Cast & Crew
On 8 Dec 1944, Lt. Dick Rennick of the U.S. Army is being driven to his new assignment with an intelligence division in Armentières, France, near the German front, when his driver gets lost. As the Americans consult a map, two German soldiers, also lost, surrender to them. The Germans, Corp. Karl Maurer and Sgt. Paul Richter, thank Rennick for his kindness when he leaves them at a P.O.W. camp before joining his unit. At the convent where the intelligence division operates, Rennick then meets Col. Devlin, who explains that their mission is to train German P.O.W.s to spy on German military operations. Rennick is dubious, but Devlin, who insists that only volunteers will be used, believes that the plan will help the U.S. to end the war. At the P.O.W. camp Rennick had visited earlier, the officers interview candidates, including Sgt. Rudolf Barth, a cynic who has more faith in a paycheck than in politics. That night, Richter is murdered by prisoners angered by his negative statements about Germany. Disgusted with the Nazis and the futility of the war, Karl becomes one of Devlin's volunteers, even though it will mean becoming a traitor to fellow Germans. Karl explains to the Americans his belief that fighting against his people will be fighting for them. Despite Rennick's unease over Karl's sensitive nature, he is accepted and given the code name "Happy." Barth, who is called "Tiger," also undergoes the rigorous training, but the Americans grow suspicious when, during his first mission, his partner disappears. Devlin receives a report that confirms Tiger's explanation of the incident, however, and he is chosen to accompany Rennick on a mission to Mannheim, where they are to establish a radio liaison to an important German general who wants to surrender. Happy is chosen to discover the location of the 11th Panzer Corps, which could reinforce the general's troops and make the surrender difficult. As the trio prepares to parachute behind enemy lines, Happy overhears Tiger and Rennick discuss the location of the safe house in Mannheim, and they then split up. Stating that he was on medical leave and is trying to rejoin his unit, Happy passes through a check point and takes a bus to Munich, then boards a train bound for Nuremberg. Also on board is a friendly soldier, Heinz Scholtz, who is curious about Happy's supply of banknotes. Upon reaching Nuremberg, Happy makes inquiries and learns that he has just missed the Panzer Corps. As Happy encounters difficulties at another check point, Scholtz offers him a ride and whisks him away from his questioners. That night, Scholtz obtains rooms for them at an inn, where a nervous Happy, who has just heard a radio report about a parachutist spy, dances with Hilde to avoid Scholtz. Hilde, a dispirited "hostess" who follows the military from camp to camp, tries to spark a relationship with Happy, and bitterly tells him about her sad life when he rejects her. The next morning, the regretful Hilde warns Happy that Scholtz, who is an S.S. officer, is watching him. Happy sits with Hilde on a truck bound for the next town, but the truck is stopped to "recruit" the men for a nearby regiment. With time running out before he is to return to the Americans, Happy is ordered to serve as the medic for ailing Oberst von Ecker. That night, Happy saves von Ecker's life through quick medical attention, and in the morning, learns the location of the Panzer Corps. Desiring to reward the young soldier, von Ecker accedes to his wish to go to the front and releases him. On the way to Heidelberg, Happy and the other men aboard the transport are forced to disembark, and as they are walking, an American air strike begins. During the confusion, Corp. Ernst, an S.S. man alerted to Happy's presence by Scholtz, tries to kill Happy, but Happy shoots him first. Searching Ernst's belongings, Happy realizes that his name is on the dreaded security list, and that he is in danger. Knowing that he cannot reach his rendezvous point in time, Happy travels to Mannheim to give his valuable information to Rennick. Happy reaches the safe house, but Rennick informs him that their radio is damaged, so they cannot relay his information. The men are then contacted by a German soldier, who states that Gen. Jaeger, the officer attempting the surrender, has been placed under S.S. guard and cannot carry through with the plan. Realizing that the entire scheme was a trap, Rennick tells Happy and Tiger that they must return to Armentières, which entails swimming across the Rhine. They go to the apartment of Tiger's sister-in-law, which has a view of the river, but their presence is revealed by Tiger's nephew, a Hitler youth. The men are chased by soldiers, but when the boy comes face to face with the hiding Rennick, he cannot betray him again and breaks down in tears. Believing that the boy was pulling a prank, the soldiers leave, and the men reach the river bank. There, Tiger attempts to flee, and Rennick is forced to shoot him. Rennick and Happy are shot at by pursuing soldiers as they dive into the water, but they make it to an island midway through the river. Happy, who has been disabled by a cramp, knows that he cannot continue, and distracts the soldiers on the island so that Rennick can escape. Happy is captured, while Rennick reaches headquarters and relays Happy's information. Rennick's compatriots tell him to forget about Happy, who will be shot as a traitor, but as he leaves, Rennick ponders Happy's sacrifice, and promises that he will live on in his memory.
