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21 Days (1940)

Aka 21 Days Together/The First and the Last/Three Weeks Together. I could suffer a little – I wouldn’t feel so deserted. Failed plantation manager Larry Durrant (Laurence Olivier) has returned to London and his lover Wanda (Vivien Leigh). However, he inadvertently kills her absent husband Henry Wallen (Esme Percy) in a quarrel over his attempt to extort money from them. An innocent gets arrested for the hanging crime when Larry gives his gloves to a homeless man who turns out to be a drunken priest John Evan (Hay Petrie). Larry wants to hand himself in but his eminent lawyer brother Keith (Leslie Banks) convinces him to say nothing in order to secure his own reputation with a judgeship in the balance but a magistrate sends the entirely circumstantial case to a higher court and the priest wants to be convicted for robbing the dead man. Larry decides he and Wanda must get married and squeeze in thirty years of life before the case is tried … Breaking the law can be a delightful experience. A romance contorted by a crime and a man’s career on the line. Plugging into co-writer (novelist and film critic) Graham Greene’s themes of guilt, religion and sexual obsession, this curiosity in the careers of the beautiful leads and real-life couple has two people rightly lost in each other to an extent tangible to the audience. Contrasted with the jostling banter of the legal brotherhood, this suffering pair are dragged into the daily tedium of a race against time, making the most of the time left to them while a crime discovered in the metaphorically significant Glove Lane dominates the headlines in a Hitchcockian London. The couple’s trip to the seaside is well paced in parallel with the court case and nods toward Greene’s Brighton Rock – Olivier is good at transmitting the guilt that overwhelms his enjoyment. It’s filled with quirky working and immigrant class characters with Robert Newton terrific as prosecuting counsel Tolley and of course Banks, who starred for The Fat Man (The Man Who Knew Too Much) and whose presence lends a kind of sneering, harried veneer to proceedings particularly when he surreptitiously visits Leigh on a number of occasions to persuade her away from his brother. He co-starred with Olivier and Leigh in Fire Over England and Olivier would cast him in Henry V. However it may come as a surprise that this melodrama is actually developed from a 1920 short story and play (The First and the Last) by John (The Forsyte Saga) Galsworthy (who had died in 1933) a barrister who spent time abroad looking after his family’s shipping interests and wrote stories and plays using the name ‘Sinjohn’ until his father died. Yet it feels so Greene – which goes to show that a lot of hands can make the authorial signature of one writer. Directed by co-writer Basil Dean and if it feels like it could have been made a few years earlier, that’s because it was. Shot in 1937 as a vehicle for Leigh, producer Alexander Korda took it away from Dean who reputedly never saw it and it was held over to capitalise on Leigh’s role in Gone With the Wind. And my, aren’t she and Olivier just too gorgeous for words?! I could go on like this forever

About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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