Based on a true story and filmed in atmospheric black and white, Decision Before Dawn was made entirely on location among the ruins of postwar Europe - unusual for Hollywood films of the time. The story of German POWs being recruited to work as undercover agents in their own country in late 1944 benefits from understated performances and an almost total lack of background music. Much more of an espionage film than a war movie, the heightened sense of reality serves the stifled emotions and confused motives of the characters perfectly. The film only briefly loses its way once - to include the obligatory fallen female - but even this episode is handled well.
Although not top billed, Oskar Werner plays the central character - an idealistic medic caught up in circumstances that have little to do with truth or honesty. One of the finest screen actors ever, Werner gives a superb multi-layered performance, acting as much with his eyes as his voice. The rest of the cast is also good - many of them in far from sympathetic parts. The fact that this was considered to be a prestige film is underlined by the presence of Richard Basehart, an actor whose reputation has undeservedly faded over the years.
The direction of Anatole Litvak provides just the right mixture of drama and suspense - more genuine suspense than in most Hitchcock films. The script is a taut, no-frills affair. It asks questions but provides no easy answers. The film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Of course, it didn't win and became rather neglected over the years. Not because it is not a good film, which it certainly is, but possibly because it is not just another bit of mindless entertainment. The drama and suspense engage your emotions, but Decision Before Dawn also gives you a lot to think about.