- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

The late Austrian actor Oskar Werner (1922-84) seemed to come as an irresistibly soulful revelation to art-house audiences when he played Jules, Jeanne Moreau’s long-suffering mate in Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” in the early 1960s.

A decade earlier, he projected a similar melancholy appeal and vulnerability when cast as Karl Maurer, a sympathetic German prisoner of war who agrees to spy for the American Army in the intriguing war movie “Decision Before Dawn.”

“Dawn,” available in a DVD edition, was one of the also-ran finalists as best movie of 1951, when the major Academy Awards were shared by “An American in Paris,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “A Place in the Sun.”

“Dawn” was shot in postwar Europe and directed by Anatole Litvak (1902-74), a European who had forged a successful career at Warner Bros. He started his Hollywood career with “Tovarich” in 1937. During World War II, he was Frank Capra’s principal associate on the “Why We Fight” series of Army indoctrination films.

The cinematographer, Franz Planer, also was a European. His famous credits included a trio of Audrey Hepburn classics, “Roman Holiday,” “The Nun’s Story” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“Decision Before Dawn” had a gravely apprehensive and evocative pictorial quality, derived from wintry climes and battered, rubble-strewn German cities. It used pivotal German cast members to clarify a story intended to foster a change of heart in surviving Germans disillusioned with the ruthlessness and futility of the Nazi regime.

The movie’s American co-stars, Richard Basehart and Gary Merrill, play intelligence officers who nominally outrank and control the protagonist, but they prove curiously expendable once the plot propels Mr. Werner back to Germany in the closing months of the war.

Mr. Werner’s flair for introspection works to the benefit of the more aggressive cast members: Hans Christian Blech as a cynical turncoat; Wilfried Seyferth as a treacherous SS messenger; Hildegard Knef (still spelled Neff at this stage of her American career) as a not-so-hard-bitten pickup named Hilde. Many of these performers would reappear as salvageable or incorrigible examples of the Third Reich for years afterward.

There’s a wrenching performance by a juvenile in the closing episodes. Its ambiguity is a triumph - a blend of fear, pity and remorse that flashes suddenly across his face. This stunning moment elevates a chase sequence and leaves the movie’s actual finale looking anticlimactic.

TITLE: “Decision Before Dawn”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released in 1949, before the rating system; adult subject matter with occasional episodes of World War II combat)

CREDITS: Directed by Anatole Litvak. Screenplay by Peter Viertel, based on the novel “Call It Treason” by George Howe. Cinematography by Franz Planer. Art direction by Ludwig Reiber. Editing by Dorothy Spencer. Music by Franz Waxman

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

DVD EDITION: 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.foxhome.com

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