Hour Before the Dawn, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Jul 02, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Hour Before the Dawn, The (Blu-ray Review)


Frank Tuttle

Release Date(s)

1944 (June 4, 2024)


Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: B-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B

The Hour Before the Dawn (Blu-ray)

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The Hour Before the Dawn is one of many anti-Nazi Hollywood films made during World War II. Paramount contract star Veronica Lake is top billed in this tale of an Austrian refugee who’s actually a German agent working in England. This politically charged drama focuses on how decent, patriotic people can fall under the spell of a cunning spy.

Dora Bruckmann (Lake, So Proudly We Hail), an Austrian refugee taken in by a well-to-do English family, expresses her gratitude with her expert cooking and pleasant company. The family consists of patriarch General Hetherton (Henry Stephenson, Captain Blood); his sons Jim (Franchot Tone, Mutiny on the Bounty) and Roger (John Sutton, Jane Eyre); Roger’s wife, May (Bonnie Barnes, The Time of Their Lives), and Roger and May’s young son, Tommy (David Leland, Hangover Square). Currently, they’re all living together on General Hetherton’s country estate.

Germany has just invaded Poland, England is likely to be attacked quite soon, and all the Hethertons expect to do their part in the war. The old general can no longer serve on the battlefield, but Roger is an active military man and May, a former actress, goes back on the road to help entertain the troops, having secured Dora’s word that she will look after Tommy. Jim, traumatized as a child when an accident with his rifle killed his pet collie, has vowed never to touch a weapon again but hopes to serve his country in some other way and is willing to take the consequences of not serving in the military. He convinces a tribunal that his convictions are sincere, wins classification as a conscientious objector and is required to seek farm work. This inspires a range of reactions from family and acquaintances—scorn, incomprehension, disgust, and suspicion of cowardice.

In the meantime, Dora has had her eye on Jim and Jim is responsive. No one in the household remotely suspects Dora of being a German sympathizer. The government has called for all aliens to report for security screening, but Dora has ingratiated herself so thoroughly that her hosts regard her as above suspicion.

Adapted by Lesser Samuels from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the film initially spends a lot of time with the family members. This establishes their relationships but keeps the main plot at bay until it gets rolling about twenty minutes in.

Lake’s character, and much of her performance, is wooden. With a never-changing expression, Dora remains enigmatic. Why has she repaid the kindness of the Hethertons with betrayal? Why does she abet the Nazis’ plan to locate and destroy a British airfield? And why doesn’t her curious behavior raise suspicions earlier? In addition, her screen chemistry with Franchot Tone is negligible. In their scenes together, the actors recite their lines dutifully but with no passion. Shouldn’t a competent spy be better at turning up the heat? The British supporting cast is quite good. Lake speaks with a light German accent, but Tone makes little attempt to sound British.

Despite its flaws, the film does hold the viewer’s attention. The running time is a mere 74 minutes, so even with a slow opening, the film manages an effective build-up of suspense. The film includes some decent special effects, in which entire buildings are blown up, giving the picture added production value. Much of the film was shot at the studio because of wartime filming restrictions. Additional scenes were shot in Arizona.

The Hour Before the Dawn was not one of Veronica Lake’s more successful pictures, and marked the beginning of a decline in her career. Only one more major film would be in her future—The Blue Dahlia. The Hour Before the Dawn is an interesting artifact of wartime film production, in which building up patriotic morale was a frequent ingredient. With the outcome of the war unknown and successful battles often being racked up by the Germans and Japanese, such films provided hope and encouraged determination on the part of viewers.

The Hour Before the Dawn was shot by director of photography John F. Seitz on 35 mm black & white film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Blu-ray features a brand new HD master sourced from a 2K scan of the 35 mm original fine grain. Grain and grayscale are very good. Details, such as designs in Dora’s dresses and hats, decor in the Hetherton household, the hair on young Jim’s collie, shrubs and trees in nearby fields, and miniature houses are well delineated. Rear projection is used in moving-car shots and studio-filmed scenes representing exteriors. A miniature airplane stands in for the real thing, using small gas engines to turn the propellers and coming in for a landing via thin wire.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Most of the actors are British and sound authentic to the characters they’re portraying, but Franchot Tone makes little attempt at a British accent. Veronica Lake speaks with a German accent, as would an Austrian by birth. In an attempt to buoy their spirits as they huddle in the basemen during a bombing attack by the Germans, the Hethertons sing familiar songs as a family member plays an old piano. Sound effects include crackling fire, airplane engines, gun shots, explosions, ceiling plaster falling, and a couple of climactic screams.

Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics include the following:

  • Audio Commentary by Paul Talbot
  • Trailer (2:10)
  • Saigon Trailer (2:00)
  • So Proudly We Hail Trailer (1:41)
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer Trailer (1:42)
  • Five Graves to Cairo Trailer (2:13)
  • Lucky Jordan Trailer (1:36)
  • The Web Trailer (2:17)

Audio Commentary – Film historian Paul Talbot refers to himself as a “Veronica Lake scholar.” He mentions several adaptations of W. Somerset Maugham’s works that were made into films. The studio purchased The Hour Before the Dawn for $65,000. The prologue, set in 1923, isn’t in the novel. During World War II, Hollywood had trouble finding leading men. Franchot Tone was an early practitioner of the Method. He signed a contract with Paramount that allowed him to take on work at other studios as long as he did two pictures a years for Paramount. The role of Dora was originally intended for Vera Zorina. Talbot reads the description of Dora directly from Maugham’s novel. Veronica Lake was signed to a contract at Paramount, was given acting lessons, and had her look developed by the hair and make-up departments. This resulted in Lake’s “over one eye” hairstyle, which was copied by many American women. Some of her other films include The Glass Key, I Married a Witch, and Five Graves to Cairo. During the war, Lake was responsible for selling $12 million worth of bonds on bond tours throughout the country. Her salary at the time she made The Hour Before the Dawn was $1,000 per week. Lake’s costumes were designed by Edith Head, who won eight Academy Awards during her career. The film’s shooting schedule was eight weeks and its budget was $800,000. Because of blackout regulations during the war, night scenes were not permitted to be filmed in Los Angeles. A location in Arizona was used for night scenes and explosions that occur toward the end of the film. Director Frank Tuttle was blacklisted after being questioned at the HUAC hearings. Years later, Alan Ladd was able to get him a job directing him in a two-part TV episode of The General Electric Theater. Veronica Lake was announced for a number of films she never appeared in, including Victoria Grandolet (film was never made), You Came Along (Lizabeth Scott starred), and Duel in the Sun (Jennifer Jones got the part). Lake died in 1973 at the age of 50 after years of alcohol abuse.

The Hour Before the Dawn places a female spy at the center of the action. Dora Bruckmann is aloof, ever vigilant, and duplicitous. The main problem is Veronica Lake’s cardboard performance. She exudes little screen chemistry with Franchot Tone and might be out of her depth with this drama. Effervescent in light comedy roles in which her personality sparkles, she’s working hard against type and she’s stiff and unconvincing.

- Dennis Seuling