Saturday Night Cinema: 21 days

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinematic little known gem is 21 Days. The supreme and peerless matching of the exquisite Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier is, in and of itself, juicy enough. I thrill to such pairings not just for brilliant acting, but their off-screen love affair adds to the cinematic magic. Laurence Olivier plays a young Londoner implicated in a brutal murder. According to the rules of British law, he is permitted 21 days of comparative freedom from the time of the first hearing to the time of trial — provided he does not leave London. As the three weeks pass, Olivier falls deeply in love with girlfriend Vivien Leigh, who at first believes in his innocence. But as the deadline approaches, Olivier’s mood swings and erratic behavior shakes Leigh’s faith in him. Scripted by British suspense expert Graham Greene, 21 Days Together was originally released under the simpler title 21 Days. (Hal Erickson, Rovi)

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote in 1940:

Considering their recent film successes, Mr. Olivier and Miss Leigh are on a spot, and it is gratifying to report that “21 Days Together” does not let them down, nor they it, which is not generally the case with such intentionally delayed products. True, it is no deathless drama—is little more than a cultivated penny-thriller, in fact—and Miss Leigh, as the party of the second part, is required to devote her charm and talents to nothing more constructive than making the apparently inevitable parting from poor Mr. Olivier seem exceedingly painful, indeed. But it is a highly charged “meller,” rigid throughout with suspense and nicely laced with much tender emotion.

The story is simply that of a scapegrace but amiable English chap who accidentally murders the swinish husband of the girl he loves, resolves to surrender himself to the Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 5.48.33 PMpolice when an innocent wretch is picked up for the murder, and then spends three haunted weeks with his beloved while the supposed murderer is undergoing trial. That which happens when he finally goes to give himself up is no shattering surprise—and no great shakes of a climax either—but we’ll play fair and keep it a secret.

Obviously, Mr. Dean has fetched his precept from the aforementioned Mr. Hitchcock in directing for flavor and terrifying suspense. The pace is slow, even casual, with incidental business dropped in with ominous suggestiveness. The mean streets of London, a fog-shrouded alley, night prowlers, a crowd on a Thames excursion boat are given genuine solidity. The painful details of a court trial are worked through with cumulative nervousness. The whole fabric tautens imperceptibly until the final — and anti-climactic — snap. Mr. Dean has done a good job.

Mr. Olivier, who is a great one for tension, never lets you feel for a moment that his isn’t a tortured soul—and well it might be, with Miss Leigh and all her tantalizing graces slipping momentarily away from him. Leslie Banks as the murderer’s dignified brother, Francis L. Sullivan as the innocent suspect and a company of excellent English actors give added distinction to the film—you know, the way they always do in a literate, cultivated English melodrama.

21 DAYS TOGETHER, screen play by Basil Dean, based on the story “The First and the Last,” by John Galsworthy; directed by Basil Dean for Columbia Pictures. At the Rivoli.
Wanda . . . . . Vivien Leigh
Larry . . . . . Laurence Olivier
Keith . . . . . Leslie Banks
Mander . . . . . Francis L. Sullivan
Beavis . . . . . David Horne
Lord Chief Justice . . . . . William Dewhurst
Swinton . . . . . Frederick Lloyd
Tolley . . . . . Robert Newton
Wallen . . . . . Esme Percy
Frau Grunlick . . . . . Elliot Mason
Asher . . . . . Arthur Young
Evan . . . . . Hay Petrie
Grunlick . . . . . Meinhart Maur
Pawnbroker . . . . . Morris Harvey
Solicitor . . . . . Lawrence Hanray
Barnes . . . . . Fred Groves
Magistrate . . . . . Aubrev Mallalieu

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