Decision Before Dawn Review

A German POW acts as a spy on his own country’s army in Decision Before Dawn, a 1951 Best Picture nominee.

1944. Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill) runs a unit which uses German POWs to spy on their own army. Two of them are Sergeant Rudolf Barth (Hans Christian Blech), codenamed “Tiger”, who simply wants to join the winning side, and Corporal Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), codenamed “Happy”, an idealist who joins because of his friend’s death.

Decision Before Dawn was a Best Picture Oscar nominee, along with A Place in the Sun, Quo Vadis and A Streetcar Named Desire, with the winner being An American in Paris. (It was also nominated for Dorothy Spencer’s editing.) Like the simultaneously-released The Long, Hot Summer, Man Hunt and Deadfall (to be reviewed shortly) it’s not released on DVD by the company it was made for, Twentieth Century Fox, but as part of the StudioCanal catalogue it’s out on Optimum. While I haven’t seen all of the competition – and wouldn’t disagree with the eventual winner – it’s fair to say that it’s probably now the least-known of the five, a fate I don’t think it deserves.

The film is based on a true story (adapted from George Howe’s book Call It Treason by Peter Viertel), and it was shot on many of the genuine European locations, a choice that pays dividends in grit and authenticity. Kiev-born Anatole Litvak had left Germany during Hitler’s rise to power and had served in the US Army during the War, so you can imagine this must have been a personal project for him. He tends to be neglected as a director, but he has several fine films in his CV. His range was wide, taking in crime dramas, actioners, thrillers, comedies and historical dramas. He was nominated for Best Director for The Snake Pit, a mental-breakdown drama that is still genuinely unnerving. Decision Before Dawn plays out like a noir, with its shadowy black and white camerawork and the divided loyalties of its protagonist, and it builds to a very tense conclusion. Apart from the black and white photography, the only thing that dates it is the use of English dialogue throughout, but then multilingual soundtracks were not the norm with major-studio films in 1951.

Although he’s third-billed, the film belongs to Vienna-born Oskar Werner, who gives the role a vulnerability that makes the final developments of the plot all the more moving. This was his first American film, though it seems he was never at home there, working in Europe (for Max Ophuls in Lola Montès and especially François Truffaut in Jules et Jim and Fahrenheit 451) before working again in America in 1965’s Ship of Fools. Hans Christian Blech is good value as the cynical Tiger and Hildegard Knef (spelled Neff here) and Dominique Blanchar make a good impression. The two top-billed Americans, Richard Basehart and Gary Merrill, are perfectly fine, but they are overshadowed. Also in the cast are many genuine American servicemen playing themselves.

Decision Before Dawn has not been available in the UK since its cinema release in 1951, and the BFI’s database doesn’t log a single British television transmission. A lost and found film then, in a way, and Optimum’s DVD makes it a welcome rediscovery.


Optimum’s DVD is single-layered and encoded for Region 2 only.

Decision Before Dawn was shot in black and white and Academy Ratio, so the DVD transfer is in 4:3 with no anamorphic enhancement. The film is often darkly-lit, but contrast and greyscale are as they should be and the original materials seem to have been well preserved.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and as well-balanced as you would expect from Hollywood technical expertise. It copes well with Franz Waxman’s music, the dialogue and the sound effects, including explosions and gunfire. As we have come to expect from an Optimum back-catalogue disc, there are no subtitles, so the hard-of-hearing and non-native English speakers lose out.

Some extras giving context to the true story behind this film would be welcome, but as usual all we get is a rather bombastic trailer. It runs 2:54 and has a hissy soundtrack.


Updated: Feb 19, 2011

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Decision Before Dawn Review | The Digital Fix