned umbrellas, Christmas carols, free TVs with any purchase (“no matter how small!”), and judicious use of the United States Postal Service, you haven’t lived.

There’s plenty to enjoy here for the crime comedy (and romantic comedy) fan.

Fitzwilly & Co.’s schemes are laid out in deliciously precise detail, from the Samson-and-Delilah bar trick (always good for quick cash in a pinch) to Serenity Through the Word’s Bibles for the bereaved (a long-term investment, but equally rewarding).  Should you be interested in funding your own cash-poor, prestige-rich household, I’m sure there’s an idea you can adapt.

A very 1960s highlight of the film is TV actor spotting: “Hey! Isn’t he the guy who…”  Starting with Dick Van Dyke and Barbara Feldon (of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Get Smart, respectively), the faces that pop up are a who’s who of characters on TV.  You could watch the same actors at the theater on the weekend, and watch them at home on weekdays.

Demonstrating the Samson and Delilah bar trick.

Demonstrating the Samson and Delilah bar trick.

The strong cast of memorable character actors carries the film: John McGiver, Noam Pitlik, Harry Townes, Sam Waterston, and Cecil Kellaway – among many others.  Maybe you don’t remember their names.  But I bet you remember their faces!  And voices – John Fiedler (AKA the voice of Piglet in Winnie-the-Pooh) makes an appearance as a naive piano store manager.  Byron Casey (Stephen Strimpell) is hilarious as an interior decorator (in well over his head) who’s an integral part of that $75,000 scheme, and Noam Pitlik is memorable as a footman-turned-henchman.

Dick Van Dyke as Fitzwilly, of course, is the highlight.  He pulls out his best fake English accent (and a fake French accent).  He looks like he’s having a blast as this modern Moriarty for a good cause.  It’s living on the edge, without a shred of guilt.  So much so, in fact, that Miss Vicki’s assistant Grimsby (Anne Seymour) gets concerned, telling him that he keeps aiming higher, and he’s only doing it now because he enjoys it.  Fitzwilly’s response: “But it’s just that I’m so good at it!”

John McGiver as Albert deserves special mention.  He’s the wildcard in the gang: he has a guilty conscience.  The retired priest turned servant lies and steals for Miss Vicki’s sake, but his scruples prevent him from participating wholeheartedly.  Fitzwilly keeps him in hand, but he’s the weak point; with the right lever, the whole shebang could crack wide open.  His solemn, deadpan line delivery is classic.  Watch for him “explaining” to Juliet why he was picking someone’s pocket.

Fitzwilly was one of 1967’s family-friendly outings; it pushed no envelopes, though certain aspects would have been nixed under the Production Code.  Luckily, it’s not dated: the combination of a Wodehousian setting, juxtaposed with the lively modernity of Dick Van Dyke and Barbara Feldon, plus a generous helping of the very 1960s crime/heist comedy genre, keeps it fresh and entertaining for the modern viewer.  It also features a score by an up-and-coming composer credited here as “Johnny Williams.”

And just because you rarely, if ever, get to say this when reviewing a classic movie: if you like Dick Van Dyke as a thief in Fitzwilly, you can watch him play one again in Night at the Museum 3 this December.  Yes, this December.  89 years old and still scheming!


This post is part of the 1967 in Film Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and The Rosebud CinemaClick here for all the entries on this fascinating year in the movies.

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

counterfeit-traitor-holden

This review is my second contribution to the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Classic Spies, hosted by Movies, Silently from June 1-3. See the complete list of films and participants here.

The Counterfeit Traitor, as you may have guessed, is one of my favorite 1960s spy movies.

Most classic spy films focus on a single, critical piece of information – or a one-time, action-packed assignment. There are exceptions: Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, or George Smiley hunting the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But really, most movie spies are after MacGuffins. TV spies’ work is, by nature, episodic; movie spies generally have a mission to get in, get the information, and get out – as fast as possible. Occasionally, we catch up to embedded spies just as they’re escaping (or trying to). It’s less common to find a spy on a long-term, ongoing espionage assignment.

The Counterfeit Traitor‘s premise is loosely based on the story of Eric Erickson, a real WWII spy.

William Holden’s voice-over lays out the facts. The year: 1942. Eric Erickson is a Swedish oil executive (American by birth, now a Swedish citizen). He’s just been placed on a U.S. blacklist and disowned by his brother for – according to Erickson – no reason at all. A “Nazi collaborator,” the papers say. All he’s doing is trading oil with Germany! Sweden is neutral; he’s a businessman. Germany needs barrels of oil; Erickson likes barrels of money. Simple.

