Deliberate, marginally suspenseful, neo-realistic WWII espionage thriller, with excellent location shooting...and a seriously flawed "feel good" center, hidden amidst the moral corruption. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has re-released Decision Before Dawn, the 1951 spy drama from Fox, based on a novel by George Howe, scripted by Peter Viertel, directed by Anatole Litvak, and starring Richard Basehart, Gary Merrill, Oskar Werner, Hildegard Knef, Dominique Blanchar, O.E. Hasse, Wilfried Seyferth, and Hans Christian Blech. Nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, Decision Before Dawn sets up a sympathetic view of Germans clashing with their war-time consciences, while contrasting its themes of patriotic loyalty and treason against a suspenseful spy framework--an initially intriguing, but increasingly problematic construct, as the movie wears on. This Cinema Archives disc looks like the same transfer from Fox's 2006 disc of Decision Before Dawn; however, the extras from that release aren't ported over here.
France, December 8th, 1944, as the Allies prepare their final death blow to the German Reich. Wounded on Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings, radio operator Lieutenant Dick Rennick (Richard Basehart) has been reassigned to an intelligence group headquartered in a convent, near the German front. Prior to his arrival, Rennick escorts two surrendering German soldiers--wounded Sergeant Paul Richter (Robert Freytag) and medic Corporal Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner)--back to his new HQ. Coincidentally, the group's hard-bitten, unsentimental C.O., Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill), has been given the go-ahead by high command to proceed with a new strategy: recruitment of willing German P.O.W.s for counter-espionage activities against the Reich. Rennick is deeply skeptical of the operation ("They're all lice,"), while Devlin, holding no illusions about the potential reliability of a soldier who would willingly betray his own country, will try anything at this point to save American soldiers' lives. When intel from a German division commander seeking to surrender his troops reaches Devlin, Devlin needs to know if it's a trap; specifically, if there are heavy units, such as the suspected 11th Panzer group, waiting nearby in reserve, who could fill the gap of the surrendering unit. Command has ordered that an American officer go along to work the radio, and Rennick is chosen, while opportunistic thief-turned-traitor Sergeant Rudolf Barth (Hans Christian Blech), codenamed "Tiger," and Rennick's P.O.W. find, sweet, gentle, morally conflicted Maurer--sickened by the murder of Sergeant Richter by other German P.O.W.s when Richter expressed anti-war sentiments--codenamed "Happy," are picked as the German components of the raid. With Barth and Rennick teamed up at a "safe" house in Mannheim, "Happy" must locate the 11th Panzer unit--a seemingly impossible assignment when he discovers his cover was blown almost the minute he crossed the border.
I haven't seen Decision Before Dawn since I wrote The Espionage Filmography. Looking back at that particular entry, I was struck not only by how much my parsimonious editors cut my commentary (that book could have been eight volumes long), but also by my still spot-on coolness towards Anatole Litvak's meandering direction (I've had a hard-on for that guy ever since he ruined The Night of the Generals). My opinion of Litvak's lugubrious pacing hasn't changed after watching Decision Before Dawn last night (I dare you to sit through trials like Anastasia, The Journey, and Goodbye Again), but I will give credit to cinematographer Franz Planer here, for his rather remarkable deeply-scaled framing (some of the action scenes are remarkable, with a perception of great distance between foreground actors and background explosions, that looks more like Lean than Litvak), and to editor Dorothy Spencer for creating what low key, persistent suspense Decision Before Dawn maintains throughout its too-long 119 minutes. Those elements of Decision Before Dawn, along with the nicely-tuned performances, are relatively successful.
What doesn't work (along with Litvak's tenacious lethargy) is Peter Viertel's faux-complex script. Decision Before Dawn's opening narration (by Basehart) sets up the movie's initial question: why does a spy do what he or she does during war? If their side is victorious, they're almost never "thanked," with their efforts frequently forgotten. If the spy fails during wartime, he's killed. This moral and ethical (and even practical) postulation is then made impossible to resolve by the introduction of politics and national pride: why does a spy turn counter-spy, and betray his own country? He or she will be hated by both sides, with his native people despising him for his betrayal, and his enemy controllers suspicious and contemptuous of his treachery. With that intriguing dilemma, we're primed to contemplate not only Oskar Werner's espionage activities against the Nazi regime--and his own German people--in this fictionalized account of a true story, but also possibly our own behavior if we were placed in similar circumstances. Suspenseful spy action, centered by thoughtful, difficult motivations, should yield in Decision Before Dawn a suspenser that not only entertains, but resonates with us beyond mere visceral thrills.
