When Charles came home I switched on the DVD recorder to take down what turned out to be a surprisingly interesting film: 21 Days, made in Great Britain by Alexander Korda’s London Films in 1937 but for whatever quirky reasons not released until 1940. TCM was showing this as part of their “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to Vivien Leigh, who is a difficult person for a network like TCM to pay tribute to because she only made 18 films — like her second husband, Laurence Olivier, who co-starred with her in 21 Days, she regarded her real calling as the stage and only made movies either when the part of a lifetime came up (like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind or Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire — a role she played on stage in London under Olivier’s direction a year before she made the film), she needed some quick money or just wanted to fill in time between plays. For a movie that lasts only 72 minutes (which is why Charles and I felt comfortable staying up to watch it) and was held back from release for three years after it was made, 21 Days has some strong literary pedigrees: the original story, “First and the Last,” is by John Galsworthy (though as a crime thriller it seems more “Hitchcockian” than the one film the real Alfred Hitchcock made from a Galsworthy story, The Skin Game) and the script was co-written by the film’s producer-director, Basil Dean, and Graham Greene. 21 Days is also surprisingly good: the plot centers around Larry Durrant (Laurence Olivier — and yes, it’s interesting to see someone named Larry actually playing someone named Larry on film!), ne’er-do-well brother of prominent attorney and aspiring judge Keith Durrant (Leslie Banks from The Most Dangerous Game and Hitchcock’s first The Man Who Knew Too Much), who’s just returned to the U.K. after his most recent business failure abroad, a plantation he tried to set up in Rhodesia. He’s dating a mysterious woman named Wanda (Vivien Leigh) and has just pawned a miniature icon painting she gave him to raise a little money for their dinner date. When they return to her room they see the light on, and it turns out that their visitor is Henry Wallen (Esmé Percy, yet another actor in this movie besides Olivier and Banks with a Hitchcock connection — he played the Gay villain in Hitchcock’s 1930 film Murder!), whom Wanda married three years earlier but only spent one week with him. When Larry inevitably asks her why she married him she says, “The alternative was starvation,” and when he asks why she left him after just one week she says, “There are some things that are worse than starvation.”
Anyway, he’s turned up hoping that she’s made some money in the meantime and he can blackmail her — she hasn’t, but he doesn’t know that — and at one point Larry attacks him, Wallen pulls a knife, the two men struggle, Larry gets Wallen to give up the knife, Wanda picks it up and tries to get Larry to back off his attack, but Larry keeps his hands around Wallen’s throat until he strangles him to death, then knocks him against the grating of their fireplace. (When I was watching this scene I was thinking along the lines of Say It with Songs, The Life of Jimmy Dolan and its remake, They Made Me a Criminal that Wallen had survived the attack and it was landing on the grate that gave him his fatal injury, but during the later trial sequences the medical examiner testifies that the cause of death was asphyxia due to strangulation.) Larry takes the body and hides it under the archway, then runs into a homeless man, John Aloysius Evan (Hay Petrie), and gives him a cigarette. When Larry lights it for him, he drops his gloves and Evan takes them. Evan also steals a ring from Wallen’s body, then is horrendously guilt-stricken about that and makes an ambiguous statement to the police, who interpret it as a confession to Wallen’s murder and arrest him. Though he’s connected by the crime only by circumstantial evidence, Wallen is bound over for trial; Larry keeps wanting to come forward and turn himself in, but is talked out of it by his brother Keith, who’s worried that a scandal in which his brother turns out to be a murderer will kill his chances for the judicial appointment he’s expecting. Larry doesn’t want to be prosecuted for Wallen’s murder, but he wants to see an innocent man hang for his crime even less. Keith sends Larry and Wanda away for the three weeks of Wallen’s trial, and the two take a voyage during which they get married and spend a lot of time (only one day, so the official synopsis says, though on screen it seems longer than that) at an amusement park called the Kursaal, which made me wonder if they had crossed the English Channel and gone to northern Germany — a plot touch which would have seemed normal enough in 1937 but quite anachronistic after the start of World War II. Actually, it turned out that the Kursaal was a real amusement park, it was located in England (at Southend-on-Sea), it operated until 1973 and, as Charles pointed out, the spellings of the words and the accents of the actors playing the people running the Kursaal concessions sounded more like Flemish or Dutch than German.
In any event, as Larry and Wanda are palling around and enjoying their “21 days together” (the word “Together” was actually added to the title for the U.S. release), poor, pathetic little John Aloysius Evan is on trial for the murder Larry actually committed, and banner ads for newspapers (Charles was amused that the newspaper names were real, like the Daily Mail, rather than the fictitious newspapers like the “New York Dispatch” and the “Los Angeles Express” that haunted American films during the period) follow them around with blow-by-blow accounts of the trial. Eventually Larry is about to win the big prize in a shooting contest at the Kursaal when the target dissolves into Evan’s face, and he determines to go back to London and turn himself in at last. He feels especially urgent when he sees the headline announcing the verdict in Evan’s trial has come in but not saying what it is, and he’s on his way to the police station — much against his brother’s wishes — when Wanda sees the latest paper that announces Evan has been acquitted, so Larry doesn’t have to report himself to the police to spare an innocent man the gallows. 21 Days is the sort of movie that hardly breaks any new ground plot-wise, but is done so stylishly it really doesn’t matter. Basil Dean’s direction is thrillingly atmospheric, almost noir in some shots, and the contrast between the glum Evan standing trial for a crime he didn’t commit but is so mentally screwed up he feels guilty about anyway and the merriment Larry and Wanda are enjoying on their vacation is expertly done. The acting is also excellent, though Olivier shows his early discomfort with the film medium; he’d been acting in movies a lot longer than Leigh had, but she’s clearly more comfortable with the camera and the need to underplay in a film compared to how you acted on stage — a difference Olivier admitted threw him until he worked with director William Wyler on the 1939 Wuthering Heights. (Incidentally the U.K. billing was Leigh, Banks and Olivier, in that order, though the U.S. release pushed Olivier to second and dropped Banks to third — probably because by the time the film came out here Olivier was at the peak of his U.S. popularity from the one-two punch of Wyler’s Wuthering Heights and Hitchcock’s Rebecca.) William K. Everson’s book The Detective in Film noted that Dean directed the very first Sherlock Holmes movie with sound — The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929), with Clive Brook in the first of his three performances in the role — but wrote it off as hackwork; judging from Dean’s work on this movie, however, I’m more curious than ever to see it.