For all of the horrors it spawned during the years of its occurrence, World War II was a veritable gold mine of film subjects for Hollywood. Anatole Litvak’s Decision Before Dawn, based on a true story of espionage near war’s end, is one of the best. Released only six years after the war, the film must have truly resonated with audiences of the time. Even today, decades after the fact, the film’s slowly gathering grip on the viewer is very impressive, and the leading performance is truly special and one that has been sadly underrated over the years.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 480I/MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English 2.0 DD
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 59 Min.
Package Includes: DVDAmray case
Disc Type: DVD-R
Release Date: 09/17/2013
In the last year of World War II, a captured German medic nicknamed “Happy” (Oskar Werner) is offered the chance to spy for the Allies in what was called a “tourist mission,” having German soldiers return to their own country but feed intelligence they gather back to the enemy. Happy decides to accept the proposition figuring that by helping the Allies, he’ll help end the war sooner and bring the killing and destruction to a halt. The five-day mission he’s handed is a dangerous one, and since his father is a well known Nazi surgeon, Happy is also a known figure in the area where he’ll be gathering information on a Panzer division raid. During his mission, two Germans take particular interest in him, an SS officer (Wilfried Seyfert) and a barmaid (Hildegarde Neff), but is their friendliness real or merely a blind as they inform on him?
The Production Rating: 4.5/5
Peter Viertel’s script developed from the novel Call It Treason by George Howe smartly takes its time developing the notion of Germans spying on their own people. We’re also introduced to two primary officers doling out assignments: Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill) and Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart), the latter sent on his own undercover mission with another suspicious German spy Tiger (Hans Christian Blech). But the focus is definitely on Happy for a majority of the film’s running time, and the screenplay and Anatole Litvak’s controlled direction build suspense not only on the possible success or failure of his mission but on whether he will in fact follow through with his agreement or return to the Nazis and spill what he knows. Sights he sees along the way aid him in making a number of crucial decisions during his mission, but it all finally boils down to his own innate sense of honor and patriotism. By the film’s last quarter hour when things have gone horribly wrong and Happy is scrambling for his life, the tension is almost unbearable as he jostles through bombings and checkpoints looking for any way out. Smartly filmed in Europe, the movie has a verisimilitude that no studio backlot could have possibly offered (it also helped that its producer Frank McCarthy rose to the rank of general during his army service during World War II and later won the Oscar for producing Patton).
Despite only third billing, the youthful Oskar Werner is the undisputed star of the film. Boyish, fresh-faced, and with tons of charisma, the actor gives a haunting performance as the youth determined to do the right thing by his people. Gary Merrill offers his usual solid performance as the commanding colonel, and Richard Basehart is likewise reliable as the lieutenant who figures importantly in the film’s climax. Hans Christian Blech cleverly milks the enigmatic nature of his support as Tiger, and Wilfried Seyfert is strong and tough-minded as the Nazi SS officer suspicious of Happy. Two women have prominent cameos in the film and both are splendid: Hildegarde Neff who spills her guts to Happy during an emotional moment and Dominique Blanchar as a Frenchwoman helping supervise the German POWs.
The film is presented in its theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Decision Before Dawn had previously been released on a pressed DVD, and that master must be the basis for the MOD disc. As such, sharpness is excellent throughout, but there are stray specks and a small scratch here and there. The grayscale doesn’t offer very strong black levels, but contrast is consistently dialed in to offer a most pleasing picture. The film has been divided into chapters every ten minutes so this film has 12 chapters.
Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NA
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix is decoded by Dolby Prologic into the center channel. Though there is fairly constant hiss throughout, it’s not overpowering and, except in the quieter moments, won’t be at all distracting. Dialogue has been well recorded and is never compromised by Franz Waxman’s excellent score or the sound effects which, with the bombings and gunfire, have a surprising amount of solid fidelity.
Audio Rating: 3.5/5
Theatrical Trailer (3:00, SD): surprising for a MOD Fox release, there is a trailer included.
Special Features Rating: 1/5
One of the five nominees for Best Picture of 1951, Decision Before Dawn still plays with a tautness and the suspense level of a genuine classic. Recommended!
Overall Rating: 4/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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