O. E. Hasse
Hans Christian Blech
1st Lt. Usaf C. A. Amos
S/sgt H. L. Benedict Usaf
Sgt. H. W. Briggs Usa
Cpl. D. G. Devine Usaf
Maj. L. E. Dixon Usa
T/sgt. B. L. Hendrickson Usa
Pvt. D. Kogel Usa
Pfc. S. I. Rice Usa
Pfc. F. Slaman Usa
Sgt. J. E. Stratton Usa
Eva Marie Andres
Dr. Charles Jacquemar
Eva Maria Hoppe
Harald Von Troschke-tronye
Cornel Von Gossow
Werner J. A. Holzhey
Major Robert Eby U.s.a.f.
Harry M. Leonard
Captain Werner T. Michau U.s.a.
Ruth S. Roberts
Decision Before Dawn
. Richard Basehart plays Lt. Dick Rennick, an American soldier who, under the command of Col. Devlin (Gary Merrill), helps recruit German prisoners who are willing to become counter-intelligence agents for the Allied cause. Rennick eventually encounters Cpl. Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner), a German infantryman who is willing to spy against his own country when his friend is shot by Third Reich soldiers for suggesting Germany is on the verge of defeat. Maurer also wants to end the suffering of his fellow countrymen, and to stop the devastation generated by the war.
Upon orders from Rennick and Devlin, Maurer parachutes into Germany for a harrowing mission that will bring him into close contact with variously shattered Germans, most of whom would kill him if they knew of his new allegiance to the Allies. (Viewers should look closely for future Werner Herzog collaborator, Klaus Kinski, in one of his first screen appearances.)
Decision Before Dawn is a minor landmark in movie history, in that it was one of the first non-German productions to treat World War II-era Germans as something more than bloodthirsty combatants who all blindly followed Hitler's whims. The movie went into production just five years after World War II ended, so the German population's physical and psychic wounds were still quite fresh. In fact, the film was originally going to be called Legion of the Damned; the producers even received special permission from the MPAA/PCA to use a profanity in their title. But this caused a minor uproar in Germany, where the prevailing feeling was that the negative title referred to the country's entire population. Although he was disappointed by the misconception, Litvak finally decided to call the picture Decision Before Dawn to appease the masses.
Filming wasn't exactly a cakewalk. Shooting was initially delayed due to intensely bad weather, then Litvak was in a car accident that laid him up for a while. Soon thereafter, he developed a case of pneumonia. The mayor of Wurzburg, where some of the picture was shot, also held things up when he objected to a planned sequence that would depict his city being bombed by the Allies. He eventually agreed to cooperate with the production after German censors perused the screenplay. Litvak also had to secure the cooperation of the Allied High Commission, the German Federal government, and Bavarian State Government before he could film. Wisely, citizens in Wurzburg, Nuremberg, and Mannheim were warned via newspaper and radio announcements when battle scenes, some of which were overseen by the U.S. Air Force, were to be filmed.
Despite the general misunderstandings, all evidence suggests that Litvak was anything but insensitive to the feelings of the German people while making the picture. He was even sure to pay a visit to the parents of the actual soldier who inspired the character of Cpl. Maurer. The soldier's parents told Litvak they were disappointed the Americans didn't treat them more honorably after the War, given their son's courage in serving as a spy. Surely, the dignified portrayal of Maurer in Decision Before Dawn met with their approval. One hopes that, in some small way, it eased their pain.
Director: Anatole Litvak
Producer: Anatole Litvak, Frank McCarthy
Screenplay: Peter Viertel (based on the novel Call It Treason by George Howe)
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Music Orchestrator: Leonid Raab
Art Direction: Ludwig Reiber
Sound: Alfred Bruzlin, Harry M. Leonard
Cast: Richard Basehart (Lt. Dick Rennick), Gary Merrill (Col. Devlin), Oskar Werner (Cpl. Karl Maurer aka "Happy"), Hildegard Knef (Hilde), Dominique Blanchar (Monique), O.E. Hasse (Col. Von Ecker), Wilfried Seyferth (Heinz Scholtz), Hans Christian Blech (Sgt. Rudolf Barth aka "Tiger"), Helen Thimig (Paula Schneider).
by Paul Tatara
Decision Before Dawn
Decision Before Dawn - German POWs vs. The Third Reich in 1951 WWII drama, DECISION BEFORE DAWN - Now on DVD!
