Lately I've taken to watching the Criterion collection on Hulu Plus. This in itself is worth the monthly fee. It's basically film school streamed directly to your device or tablet. But what can a screenwriter or student take away from these films?
The first one up is 21 Days, a 1940 film directed by Basil Dean and starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
Larry (played by Olivier) is madly in love with Wanda (Leigh.) After a night on the town they return to her flat to find her estranged husband waiting for them. The man wants money or he'll cause trouble. After a scuffle Larry kills the man. He leaves the body on the street and tries to cover his tracks. An innocent man is arrested for the crime. Larry determines he won't let the man hang for his crime. He decides to give himself up if he must. That just gives him 21 days with Wanda before the trial reaches its conclusion.
The plot is pretty standard melodrama. In the end everything works out for the two lovers. The main attraction for film buffs will be the chance to see Olivier and Leigh together. They both give great performances.
The entire cast is very good. It's typical of the ensemble style of British films from the 1940s. Many characters have memorable scenes. What a screenwriter should look at is the way this script plays with the plot and the characters. Graham Greene is credited as one of the writers and there's a heavy douse of ambiguity in this story. Larry commits the crime but it's his ambitious brother Keith, a lawyer who will soon become a judge, who pressures him into covering up the crime. Throughout Keith insists Larry is "weak as water." Yet Larry is the one who insists on doing the right thing. In the end Larry strides out of his apartment to bravely meet his fate while Keith is left defeated. And in the biggest narrative twist, the real villain might actually be the innocent man who's been arrested for the crime. This man, a former clergyman, stole a pocket watch off the corpse. But he's so obsessed with the idea that he must suffer to make up for his sin that he's willing to go to the gallows for a crime he didn't commit. Keith constantly says the case against him is weak. But the man's persistence that he did a terrible thing and must be punished for it pushes the court to find him guilty. Thus the innocent behind bars is perfectly happy while the main characters on the outside suffer.
The director Basil Dean is not someone who immediately pops to mind when one thinks about British film in the '40s. But he does an excellent job. There is plenty of camera movement. And Dean opens the story up several times with some location shooting.
Location shooting like this was a rarity at the time. The Italian neo realist movement was still several years away. The scenes do add to the story which is largely shot on a studio. Dean also directs a lively finale. As Larry marches through a crowded street, Wanda races after him. The sequence is expertly edited and full of movement.
21 Days is a bit of a surprise to be on the Criterion collection but I was glad I saw it. It shows what a talented writer can do with a standard concept. It also introduced me to Basil Dean whom I'll look for in the future.