Decision Before Dawn is a 1951 American war film directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Richard Basehart, Oskar Werner, and Hans Christian Blech. It tells the story of the American Army using potentially unreliable German prisoners of war to gather intelligence in the closing days of World War II. The film was adapted by Jack Rollens (uncredited) and Peter Viertel from the novel Call It Treason by George Howe.
It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Picture.
The cities of Wurzburg, Nuremberg, and Mannheim where some of the picture was shot, 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.
By late 1944, it is obvious that the Germans will lose the war. American Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill) leads a military intelligence unit that recruits German prisoners of war to spy on their former comrades. "Tiger" (Hans Christian Blech), a cynical older thief and ex-circus worker, is willing to work for the winning side. On the other hand, "Happy" (Oskar Werner) is a young idealist who volunteers to spy after his friend is killed by fanatical fellow prisoners for voicing doubts about the war's outcome. Monique (Dominique Blanchar) trains Happy and the others in espionage techniques; she takes a liking to the young man, despite her hatred for Germans.
One day, Devlin receives word that a German general is willing to negotiate the surrender of his entire corps. Naturally, this is given top priority; because of the importance of the mission, an American officer has to go along. Devlin selects Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart), a newcomer who distrusts the German turncoats. Tiger is chosen because he is the only one who knows the area, but he is under suspicion after returning from his last mission without his teammate. Happy is assigned the related task of locating the 11th Panzer Corps, which might oppose the wholesale defection. They parachute out of the same plane into Germany, then split up.
In the course of his search on bus and train rides, in guest houses and taverns, and braving Allied air raids, Happy encounters Germans with differing attitudes towards the war, some still defiant, such as Waffen SS courier Scholtz (Wilfred Seyferth), some resigned, like the young war widow Hilde (Hildegard Knef). Happy accomplishes his mission by a stroke of luck. Posing as a medic returning to his unit, he is commandeered to stay and treat Oberst von Ecker (O.E. Hasse), the commander of the 11th Panzer, at his castle headquarters. Happy has an opportunity to inject von Ecker with a lethal overdose of medicine, but does not do so.
Afterwards, Happy narrowly escapes being captured by the Gestapo. He makes his way to the safe house in the ruins of the heavily-bombed Mannheim, where the other two agents are hiding out. Meanwhile, Tiger and Rennick have learned that the general they were to contact was supposedly injured, but the hospital where he has been taken is under SS guard; without him, the other German officers cannot and will not surrender to the Allies.
Their radio is knocked out, so Happy, Tiger, and Rennick are forced to try to swim across the heavily defended Rhine River to get to the American lines with the vital information. At the last moment, Tiger loses his nerve and runs away, forcing Rennick to shoot him. He and Happy then swim to an island in the middle of the river. When they start for the other shore, they are spotted by the German defenders. Happy creates a diversion, is captured and executed as a deserter, but his sacrifice enables the lieutenant to make it to safety, with a changed attitude about some Germans.Oskar Werner as Corporal Karl Maurer ("Happy")
Richard Basehart as Lieutenant Dick Rennick
Hans Christian Blech as Sergeant Rudolf Barth ("Tiger")
Gary Merrill as Colonel Devlin
Hildegard Knef as Hilde
Wilfried Seyferth as Heinz Scholtz
Dominique Blanchar as Monique
O.E. Hasse as Oberst (Colonel) von Ecker
Helene Thimig as Paula Schneider
Klaus Kinski had a minor, uncredited role at the very beginning of the film. He is interviewed as a volunteer by the allies.