Murderous Morality Play: 21 Days (1940)

21 DAYS, (aka 21 DAYS TOGETHER), from left: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, 1940, 21days-fsct02, Pho

To view 21 Days click here.

What would you do if you killed a man, quite by accident, and then had the great fortune of someone else being arrested for it? On top of that, the person arrested for it actually doesn’t object to the arrest and is so guilt ridden about the rest of his life he wants to die. That’s the basic premise of the Basil Dean directed thriller from 1940, 21 Days (aka 21 Days Together), with a terrific script by Dean and Graham Greene. Laurence Olivier is the accidental murderer, playing the role with surprising restraint, considering this was the Olivier of the 1930s and he still hadn’t been schooled by William Wyler on screen acting in Wuthering Heights (1939). If you’re confused by the timeline, that’s because 21 Days was made in 1937 with Vivien Leigh as the love interest. Shortly after filming, the film was shelved for a year while producer Alexander Korda developed other projects. Then Leigh won the lead role in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Korda, sensing that little Civil War movie was going to hit it big (like everyone else at the time), shelved the movie until after Gone with the Wind was released, at which point 21 Days was released with Vivien Leigh getting top billing. Hey, Korda was no fool and even if Leigh was given nothing else to do for the film’s rapid fire 75 minute running time than stare at Olivier all googly-eyed (and, yes, that’s pretty much all she does), her billing was enough to get people into the theaters. Once there, I suspect they felt it was well worth the price of admission. 21 Days takes the basic trope of the wrong man and turns it into a rather satisfying study of conscience and ego, and just how far someone will go to protect their name and reputation.

Keith Durrant (Leslie Banks) is a barrister well on his way to an appointment as the Lord Chief Justice. We find out he has a brother, Larry Durrant (Olivier), a no good playboy who takes his quarterly allowance from his brother and goes off to Kenya or Rhodesia, loses all his money, and comes back asking for more. When we meet up with Larry, he’s found a new love, Wanda (Vivien Leigh), and the two pawn an icon of hers to buy some ravioli and wine before going back to her place. Unfortunately for Wanda, there’s a man in her apartment when they return and when Larry asks who he is, the man responds, “Her husband.” The husband is Wallen (Esme Percy) and he’s never even been to England and hasn’t seen Wanda in three years. She met him in Russia when she was homeless and starving and married him for relief. She realized it was a mistake and fled. Now he’s found her and wants money to leave her alone. He pulls a knife and he and Larry begin to fight. As they tumble about, Larry grabs his neck and before he knows it, Wallen is dead. Larry panics, drags Wallen outside and stashes him in an archway. He will be an unidentified dead body and no one will ever be the wiser. Except Larry, as it turns out, has a conscience.

Larry goes to his brother and Keith, seeing the scandal of a murderous brother ruining his chance to become the Chief Justice, advises Larry to keep it to himself. He tells him to go back to the pawn shop, get the icon so nothing can connect him to Wanda, and stay put. Larry does what he is told but runs into a homeless man, Evan (Hay Petrie), outside the pawn shop and while giving him a cigarette, drops his gloves. Evan picks up the gloves, keeps them, and smokes his cigarette. The police find the dead body of Wallen, discover he’s been choked, pick up Evan and match blood on the gloves to Wallen. And now, Larry and Wanda must decide what to do. Should Larry turn himself in to clear Evan? Should he count his blessings and move on? Or maybe wait it out and see what happens? After all, it will be 21 days until the trial. Nothing can happen until then anyway, right? I mean, Evan was already homeless and now he’s being taken care of, so to speak, so it’s not even like the 21 days will be bad for him. Might as well enjoy yourself. And so he does, although his brother desperately wants him to leave the country. He’s pretty sure the prosecution will fail and Larry could still be picked up. And if you’ve ever read Graham Greene before, this turn of events resulting in a moral quandary for the protagonist should come as no surprise whatsoever.