Simple, that is, until he meets a British intelligence agent (Collins, played by Hugh Griffith). Collins explains that he can arrange to remove Erickson from the blacklist after the war (a necessity if Erickson wants to keep his business a going concern), provided he serves as a spy. Erickson is ideally situated to discover critical information about Germany’s oil production, and pass it on to Allied Bomber Command. With his hand forced, Erickson agrees. In short order, he’ll also be compelled to turn visibly, actively pro-Nazi – publicly insulting his Jewish best friend, and even losing his wife in the process. He can’t tell anyone. And all for a cause he couldn’t care less about.

As much as it’s an exciting spy story (with a harrowing escape), The Counterfeit Traitor is also about the awakening of a collaborator’s conscience, and a tragic love story. It raises questions about moral responsibility, and doesn’t necessarily answer them. It’s a thrilling, gripping, bittersweet roller coaster of a tale.


 

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There’s too much here to summarize properly, and honestly, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers.  (Although I do share a few important ones, so be warned.) This is one you’ll want to watch. Instead, let me share some of the reasons and scenes that make it one of my favorites. There are lots of things to enjoy in this movie.

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How to pull off a “Secret Mission” in 1942

snoopathon-blogathon-of-spies-garbo

This post is my contribution to the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Classic Spies, hosted by Movies, Silently from June 1-3. See the complete list of films and participants here.

Have you ever wondered how to pull off a successful spy mission? Perhaps you’re planning a trip back to occupied France, and you need a few pointers before you turn the dial on the ol’ time machine. Never fear; the British show you how to do it all in Secret Mission.

  • Introduce your crack espionage team. You’ll want a handsome commanding officer (Hugh Williams); a Free French fighter and cook (James Mason); Michael Wilding as a private who…well, we’ll get to him later; and a trusted right-hand man (Roland Culver). This is a good cast; keep them. You’ll need them to carry the script.

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  • Always remember that it makes total sense to send a team of commandos across the English Channel (at great risk to both boats and men) to poke around an unfamiliar locale for info on troop movements, bombing targets, and all that sort of thing. Putting local citizens in jeopardy to procure papers, shelter, and transportation while sheltering the Brits is par for the course. Setting up a local intelligence network and sending communiques via less risky methods is for wimps.
  • It is a moral requirement that at least one member of your party (preferably the handsome officer; it’s best not to assign the cook or the lowly private to this role) fall head over heels in love with a local beauty. Corollary: there must be a local beauty, preferably living in the same house where you’ll be holed up for the week. Here, her name is Michele, played by Carla Lehmann; she’s Raoul’s (James Mason’s) sister.
  • Maintain a blissful disregard for actual languages and/or accents used by various nationalities. Have James Mason attempt a French accent.
  • For added personal drama, have the local beauty encourage her brother to come back to France, as it’s difficult running the family farm alone. And then urge him frantically to stay out of sight, because the Germans might see him. (Um…)
  • Being holed up in a house is boring for the audience. Allow your spies to wander the village and surrounding countryside at will. A disguise of civilian duds and downward-cast looks provides adequate concealment. The issue of not having identification papers can be addressed by dodging behind trees and under café counters – just be quick about it!
  • Champagne merchants can go anywhere. Anywhere. Including driving directly into local German military headquarters and requesting to see the man in charge, like any good door-to-door salesmen. (If you’re looking for the origins of Hogan’s Heroes, look no further. They’ve even got the Disguise!Glasses.) Frankly, this scene is pretty funny; everyone is playing it tongue-in-cheek. (Culver: “Do you think we overdid the ‘Heils’?”)
Just a couple of friendly neighborhood champagne salesmen.

Just a couple of friendly neighborhood champagne salesmen.

  • The outrageous bluff always works. Especially if your fellow “champagne merchant” just handed the nice German officer an English cigarette.
  • It’s always embarrassing if you wind up in a situation you weren’t trained for in Hogan’s Heroes’ School of Espionage. Luckily, there is no such situation. The Germans, you see, were A+ students at Col. Klink’s Military Academy. When your champagne merchants show up, they’re immediately spotted for who they must really be: Gestapo counterintelligence agents!
  • Provide comedic relief. Cast Michael Wilding as a British private who doesn’t want to go back to St. Antoine (the village in question) because his overbearing French wife lives there, and the one perk of the war is not seeing her again. At least, I think this was comedy relief? (Seriously, this part made for a few chuckles, and no sense! But I’m told it was parodied to the hilt in ‘Allo ‘Allo!.)
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Michael Wilding. Cleverly disguised with a beret.

