Monday, March 02, 2015

Criterion Thoughts—21 Days (1940) ***

NR, 72 min.
Director: Basil Dean
Writers: Basil Dean, Graham Greene, John Galsworthy (short story “First and the Last”)
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Leslie Banks, Vivian Leigh, Francis L. Sullivan, David Thorne, Hay Petrie

What does it mean that I can’t even figure out which collection the first film in my Criterion Thoughts series comes from? Criterion Thoughts will feature films from the premiere DVD and BluRay series of films released under the Criterion Collection banner. This first film comes from their films featured on Hulu Plus and certainly seems to fit well into the Criterion Collection. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you which collection you need to buy to get it. I’m guessing it was featured in one of their Eclipse Series.

“21 Days” was released in the U.S. as “21 Days Together” after sitting on the shelf for 2 years until star Vivian Leigh’s popularity exploded due to her success as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”. It also features one of the earliest collaborations between the husband and wife acting team of Laurence Olivier and Leigh. In fact, this British film is filled with elite pedigree of the early British film scene. The film also stars the fine character actor Leslie Banks as the third lead. It was Basil Dean’s final directorial effort after 15 films beginning with 1929’s “The Return of Sherlock Holmes”. Dean would continue to produce films for another decade. Dean co-wrote the screenplay with Graham Greene, perhaps the greatest British crime writer of all time.

The story revolves around two brothers. One, Keith (Banks), is a barrister in the court who has just been appointed a newly opened magistrate position. The other, Larry (Olivier), is the black sheep of the family, who can’t seem to succeed in any endeavor. His more successful brother has always supported his failures. Larry is in love with Wanda (Leigh). The couple thinks Larry’s luck has changed until Wanda’s husband, who disappeared 3 years prior returns to blackmail her and Larry. After a physical struggle, the husband ends up accidentally killed. Larry goes to his brother for advice. His brother only wants Larry to flee for Larry’s sake and his own; but when a vagrant is arrested for the murder of the husband, Larry decides he and Wanda have only the time left until the man’s fate is decided. If the man is found guilty, Larry will turn himself in, giving he and Wanda three weeks to live a whole life together.

The movie is a surprisingly thoughtful crime drama. Larry is clearly guilty of only defending himself. His relationship with his brother isn’t a typical clash of personalities. The two genuinely care for each other and are aware of it. Although Keith has professional reason to wish Larry to run, he also is genuinely concerned for his brother’s welfare. He has every reason to believe that the evidence will not stand up against the vagrant, yet the screenwriters find a great way to bring a conviction down. It’s interesting how little malice there is in this plot. Everyone seems to have good intentions, yet there is still great risk that everything will go wrong for all of the main characters. It really gets into this notion that bad things can happen to good people.

It also depicts how good people can do bad things for good reasons. Perhaps the best scene in the movie involves a casual dinner between a group of magistrates. Keith has been invited as the newest member to celebrate the retirement of the man he’s replacing. After they’ve had a few drinks, the dinner turns into a confessional as the magistrates tell stories about how each of them has broken the law at one time or another. The crimes begin very petty, but grow in severity, however, nothing as severe as hiding and aiding a possible murder suspect.

Dean’s directional choices are also quite interesting to see today. During each of the court scenes he uses a wipe technique to edit the testimony of the witnesses together. Instead of simply cutting from moment to moment or even doing a simple wipe across the screen, Dean’s wipes look like pages turning in a book. The edge of the picture begins its wipe at the bottom of the screen and curve up as it wipes across the screen like a page being pull from right to left in a book. This effect creates an impression of documentation to contrast with the more romantic and poetic scenes involving the two lovers. He places the lovers in foggy London streets, giving them a softer focus that is absent from the court procedural scenes.

Often times today we hear about films being shelved for this reason or that. More often than not it’s because the quality of the filmmaking isn’t good. I don’t know why it was felt that “21 Days” wouldn’t perform in the box office until Leigh became a star in America, but this is a finely made film that pushed the standards of filmmaking at the time of its production and is a perfect fit within the elite Criterion Collection.

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