For a thriller with no expectations of being nothing more than a money maker for Korda, the director and writer infuse the movie with something much deeper and profound. Scenes of Larry and Wanda enjoying themselves are inter-cut with the trial of an innocent, with circumstantial evidence piling up against him (sharply edited, it should be noted, by future director Charles Crichton). Gradually, it is Keith, the man of the law who becomes more and more morally corrupt and the playboy who seems to find his moral compass. At the same time, it’s not like Larry is losing much of anything. He makes it clear he thinks his own life is pretty much a failure so why not turn himself in and do at least one good thing. Wanda would rather he never turn himself in and go on like nothing ever happened. But the question of whether he will actually surrender himslef becomes more and more clouded as the end approaches. It even becomes a question of whether his ambitious brother will let him turn himself in.

21 DAYS, (aka 21 DAYS TOGETHER), from left: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, 1940, 21days-fsct01, Pho

It’s refreshing to see a movie dealing in morality and not actually giving you the answer you expected. Not surprising though, given the talent involved. Graham Greene was a great writer who dealt with moral doubt and suppressed guilt throughout his career as a novelist. He may not be famous for 21 Days, but it has all of his earmarks. Which is even more interesting considering he was adapting the screenplay from another great writer, John Galsworthy. Galsworthy had written the short story, The First and Last, that the film was based on (you can read it here). Greene takes a lot of dialogue from the story but significantly changes the ending. Most likely, the ending of the story was a bit too brutal for film censors in 1937 but Greene takes the guilt and conscience study with Larry further than Galsworthy, who mainly focuses on Keith and his relentless determination to keep himself unsullied. And Greene’s ending, which at first seems a happy compromise between the book and censors, comes off as the darker of the two the more you think about it. What do I mean?

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

In the short story, Larry and Wanda commit suicide rather than go on living apart from each other, since he would be sent to prison and hanged. They leave a note in which Larry gives his full confession to the murder so that the vagabond may be set free. Except Keith finds them and burns the note. The scandal of a brother and his lover committing suicide is one thing, but a murder in which Keith would easily, and correctly, be suspected of being an accomplice in covering it up, is quite another. Keith literally gives himself a pep talk in which he convinces himself that his life is worth more than some “sewer rat” and more than even Larry who had “no will, no purpose.” And that’s it. They’re dead, he’s alive, and no one will ever know.

The movie takes a different tack. Larry is determined to turn himself in and Wanda doesn’t want him to. Neither does Keith, obviously. But Larry decides after the jury returns a verdict of guilty to go to the police station and confess to the murder. That’s when the evening paper reveals that Evan died when leaving the courtroom. He had been sick for some time and is now dead. Wanda grabs a paper and rushes to stop Larry from turning himself in. At the last moment, just as he is about to enter the police station, she catches up to him and shows him the paper. They embrace, smile and walk off together. Fade to black.

Seems like a happy ending but in the short story, Larry and Wanda pay for their crime of murder and cover up by committing suicide. In the movie, as long as the courts are satisfied that the case is closed and the guilty party is dead, Larry and Wanda have no desire whatsoever to confess. So in Greene’s adaptation, Larry was decent enough to want to keep someone else from hanging for him, but not so decent that he’s still going to surrender himself if he doesn’t have to. Sure, it would clear the innocent man’s name but who cares, he’s dead now.

END SPOILERS

It’s too bad Greene and Galsworthy didn’t do more work together, playing off of each other’s strengths. They each went on to bigger and better things and obviously, in careers as noteworthy as theirs, something like 21 Days is little more than an interesting footnote. Still, interesting it is and provides an early look into many of the themes that Greene and Galsworthy would spend decades exploring.

Greg Ferrara

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3 Responses Murderous Morality Play: 21 Days (1940)
Posted By Melvin Lee : August 29, 2017 12:12 pm

Thank you for introducing another intriguing movie to try and track down! When you you suppose Filmstruck will be available outside of the U.S.!??

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 29, 2017 12:58 pm

I hope you get a chance to see it. As for Filmstruck’s availability, I have nothing to do with that end, just the writing part. Sorry.

Posted By Melvin Lee : August 31, 2017 11:56 am

Thanks Greg. The question was more a rhetorical one. Well, it seems I might be able to find “21 Days” on that “other” streaming site…!

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