Decision Before Dawn is a complex spy story sourced from a Christopher Award-Winning novel by George Howe that questions the meaning of the term Traitor. Although barely remembered today, the exciting and lavishly produced movie was a nominee for Best Picture of 1951.
Synopsis: Radio Man Lt. Rennick (Richard Basehart) is attached to a special intelligence section on the Rhine River as the American Army prepares to cross over into Germany in the Spring of 1945. Col Devlin (Gary Merrill) gets the okay to use German prisoners as double agents to pinpoint enemy positions and to aid in the arranging of some hoped-for early surrenders of large German units. Rennick ends up going behind the lines as a spy as well, accompanied by "Tiger" (Hans Christian Blech), a daredevil German prisoner who openly admits he's volunteering for personal gain, not politics. Also sent on a separate five-day mission is a German Medic, Corporal Karl Maurer, code name "Happy" (Oskar Werner). Maurer is committed to helping his country by ending the war more quickly. Karl's adventure in his bombed-out homeland is one hairy situation after another, especially when he finds out that his cover identity has been blown. He meets Hilde, a sympathetic girl surviving as a nightclub hostess (Hildegarde Knef) and for a night lands in good stead with a top General (O.E. Hasse). Soon thereafter he becomes a desperate fugitive in a place where personal ID's are checked practically on an hourly basis.
By 1951 audiences had already seen several pictures filmed in the bombed ruins of Germany: Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, Fred Zinnemann's The Search. Anatole Litvak's Decision Before Dawn is set just previous to the Allied invasion of Germany, when the Reich was crumbling. We're accustomed to seeing elaborate wartime re-creations that have to scrape to come up with authentic-looking military hardware but Decision has access to resources that would soon be gone forever - scores of authentic German trucks and tanks. At least an hour of the film takes place on the run between German cities in trains and other public transportation. The film seemingly has entire cities at its disposal, just for background coloration.
Decision Before Dawn is a different kind of war-espionage picture in that it involves questions of patriotism and morality; it forms a filmic link between the wartime intelligence work and the calculated world of spy intrigue to come. The Allies are about to fight on German soil, and the pragmatic U.S. spymasters like the idea of recruiting enemy soldiers to bring back information from behind the lines. That means essentially recruiting traitors. The young German medical corpsman played by Oskar Werner sees a friend murdered by his fellow prisoners of war just for defeatist remarks, and it inspires him to help the Americans bring an end to the fighting as soon as possible. But Peter Viertel's script deepens the moral issues by making us consider that American prisoners would probably murder one of their own if the situation were reversed. The idealistic Werner may be an exception, as the other major candidate (Hans Christian Blech) is obviously an unreliable opportunist, a resourceful "survivor" type.
Werner parachutes into Germany with instructions to gather information on enemy positions and return in five days. He's shocked to find cities reeling from bombing raids yet functioning fairly efficiently. Injured civilians are hard at work -- a female motor pool operator wears an eye patch while an entertainer is singing despite the loss of a leg. Werner is befriended and then suspected by a corrupt S.S. motorcycle messenger (Wilfried Seyferth) who tries to sell him jewelry apparently confiscated from murdered Jews, and happily takes our spy to stay at a forbidden black market inn. German Army intelligence detects Werner's presence in only a few hours, and after only a couple of days his name appears on a well-distributed "arrest" list. At one point it appears that our young spy has been caught, but he's just been summoned to administer injections to a General with heart problems.
Behind the adventure await troubling moral questions. Werner locates the important factory his Allied spymasters want bombed, but it turns out to be next door to a hospital where his own father is a head surgeon. The ruthless American handlers would surely prefer that Werner let the General die, but he's compelled to save the man. Ironically, when the General recovers he refuses to grant Werner's request to spare the life of a condemned deserter.
The finale comes in an impressive night air raid scene in which Werner and the other two spies attempt an escape back across the Rhine. A "patriotic" little German boy -- tellingly, not the typical Hitler Youth seen in films like The Counterfeit Traitor -- informs on them, and their careful exit turns into a panicked chase.
Decision Before Dawn is an extremely impressive suspense film marred only by the fact that the Germans all speak English. Our belief in the action is helped in no small part by a talented corps of German actors. Major discovery Oskar Werner didn't become an American star but instead showed up intermittently in classic European art films like Lola Montè and Jules and Jim. Hildegarde Knef (The Murderers are Among Us) was promoted as a Fox star but also didn't take hold. Major talent Hans Christian Blech, so convincing here as the untrustworthy spy recruit, had more sympathetic roles in The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge and The Bridge at Remagen. German General O.E. Hasse became a key player in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess. Viewers that look quickly enough will spot a young Klaus Kinski in his second movie appearance as a frightened prisoner in an early interview for potential spies. The presence of these exciting German actors overshadows star Richard Basehart, especially when the bulk of the spy action follows Oscar Werner's character.
