In this solid, rewarding black and white drama it’s 1944 but it feels as if the war could drag on forever. A German POW (Oskar Werner,) recruited to work as a spy and codenamed Happy, is sent on a so-called ‘tour mission’ behind enemy lines to locate the 11th Panzer Corps. It’s an operation that forces him to question his motives and face up to the scale of what he has lost thanks to his change of loyalties.
Director Anatole Litvak handles the material in low-key, documentary fashion, charting Happy’s history from the day of his capture to the final minutes of his one man war. Considering it was made only six years after the close of hostilities, the film’s remarkably even-handed, acknowledging the horrendous impact of the nightly Allied bombing raids and discovering in German civilians the Teutonic equivalent of Dunkirk spirit.
Adding enormously to the film’s resonance is its location shooting, handled superbly by ace cinematographer Franz Planer, who went on to work on The Big Country and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There’s hardly a back-projection in sight as Happy tramps through a chaotic Munich of smoking cupolas and pressing crowds, or scampers after curfew through the tortured wreck of an old opera house as he tries to evade capture. Some of the later scenes of desperate flight are as well-staged as anything in The Third Man, nor does the film short-change when it goes to traditional staples of the genre such as fighter planes blowing up bridges.
Equally crucial is its largely German cast of actors. Wilfried Seyferth delivers a blistering turn as Scholtz, a chubby little motorcyclist who befriends Happy, only to turn against him paranoiacally when he fails to share his undimmed enthusiasm for Hitler and his works (‘We’ve given the world twelve years they’ll never forget’ he sighs dreamily over a glass of schnapps). Just as good is Hans Christian Blech – later a stalwart of WWII movies such as Battle of the Bulge (1965) and The Longest Day (1962) – as Happy’s spy-school stable mate Tiger, a petty thief and numero-uno merchant whose eyes roll restlessly in his head as he searches for a way out of the corner he has painted himself into. The most notable piece of casting, however, is that of the Austrian Oskar Werner in what is effectively the lead. Werner will be best known to readers for his work with Nouvelle Vague auteur Francois Truffaut in Jules et Jim (1962) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966,) but this performance, delivered ten years earlier, stands the test of time rather better in terms of freshness and spontaneity.
Decision Before Dawn lets itself down a little in some areas. Litvak seems to have no luck at all with the American actors, who all appear to be suffering from advanced lockjaw to judge by their inability to part their lips more than a few millimetres when delivering exposition. Richard Basehart is particularly obnoxious as Rennick, the sneering, gruff communications officer who thinks all Germans are ‘dirty lice’, so much so that you long for a cellar to collapse on his head.
Meanwhile Peter Viertel’s script riffs tiresomely upon questions such as whether treachery can ever be justified or forgiven (Happy’s real name is supposed to be closely guarded secret even after the war, presumably so as to spare his family’s blushes.) Maybe this preoccupation crept in from the source material (a novel by George Howe tellingly entitled ‘Call It Treason’), but however it got there, it seems like a sheer irrelevance when there was a war to win against absolute evil.
The other problem with Decision Before Dawn is that in the end its measured, undemonstrative approach seems just a little too small. World War II cries out for a scale and sweep that would be provided by the Panavision blockbusters of the 60’s and 70’s such as The Dirty Dozen and Patton. On its own terms, though, this is commendable attempt to take a serious, unglamorized look at the cost of war and the price of peace – and that is no mean feat.
Best scene: A chase through a bombed-out opera house.
Watch it for: Fine location cinematography.