Sunday, May 24, 2015

FORGOTTEN GEM? Decision Before Dawn (1951)

                “Decision Before Dawn” is a black and white film directed by Anatole Litvak.  He filmed in post-war Germany for the ambiance provided by rubble. It was based on a novel by George Howe entitled Call It Treason which was inspired by the fact that the British and Americans used captured Germans as counterintelligence agents in the last months of the war.  These prisoners of war had various motives for helping.  The credits claimed that the movie was based on a true story with the names changed.  The movie was a surprise nominee for Best Picture.  Litvak thanked the U.S. Armed Forces and the French Army for cooperation.

                A narrator (Richard Basehart):  “Why does a spy risk his life – if he wins, he’s ignored.  If he loses, he’s shot.”  The quote is backed by a realistic firing squad execution.  The movie is set in Germany in December, 1944.  Col. Devlin (Gary Merrill) is recruiting German prisoners for spying behind enemy lines.  After a friend is “court-martialed” and killed by hard core Nazis for pessimism, a young soldier nicknamed “Happy” volunteers.  His motivation is the Germans have lost the war and his aid will shorten the war and free him sooner.  On the other end of the spectrum is “Tiger” who is a cynic who is in it for personal gain.  The duo are paired off with a skeptical Lt. Rennick (Basehart) for a crucial mission.  Rennick and Tiger will make contact with a German general who wants to defect.  Meanwhile, Happy will scout enemy troop dispositions on his own. 

                The movie concentrates on Happy’s odyssey (which is Homeric) and his interaction with a variety of Germans.  They range from defeatists to die-hards.  Some are sympathetically portrayed.  In his guise of a travelling German medic, Happy gets tabbed with serving a general.  The general is a good German common to Cold War depictions of German generals in cinema.  Instead of killing him, Happy saves his life when he has a heart attack.  This interlude provides him with the valuable intelligence that he sought and now it’s just a matter of returning.  He meets up with Rennick and Tiger in a safe house in Mannheim.  Only one will survive the return trip.

                “Decision Before Dawn” is a different take on the closing months of the war in Europe.  Enough time had passed to allow a more nuanced depiction of the German people in those chaotic days when some realized the war was hopeless and others wanted to continue the fight to the bitter end.  It was one of the first war movie to concentrate on the dissenters rather than the Nazis.  Coincidentally, "The Desert Fox" was released the same year.  Not only are the characters realistic, but the locales are amazing.  Six years after the war there were still areas of Germany that were war damaged.

                The acting is great.  Basehart is an underrated actor and he is matched by Blech (who so memorably played Pluskat in “The Longest Day”) and Werner.  Both were German veterans and ironically, the date that the Happy is captured (Dec. 8, 1944) was the exact date that Werner deserted.  The dialogue they are given is a cut above the usual WWII movie.  The screenplay is thought-provoking and unpredictable.  The hero is a traitor!  He is not “just another kraut” as a G.I. refers to him.

                I can’t recall how this movie showed up on my radar screen.  I had never heard of it and it is not well known (in spite of its Best Picture nomination).  I also had never given much thought to the use of German prisoners to spy on Nazi Germany.  The movie does an excellent job shedding light on that obscure program.  I like it when a war movie exposes the public to a little known aspect of history and does it in an entertaining and accurate way.  It reminded me of one of the first forgotten gems I posted on when I started my blog – "Time Limit".  That movie also starred Richard Basehart and dealt with collaboration.

                Forgotten gem?  Yes.  This movie deserves to be seen.

Grade =  B


  1. I first saw "Decision Before Dawn" on NBC Saturday Night at The Movies over 50 years ago. NBC had bought 20th Century Fox films and used them for the first ever prime time showing of movies. "The Desert Fox" was also shown by NBC Saturday Night at The Movies about this time.

    It's been one of my favorites ever since. Filming it in the actual locations not long after the war is the film's strong point.

    The novel it's based on, "Call It Treason," was written by George Howe, who was part of the unit sending the German POWs out on missions. The novel has more characters and internal monologues than a film can have. Peter Viertel, who wrote the screenplay, was also in this unit.

  2. Just saw this movie. Great flick!

  3. I found this movie to be a gripping and thought provoking depiction of a conflicted soldier who forages a new direction in his life, regardless of the misguided loyalties exhibited by various other players within his immediate sphere of operation. The American and German psyche is explored within a framework of chaos and necessity dictated by a devistating and all encompassing war. Werner provides a decidedly underplayed hero that adds layers of credibility to his character rather than the overblown macho American protagonist that usually accompanies Hollywood war movies. The scenes were all filmed on location where the war was actually waged, further enhancing the authenticity of this excellent drama. The supporting cast delivers a depth of social interplay that realistically depicts the strained interactions associated with life in a war torn country on the verge of collapse. Various messages can be derived from the story line because of the superb dialogue that captures the prevailing sentiments of the characters as they all attempt to survive amid the violent upheaval of war. The film starts out slow but builds to a menacingly active crescendo as Werner navigates his way through intense danger to complete his assigned mission. The more I see of this film, the more I appreciate its dramatic authencity.


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