Sunday, January 8, 2017

Basil Dean | 21 Days

a moral out
by Douglas Messerli

Graham Greene and Basil Dean (writers, based on a novel by John Galsworthy), Basil Dean 21 Days (a.k.a. 21 Days Together) / 1940

Basil Dean’s 1940 film, 21 Days, is certainly not a great film, and I’ve seen far better Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier performances. Nonetheless this John Galsworthy fiction, rewritten for screen by Graham Greene, has some charm, if for nothing in its satiric distinctions between the loving couple, Larry Durant (Olivier) and Wanda (Leigh), and Larry’s highly corruptible “good-boy” brother, Keith (Leslie Banks).

Keith, about to be made a judge, has little difficulty in advising that Larry hide his accidental murder of Wanda’s former husband, and even advises him to leave the country so that he, himself, will not become involved. When a local bum is picked up, wearing Larry’s bloody gloves, and the poor man, Henry Wallen (Esme Percy)—ironically a former minister of religion—is charged with the crime, the future judge is perfectly willing to see the man hung.
      The no-good Larry, however, truly the righteous one, is determined to admit his crime before Wallen is tried in 21 days; but first he and Wanda, rather callously, determine to marry and spend a few days together the innocent man goes to the gallows.
      Much of the middle of the movie, while the two are supposedly enjoying each other’s company, is simply boring. There’s nothing worse than watching a guilty man trying to find pleasure for a few days before he is scheduled to die.  

      But when they return from their little celebration., the plot takes a twist, as we discover Wallen has died of a heart attack on his way to prison, Wanda races through the London streets to catch up with Larry before he gets to the police. The fact that she reaches to him just in time, puts the entire film on strange moral ground. Is it okay to kill someone—even if he was a terrible person and the murder was an accident—if someone else dies for the crime?

       One might suggest that Graham is using the Wallen figure as a kind of Christ, who dies—himself feeling guilty for having stolen a ring and money off the dead man—so that Larry and Wanda might continue to live out what they hope will be a long life together. But, of course, that doesn’t quite explain the selfish brother, more protective of his career in law than in the law itself. Nor does it explain the quite detestable behaviors of his cronies, who joke about their own snoring through cases and past misjudgments. 
       In short, no one in this film, except perhaps for the fallen minister of religion—whose career was destroyed by drinking—is truly likeable. At least we sympathize, for a while, with the loving couple at the center of the story; but even though Larry is willing to admit his guilt, in the end, apparently he does not. He has found and accepted an “out.”
      Opening in wartime England, one might have imagined that the moral high ground might be necessary, and that in a world where citizens were being killed in nightly blitzes, that leaving a dead body in a small city lane would be condemned, even if the film was principally shot in 1937. But perhaps for that very reason, the writer and filmmaker felt that it worth saving their sinful characters’ lives.

Los Angeles, January 8, 2017

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