In the early 1950s films about WW2 were often also realistic and thoughtful, as with another wartime spy picture, The Man Who Never Was. Other movies about daring spy and commando missions, such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Ill Met by Moonlight and Lewis Gilbert's Carve Her Name with Pride stressed authenticity and respect for the facts. Not until 1961's The Guns of Navarone would a WW2 spy story become "escapist" fun, with Allied heroes successfully executing impossible missions against woefully incompetent enemies.
Fox's DVD of Decision Before Dawn is an excellent B&W transfer of this superior and almost forgotten war drama. It's in practically perfect shape. Two brief extras show a frustrated director Anatole Litvak receiving an award from a stumbling presenter, and Hildegarde "Neff" setting her foot and hand prints in Grauman's concrete. The trailer included has a revised opening designed to position Decision Before Dawn as an important film for Academy consideration; Oscar® promotion was even more blatant then than it is now.
For more information about Decision Before Dawn, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Decision Before Dawn, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Decision Before Dawn - German POWs vs. The Third Reich in 1951 WWII drama, DECISION BEFORE DAWN - Now on DVD!
The working titles of this film were Legion of the Damned and Call It Treason. Although an August 1950 Variety news item announced that the studio had received special allowance from the MPAA/PCA to use the word "damned" in the title, a December 1950 Variety article reported that the title had to be changed anyway due to German protests. Director Anatole Litvak reported that "it had been impossible to convince the German press and public that the...title [Legion of the Damned] did not refer at all to the German people."
Before the picture's opening credits, a written acknowledgment states: "This motion picture was filmed in its entirety in Europe, where the story actually took place. 20th Century-Fox expresses its appreciation to the United States Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as to the Armed Forces of France, without whose generous cooperation this film could not have been made." Before the picture begins, another written prologue reads: "This story is true-- the names of the people have been changed to protect those who survived, but the basic incidents took place only a few years ago in these same ruins, left as tragic reminders of the regime which brought suffering to the world and destruction to its own country." The film opens and closes with voice-over narration by Richard Basehart, as "Lt. Dick Rennick," who philosophizes about the nature of treason and postulates that no man is lost as long as he is remembered.
A condensed version of George Howe's Christopher Award-winning novel was published in December 1948. A December 10, 1950 New York Times article reported that Howe's novel was based on his own experiences in the O.S.S. during World War II. The article also noted that Litvak had visited the parents of the real-life "Karl Maurer," and that they "were rather depressed by the failure of the Americans to treat them better in reward for the martyrdom of their son." Information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, reveals that the character of "Rudolf Barth" was also based on a real person, and that at the time of production, he was living in Mannheim.
According to Hollywood Reporter news items, production on the film, which was to begin on September 18, 1950, was delayed first by bad weather in Germany, and then by Litvak's involvement in an automobile accident and a bout of pneumonia. Contemporary sources note that filming was temporarily disrupted when the Mayor of Würzburg protested the depiction of the bombing of his city, but the situation was rectified when Litvak submitted a synopsis of the story to German censors. A November 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that French actress Dominque Blanchar, who is billed fifth in the American version of the film, would receive star billing when the picture was released in France and Belgium.
As noted by the onscreen credits and studio publicity, the film was shot entirely on location in Europe, including a number of German cities such as Munich, Würzberg, Nuremberg and Mannheim. The legal files add that some sequences were shot at the Bavaria Film Studios in Geiselgasteig, a town just South of Munich. According to several contemporary news items, the studio had to obtain permission for the shoot from numerous government agencies, including the Allied High Commission, the German Federal Government and the Bavarian State Government. According to a December 1951 Hollywood Reporter advertisement for the picture, the U.S. Air Force cooperated in filming the aerial bombardment sequences, and local citizens were forewarned via radio and newspaper announcements before battle scenes were shot so that they would not become alarmed.
The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, but lost to M-G-M's An American in Paris. Decision Before Dawn also received an Oscar nomination for Best Editing and marked the first American film of both Oskar Werner and Klaus Kinski. Werner did not appear in another American-produced picture until the 1965 Columbia release Ship of Fools (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70). According to a 1965 New York Times interview with Werner, Decision Before Dawn "wasn't shown in Germany for two more years [after its U.S. release] and then only on the strength of my stage Hamlet." A September 1951 Chicago Sunday Tribune article reported that Litvak was in Europe preparing a German language version of the picture, scripted by Carl Zuckmeier, but the existence of another verison of the film has not been confirmed.
Released in United States Winter January 1952
Released in United States Winter January 1952