Blu-ray Review: Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Stuck in a small Mexican stopover town where the one thing that sets it apart is the fact that it shares a border with the United States, Romanian dancer turned gigolo Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) decides it's time to make a great escape.

Having mapped out a shortcut to the states, Georges opts to seduce his way into American citizenship through a green card marriage to the spinster teacher (played by Olivia de Havilland) he sets out to woo.

Sidelined by car trouble while chaperoning a group of rambunctious boys during a field trip on the fourth of July, the sweet if naive California teacher gets taken in by the smooth talking stranger when he delays her overnight and steers her into a whirlwind romance that ends in a rushed wedding at dawn.

Separated for a few weeks while the papers go through, Emmy Brown (de Havilland) surprises her new husband back in Mexico before he can legally cross the border to end the marriage he orchestrated by filing some papers of his own.

Setting off on a spontaneous road trip, Georges is proof that the fastest way to get to know someone is to travel together as, not too long after they've left, he's startled to find that he's developed a strong attraction to (gasp) his own wife.

Out of respect for perhaps the first woman he doesn't want to love and leave, Georges tries to tamp down his desire by feigning an injury to prevent him from consummating the marriage.

Cranking up the heat, first in a scene where he can't bear to look at Emma perfectly framed in the rear-view mirror, followed by another where — having stripped down and run into the waves — he discovers she's not the schoolmarm he initially thought, Georges realizes he can no longer ignore his heart in Hold Back the Dawn.

Beautifully photographed, the artistry of Oscar nominated cinematographer Leo Tover shines through not only in the aforementioned scenes but also when our leads exchange vows once again in a religious ceremony filled with candles and shadows.

Despite its requisite World War II era flag-waving, Dawn it seems is as romantically optimistic as it is filled with cynical wit. Of course, this tonally sophisticated blend was soon to become a trademark of screenwriter Billy Wilder, who penned the script with Charles Brackett.

Based on Ketti Frings' story, "Memo to a Movie Producer," which later became a novel, while the Hollywood set framing device feels like a bit of a self-serving rah-rah Tinseltown prologue, Wilder and Brackett counter Dawn's protracted artificiality with authenticity, canceling it out in a starkly realistic first act anchored by Boyer's world-weary narration.

A recurring Wilder device, after Boyer used his weight as a star to axe a few scenes helmed by Mitchell Leisen, Hold Back the Dawn became the last script Wilder wrote that he didn't direct. Still, obviously proud of the work, it was Dawn which Wilder shared with Raymond Chandler to give the hard-boiled crime novelist a crash course in crafting screenplays.

It's a timeless film that's timelier than ever today. Boasting an all too important speech about the vital role that new immigrants from all over play in shaping American culture, this border set melodrama takes on added gravitas in 2019 given the Trump administration's xenophobic war on immigrants who have dared to cross the border from Mexico in search of the American dream.

Featuring Paulette Goddard's scene-stealing performance as Georges' dance turned bedroom partner, now that the cover of night has begun to lift on Dawn thanks to Arrow's velvety rich Blu-ray restoration, Mitchell Leisen's overlooked six-time Oscar nominee won't stay hidden for long.

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