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Case Number 27283: Small Claims Court

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Decision Before Dawn (1951)

Fox // 1951 // 119 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // May 3rd, 2014

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All Rise...

If you ever need somebody to spy on the Germans for you, Judge Daryl Loomis is your man.

The Charge

Locate this man…and eliminate him!

The Case

In the years during and after World War II, the Germans couldn't catch a break in Hollywood. Either they were seething villains in the propaganda of the time or they were the butt of the joke, bumbling fools for the brave US soldiers. This is pretty common anytime we're at war, but for years after it ended, the country got a pretty raw deal. Decision Before Dawn, however, treats them with a little more humanity than most, making it the rare case of an actually fair character study for its time.

The war is in its waning years and, lacking proper spies, they get the bright idea to use German prisoners of war to infiltrate the enemy and sabotage their plans. To implement their new plan, they enlist Cpl. Karl Maurer (Oskar Werner, Fahrenheit 451), a.k.a. Happy, and Sgt. Rudolf Barth (Hans Christian Blech, The Longest Day), a.k.a. Tiger, neither of whom has much loyalty to the Nazi cause. After a brief training session, they are sent back into Germany, but when Happy disappears while on his mission, Tiger must go back in, this time with communications officer Lt. Dick Rennick (Richard Basehart, Hitler) to fish him out.

Based on the novel Call It Treason by George Howe, Decision Before Dawn is a watchable and often very good film that I just didn't enjoy. I absolutely respect what writer Peter Viertel (White Hunter Black Heart) and director Anatole Litvak (Sorry, Wrong Number) did in making the German people human, even allowing the two ex-Nazi spies (who, of course, are traitors) to carry the weight of the movie. And they were actually a native Austrian and a native German, no less. It is a few years after the war ended, but it still seems fairly brave for 1951.

Werner and Blech is each fantastic in his role, playing opposite ends of the spectrum. Happy is a disillusioned idealist while Tiger is a mercenary who couldn't care less who he works for, as long as the pay is right. They play off each other well; they're somewhat antagonist toward one another, but still pull off being the heroes of the movie. Richard Basehart puts in a one-note performance as the Nazi hating American, but that's not particularly surprising and he's serviceable enough.

For all of the good things about it, however, Decision Before Dawn is a pretty boring picture. It's an espionage-based thriller, which I mostly prefer, but there are endless stretches of conversation filled with military minutiae that is totally meaningless to me and drag the film away from the important and exciting stuff with the mission. At two hours, all that empty dialog makes the film drag on and on. As a ninety-minute thrill ride, then great; as it stands, even though there are parts that are well worth watching, I have a hard time recommending it.

Decision Before Dawn comes to DVD as part of Fox's Cinema Archives collection and the result is pretty much what we've come to expect from the label. The 1.33:1 image looks decent enough, a bit of dirt here and there, but it's never distracting and the black and white contrast is fairly good. The mono sound is pretty much noise-free, but there's no dynamic range to speak of. A trailer is the only extra.

While it's a solid and occasionally compelling character study, Decision Before Dawn is ultimately an unremarkable movie. The performances from Werner and Blech are by far the best things about the picture and it's probably worth watching because of them, but its overall length and long stretches of dull dialog mean that it can sometimes be a slog.

The Verdict

Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 82

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Drama
• War

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailer


• IMDb

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