  • If any German soldiers are suspicious, claim to be Gestapo.
  • Hijack a German patrol vehicle blasting Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture. Turn it up full blast. Why? Because you can.
  • As a plot device, have the French love interest change her mind every five seconds: I’m so happy you’ve come! Wait, my brother’s not coming back to work on the farm? Get out, you’re going to endanger everyone! Wait, I think I’m falling in love with you. The Germans killed my brother! Now I will refuse to help you escape! Until I change my mind and rush out to save everyone at the last moment…  (More seriously, it was a nice touch to have a character who wasn’t passionately pro-Resistance from the get-go. The point gets muddied by too many whiplash mood changes, but Michele’s desire to protect her family’s home and livelihood by lying low was probably not uncommon – and understandable. She adds the necessary heart to the implausible plot.)

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  • This is 1942. Happily-ever-after endings are for after the war. A tear-jerker parting scene between the English officer and the French woman is called for – with a message that the brave citizens of occupied France are secretly fighting the good fight, while the Allies are successfully bombing the stuffing out of hidden factories.

 

And that’s how you pull off a successful Secret Mission! Congratulations; you’re ready to be a spy. Don’t forget to finish the semester at Hogan’s Heroes’ School of Espionage before you go.

Secret Mission isn’t going to land any lost classics awards, or make it onto a “10 Best WWII Spy Films” list, but it’s fluffy, Espionage Lite entertainment, with a side of fantasy and a morale boost for WWII-era audiences. In a darkened theater in 1942, following the end of the Blitz, it may have been reassuring to see that the Nazis were just a bunch of dressed-up bowling pins, ready to be knocked down by British know-how and gumption.

Which isn’t to say that it isn’t also ridiculous: see above. It may have hit almost every spy/commando/resistance trope in the book as of 1942 – and probably contributed a few to the cause. As a How-To Guide for a WWII spy movie, it’s gold. You’ve got a Cafe Scene, a Walk in the Moonlight Scene, an Infiltrating Enemy HQ with a Bluff Scene, a Listening to the BBC Scene, a Tragic Death of Team Member Scene (with accompanying Patriotic Speech), a bombing, a chase, a scurry through soldier-infested woods, a paratrooper invasion(!), and Discussions with French Citizens About the Occupation.

 

And you know, despite all that, it’s actually rather fun.

Tomorrow, we’ll be taking a more serious look at a real WWII spy in George Seaton’s The Counterfeit Traitor. Meanwhile, don’t forget to stop by the Snoopathon and check out the other entries!

Trench coats for all!

Trench coats for all!

 

A Cuppa Tea

Today’s post is sponsored by my morning cup of coffee. Old movie stars with teacups! Or coffee cups, as the case may be.

Formula for guaranteed chuckles: put a rough-edged guy in a situation where he has to hold a teacup. It’s audience-proof.

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Charlton Heston vs. The World’s Tiniest Teacup in The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962).
(It was coffee, and it wasn’t even the real stuff. Poor guy.)

Lillian Gish in Way Down East (1920). The classy, lace-and-pearls way to drink tea:

 

Not the lace-and-pearls type? There’s room for you, too, in the classic movie canon:

Source: 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

Truck drivers downing hearty breakfasts and coffee in Young and Innocent (1937).
Source: 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

 

Charlie Chaplin with a Blue Willow cup in Modern Times (1936). And a Pug.

 

“Veronica Lake, lovely star of Paramount’s hit, ‘The Hour Before the Dawn,’ relaxes with a cup of brisk Liptons’ Tea.”

Source

Veronica Lake in ad for Lipton tea, 1944. Source

 

And last but certainly not least: those cricket-loving gentlemen, Charters & Caldicott!

Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in The Lady Vanishes (1938).  Source: 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in The Lady Vanishes (1938). Source: 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

 

 

“The Hour Before the Dawn” (1944)

Hour-Before-The-Dawn-1944-movieposter

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.

Franchot tone & Veronica Lake

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.
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