HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941): Boyer at the Border

Starring Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard, Victor Francen, Walter Abel. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. (116 min).

ON BLU-RAY FROM ARROW ACADEMY


Recently reviewing the Blu-ray release of Gaslight, I had the privilege of discovering the great Charles Boyer. Somewhat embarrassed that I’d never seen any of his films until then, I was knocked-out by his icy performance. So naturally, Hold Back the Dawn piqued my interest considerably.

Boyer plays Georges Iscoveu, a conniving Romanian gigolo who flees war-torn Europe to Mexico, where he hopes for a visa to enter the United States. However, the wait could be years and he’s stuck in a rundown hotel, home to numerous other similarly stranded immigrants. Then he bumps into old acquaintance Anita (Paulette Goddard), an equally unscrupulous associate who informs him that marrying an American will allow him quick passage to the U.S.

After a few amusing false starts, Georges sets his sights on Emmy (Olivia de Havilland), a school teacher escorting students on a field trip. Turning on his charm, he gets her to fall in love with him and they marry almost immediately. Though he plans on divorcing later, he grows quite fond of Emmy during the weeks he must wait to cross the border, much to the chagrin of Anita, as this ruins plans for the two of them hooking-up in New York later. Meanwhile, Inspector Hammock (Walter Abel), a border patrol officer, tries to track-down Georges before he can carry-out his scheme.

Interestingly, the film is mostly told in flashback, with Georges relating the story to Paramount Pictures mogul Mr. Saxon (director Mitchell Leisen). I’m not sure what purpose this framing device ultimately serves other than Leisen giving himself a part in his own movie. At any rate, it doesn’t matter because Boyer’s fantastic performance is the driving force behind the whole film. What’s truly remarkable is that his character evolves from calculating cad to hopelessly in love without ever really speaking of it. The film’s underlying theme of redemption and Georges’ growing affection for Emmy are wordlessly conveyed through Boyer’s subtle expressions. I’ve never really seen a performance quite like it, not in a film from this era, anyway.

Hold Back the Dawn culminates in a suspenseful climax and moving resolution, mostly because we’ve become emotionally invested in a main character we initially despise. His transformation is an entertaining one, making this film a great character piece & actor’s showcase. Ms. De Havilland may have gotten the Oscar nod, but the movie belongs to Boyer.

Now on Blu-ray for the first time from Arrow Academy, the disc features a nice transfer and some interesting extras (outlined below), so it's highly recommended for classic movie fans.