Monday, December 20, 2010

1951 - Decision Before Dawn

Happy holidays, everyone! On Wednesday, Kat and I will be flying home to Sydney to visit family and friends for the first time since we moved to New York a year and a half ago. That coupled with the holiday season will undoubtedly slow down the pace of Matt vs. the Academy for the moment. No fear, though. We will complete the current slate of nominees prior to my arrival in Los Angeles in mid-January, at which time I will visit the UCLA Film Archive to view the first of the 1930-31 contenders.

Today, though, I took a look at another 1951 Best Picture nominee...

Decision Before Dawn
Anatole Litvak
Peter Viertel
(based on the novel 'Call It Treason' by George Howe)
Richard Basehart, Gary Merrill, Oskar Werner, Hildegarde Knef, Dominique Blanchar, O.E. Hasse, Wilfried Seyferth, Hans Christian Blech
Academy Awards:
2 nominations
0 wins

During the final days of World War II, the U.S. Army recruits German prisoners-of-war for espionage duties. For a particularly important information-gathering mission, Col. Devlin (Merrill) assigns U.S. officer Lt. Rennick (Basehart) to accompany German soldier Sgt. Barth (Blech), codenamed Tiger. Simultaneously, Cpl. Karl Maurer (Werner), ironically codenamed Happy, is given the dangerous task of discovering the whereabouts of Germany's 11th Panzer Corps. While attempting to achieve his covert goal, Happy must also elude the Gestapo, who do not take kindly to traitors.

While it may not seem clear at first, the main character in Decision Before Dawn is Happy. There is a decent amount of set-up before we get to the crux of the film's story, in which we follow Happy as he nervously makes his way from one incident to the next, attempting to maintain under the radar. The tension in this section alone is enough to forgive the film's other flaws. Director Anatole Litvak achieves a genuine sense of loneliness for Happy. He is paradoxically an outsider living among his own kind, stranded in his home land.

I could have done without the voice-over memories, however. Whenever Happy finds a quiet moment to himself, the camera moves in closer as he directs his gaze upward and we hear the voices of those Happy has encountered repeating their important words. Granted, this clichéd convention does help to highlight Happy's isolation, but it is slightly overused here. Ditto the constant reference to cigarettes. I couldn't quite figure out the intended symbolism of all this talk about smoking. Nor could I figure out the meaning of the film's title. There are certainly decisions made during the course of the narrative, and many of them are made before sunrise, but is there one of particular importance?

Oskar Werner (pictured) delivers an effectively understated performance as the troubled German soldier, although there is a fine line between the character appearing stoic and the actor appearing dull. Fortunately, Werner leans towards the former. Richard Basehart and Gary Merrill as the American officers portray mostly stereotypical machismo. As such, the German actors shine, especially Wilfried Seyferth as the punchy SS courier.

Despite all my nit-picking, Decision Before Dawn remains an engrossing film and well worth a look.


  1. I had never seen Decision Before Dawn before and found it engrossing, suspenseful and morally complex. It's semi-documentary style was helped immensely by the on location shooting in bombed out German towns. Oskar Werner was very effective in an early role as the sad-eyed German medic, who understood that his mission would ultimately save the lives of his countrymen in their last futile efforts of the war. Hans Christian Blech as the opportunistic German POW was a familiar sight, having seen him recently in The Longest Day.

    Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck campaigned hard for this film, which led to its Best Picture nomination surprisingly over some expected contenders.

    I too, Matt wondered what the title referenced. It wasn't clear in the film.

    Enjoy your trip and visit and best wishes to you and Kat for the new year. See you in 2011.

  2. I must not have seen this edit of the film--don't remember any voiceovers or talk of cigarettes. I've liked it very much for years, especially Werner and Blech, and the novel is incomparable.