Unfortunately, Decision Before Dawn cheats big-time by giving us a story about traitors...without any real traitors, and that's the big hole at the center of the movie. To understand and feel the stomach-churning queasiness of characters--in this case, WWII German soldiers--betraying their beliefs and country...don't we have to have antagonists-turned-protagonists who actually first believed in what they have subsequently turned against? Viertel plays it eminently safe by having his two German spies completely disconnected from any loyalty to the Nazi party or its war campaign. Blech's "Tiger" is an amoral opportunist who gladly sides with the Allies for the money, after he's caught and when he clearly sees who's losing the war. So...no problem there betraying his country, because his focus is self-preservation. Doe-eyed, angel-haired Werner, a peace-loving medic who never killed an Allied soldier (a critical point for U.S. ticket buyer's identification, only five years after the war), states he never believed in what he fought for (Nazism), but that now he does when it's fighting for a society that's free of fear (just in case we might have some residual and unwarranted suspicion that Werner, like all Germans, is a closet Nazi, Viertel inserts a scene on the airplane where parachuting Werner innocently asks a stereotypical "foreign-looking" dog soldier if he's an American, with the focus of the scene, of all things, ending up as indicting the U.S. soldier's unqualified--and completely understandable--hatred for the Germans, while absolving sweet, innocent, caring Werner, who stares blankly, like a child, at such incomprehensible enmity). To what, then, exactly, are these men traitorous? If Decision Before Dawn's central dilemma is to have any real substance, doesn't it need "true believers" at its core who then "turned" for the Allies? How can their so-called traitorous acts pose a crisis within their souls, if they never believed in those political or nationalistic ideals in the first place? If their souls were already polluted (Blech's) or lily-white (Werner's)...what's the problem?
Of course, Viertel gets around this by going all squishy and liberal while stacking the deck in favor of his virtuous "traitor" Oskar Werner. Coward Blech gets his when he chickens out at the finale (he makes noise about betraying his people, but he goes along with Basehart and Werner; he only tries to high-tail it and run when the bullets come too close). Werner's increasingly difficult moral quandary, however, is motivated, we're led to assume, by his desire not so much to end Nazism as it is a vague pacifism: to not hurt "his fellow German people;" specifically, the poor hooker/"hostess" Werner meets who lost her baby and husband to all that nasty Allied bombing (the wonderful Hildegard Knef, in a terrific turn), and Werner's unseen father, a doctor (he saves lives; he doesn't take them) who's working near a factory that's going to get flattened if Werner does his spy job right. The only real villains of the piece here are the Waffen SS--hardly a morally complex position for Viertel to take--while Teutonic titwillow Werner frequently stares off into space, liquid-eyed and attractively tortured, as his inherently good internal thoughts churn. How would Viertel reconcile Werner's bogus moral impasse if he and we knew, say...that heartbreaking Knef actually took gold and jewelry and money from the soldiers she entertained--booty taken from the Jewish dead and slain Allied soldiers--or if we were made aware of Werner's father practicing sterilization and forced euthanasia of political undesirables and minorities, as so many German doctors willingly did during the war (read Laurence Rees' Hitler's Charisma)?
Those kind of realities might have made Decision Before Dawn a "morally complex" outing, as I've read some reviewers parrot back, but that's hardly what you get here in this anodyne, spackled-over "serious" spy tale, with Viertel taking the ultimate cop-out of having Werner, blonde and Aryan and Christ-like, sacrifice himself for Basehart so that future DVD reviewers can write silly, meaningless bromides like, "You see, Decision Before Dawn is good because it says most WWII Germans weren't really all that bad." In the end, Decision Before Dawn is just as dumb as those shoot 'em up movies that make war look like fun; in this case trying to tell the audience that in the whitewashed, simplified world-at-war they presented, personal clarity in the face of heinous immorality is still relatively easy to achieve...provided all your ducks are in a row (at least the shoot 'em ups are honest in their calculation: Where Eagles Dare isn't going for soothing, reassuring
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.