Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hollywood took a break from its steady diet of war-themed films after the 1945 victory, with cowboys displacing combat on movie screens. But serious looks back at the war returned just before the resumption of hostilities in Korea. Whereas Warners' pictures tended to continue the patriotic attitude of wartime movies, adding a moral complication or two, Darryl F. Zanuck over at Fox started a new kind of reflective, respectful examination of the war that stressed personal sacrifice, as in their honored Twelve O'Clock High.
Decision Before Dawn is a complex spy story sourced from a Christopher Award-Winning novel by George Howe that questions the meaning of the term Traitor. Although barely remembered today, the exciting and lavishly produced movie was a nominee for Best Picture of 1951.
Radio Man Lt. Rennick (Richard Basehart) is attached to a special intelligence section on the Rhine River as the American Army prepares to cross over into Germany in the Spring of 1945. Col Devlin (Gary Merrill) gets the okay to use German prisoners as double agents to pinpoint enemy positions and to aid in the arranging of some hoped-for early surrenders of large German units. Rennick ends up going behind the lines as a spy as well, accompanied by "Tiger" (Hans Christian Blech), a daredevil German prisoner who openly admits he's volunteering for personal gain, not politics. Also sent on a separate five-day mission is a German Medic, Corporal Karl Maurer, code name "Happy" (Oskar Werner). Maurer is committed to helping his country by ending the war more quickly. Karl's adventure in his bombed-out homeland is one hairy situation after another, especially when he finds out that his cover identity has been blown. He meets Hilde, a sympathetic girl surviving as a nightclub hostess (Hildegarde Knef) and for a night lands in good stead with a top General (O.E. Hasse). Soon thereafter he becomes a desperate fugitive in a place where personal ID's are checked practically on an hourly basis.
By 1951 audiences had already seen several pictures filmed in the bombed ruins of Germany: Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, Fred Zinnemann's The Search. Anatole Litvak's Decision Before Dawn is set just previous to the Allied invasion of Germany, when the Reich was crumbling. We're accustomed to seeing elaborate wartime re-creations that have to scrape to come up with authentic-looking military hardware but Decision has access to resources that would soon be gone forever - scores of authentic German trucks and tanks. At least an hour of the film takes place on the run between German cities in trains and other public transportation. The film seemingly has entire cities at its disposal, just for background coloration.
Decision Before Dawn is a different kind of war-espionage picture in that it involves questions of patriotism and morality; it forms a filmic link between the wartime intelligence work and the calculated world of spy intrigue to come. The Allies are about to fight on German soil, and the pragmatic U.S. spymasters like the idea of recruiting enemy soldiers to bring back information from behind the lines. That means essentially recruiting traitors. The young German medical corpsman played by Oskar Werner sees a friend murdered by his fellow prisoners of war just for defeatist remarks, and it inspires him to help the Americans bring an end to the fighting as soon as possible. But Peter Viertel's script deepens the moral issues by making us consider that American prisoners would probably murder one of their own if the situation were reversed. The idealistic Werner may be an exception, as the other major candidate (Hans Christian Blech) is obviously an unreliable opportunist, a resourceful "survivor" type.
Werner parachutes into Germany with instructions to gather information on enemy positions and return in five days. He's shocked to find cities reeling from bombing raids yet functioning fairly efficiently. Injured civilians are hard at work -- a female motor pool operator wears an eye patch while an entertainer is singing despite the loss of a leg. Werner is befriended and then suspected by a corrupt S.S. motorcycle messenger (Wilfried Seyferth) who tries to sell him jewelry apparently confiscated from murdered Jews, and happily takes our spy to stay at a forbidden black market inn. German Army intelligence detects Werner's presence in only a few hours, and after only a couple of days his name appears on a well-distributed "arrest" list. At one point it appears that our young spy has been caught, but he's just been summoned to administer injections to a General with heart problems.
Behind the adventure await troubling moral questions. Werner locates the important factory his Allied spymasters want bombed, but it turns out to be next door to a hospital where his own father is a head surgeon. The ruthless American handlers would surely prefer that Werner let the General die, but he's compelled to save the man. Ironically, when the General recovers he refuses to grant Werner's request to spare the life of a condemned deserter.
The finale comes in an impressive night air raid scene in which Werner and the other two spies attempt an escape back across the Rhine. A "patriotic" little German boy -- tellingly, not the typical Hitler Youth seen in films like The Counterfeit Traitor -- informs on them, and their careful exit turns into a panicked chase.
Decision Before Dawn is an extremely impressive suspense film marred only by the fact that the Germans all speak English. Our belief in the action is helped in no small part by a talented corps of German actors. Major discovery Oskar Werner didn't become an American star but instead showed up intermittently in classic European art films like Lola Montès and Jules and Jim. Hildegarde Knef (The Murderers are Among Us) was promoted as a Fox star but also didn't take hold. Major talent Hans Christian Blech, so convincing here as the untrustworthy spy recruit, had more sympathetic roles in The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge and The Bridge at Remagen. German General O.E. Hasse became a key player in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess. Viewers that look quickly enough will spot a young Klaus Kinski in his second movie appearance as a frightened prisoner in an early interview for potential spies. The presence of these exciting German actors overshadows star Richard Basehart, especially when the bulk of the spy action follows Oscar Werner's character.
In the early 1950s films about WW2 were often also realistic and thoughtful, as with another wartime spy picture, The Man Who Never Was. Other movies about daring spy and commando missions, such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Ill Met by Moonlight and Lewis Gilbert's Carve Her Name with Pride stressed authenticity and respect for the facts. Not until 1961's The Guns of Navarone would a WW2 spy story become "escapist" fun, with Allied heroes successfully executing impossible missions against woefully incompetent enemies.
Fox's DVD of Decision Before Dawn is an excellent B&W transfer of this superior and almost forgotten war drama. It's in practically perfect shape. Two brief extras show a frustrated director Anatole Litvak receiving an award from a stumbling presenter, and Hildegarde "Neff" setting her foot and hand prints in Grauman's concrete. The trailer included has a revised opening designed to position Decision Before Dawn as an important film for Academy consideration; Oscar promotion was even more blatant then than it is now.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Decision Before Dawn rates:
Supplements: Newsreel clips and outtakes, original trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 9, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson