“The Razor’s Edge” – A Frustrating & Fascinating Film

“The Razor’s Edge” is a frustrating and fascinating film from 1946. It is based on the 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. The novel had been a massive best seller and the public anxiously awaited the film adaptation. Darrell F. Zanuck and Fox spared no expense in translating the sprawling book to the silver screen. The end result is a movie which is neither great nor terrible, filled with performances both memorable and clunky. Despite being poorly reviewed, “The Razor’s Edge” was an enormous hit with audiences. I suspect there was a great film to be made from the novel. And when I watch both this version and the Bill Murray remake from 1984, I can’t help but think that the filmmakers would have loved another shot at the material.

The Razor's Edge 1946 poster

“The Razor’s Edge” 1946 Poster

 

The Plot of “The Razor’s Edge”

Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) is a carefree boy from Lake Forest, IL who grows up in a luxurious environment of country clubs and proper manners. He has a close circle of friends. The interactions of those friends over the space of some twenty years unfold in the two hour and twenty minute film. Larry is engaged to the impossibly beautiful Isabel (Gene Tierney) who genuinely loves him, but is avaricious and obsessed with money and social status. Wealthy but dull Gray Maturin (John Payne) is in love with Isabel, but defers to Larry. Their friend Sophie (Oscar winner Anne Baxter) is a happy young woman engaged to a man of modest future prospects. She and her fiancee Bob are filled with love for one another. Somerset Maugham (played without flair by Herbert Marshall), the author of the novel, interacts with the characters from time to time.

When Larry returns from World War I, he is a changed person. Gone is the happy-go-lucky charming boy. After witnessing the death of a friend during the war, he has become more serious. Larry becomes fixated on trying to find the meaning of life. He breaks his engagement and travels the world, studying and learning. Larry works as a stevedore and coal miner, meets a defrocked priest and other seekers of the Truth. Eventually his travels lead him to the Himalayas where he meets a holy man who helps him find enlightenment.

Meanwhile, Isabel and Gray marry, much to the delight of her waspish, socially conscious Uncle Elliott (Clifton Webb, never better). Without giving away too many of the plot surprises, the lives of the friends take many unexpected twists and turns.  From time to time Larry drops into their lives. They struggle to understand how he can “waste” his time seeking the meaning of life. He explains, “Yes, but doesn’t the fact that people *have* been asking those same questions for thousands of years only go to prove that they can’t help asking?” They are fascinated and put off by his piety and saintliness. He is humble, explaining, “If I ever acquire wisdom, I suppose I’ll be wise enough to know what to do with it.”

“The Razor’s Edge” – Tyrone Power Returns to Hollywood

Tyrone Power The Razor's Edge

Was there ever a prettier movie couple than Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney?

Tyrone Power was one of the most handsome leading man in Hollywood. He was an underrated actor, usually cast as a swashbuckling leading man in hybrid or adventure films. His private life was likewise glamorous. He was a magnetic and charismatic person, engaged in many affairs, and displayed a devil may care attitude. He volunteered for World War II in the air Corps. He entered as a private and left as a highly decorated lieutenant with a superb record. He returned to Hollywood a changed man. Similar to Larry, his experiences in the war sobered and matured him. “The Razor’s Edge” was his first film after the war. In fact, some of the early scenes shot in the Rocky Mountains, which stand in for the Himalayas,

The Razor's Edgewere actually shot just before he was mustered out of the service. In the long shots we see a stand-in for him. Several people who knew him well said that his transformation was very similar to that of the main character. Although he had several excellent roles after World War II, his career had changed.

“The Razor’s Edge” – A Fascinating Muddle

The film is long and very talky. At its best, it is filled with gorgeous visuals and beautiful sets. At its worst it is sanctimonious and clunky. The opening scene is set in a swanky country club, featuring 1,000 extras, all exquisitely dressed. That scene is shot in a series of very long takes, devoid of close-ups or edits. The lack of close-ups makes it occasionally difficult to discern the true feelings of the characters. The studio had paid a record price – $250,000 – for the rights to the novel and did not scrimp on the production. Almost 90 individual sets were constructed, many just used for a very brief shot. Other shots are done in front of very phony looking process screens giving the film an artificial and cheap look. A white British actor plays the Indian holy man who helps transform Larry. Cecil Humphries was given a silly pasted-on beard The Razor's Edgeand posed in front of the most artificial looking painting of a mountain you ever saw. He and Larry meet by a Western style picnic table. THE_RAZORS_EDGE-15The sheer artificiality of the set and actor interferes with our appreciation of the deeper lessons Larry is trying to learn. “The Razor’s Edge” wants to be massive in scope and pack an important meaning. Unfortunately, some poor decisions and a plodding script draw our attention away from the interesting spiritual quest of the central character.

Gene Tierney was married to the famous fashion designer Oleg Cassini. He had designed a beautiful wedding dress for her, but they wound up eloping. She wears the dress in the film Gene Tiereny Wedding Dress In The Razor's Edgeand looks exquisite. But as beautifully as she is dressed, she has to recite lines of dialogue that are so forced and artificial they take away from the inherent intrigue of the unique plot. Consider: “She’s an awful woman. She’s bad, bad, bad! She’s soused from morning to night.”  And yet, when given witty repartee, especially with Maugham, she is devastatingly sharp. It’s a terrific performance by Gene Tierney despite the problems with the script.

One of the problems encountered in “The Razor’s Edge” was unavoidable. Tyrone Power was slightly too old to play the lead character. Although he was only 30 years old and still impossibly handsome. He looks 35 and acts more mature than that. Remember, at the beginning of the film (as pictured below) his character is supposed to be about 23 years old.Tyrone Power The Razor's Edge

Tyrone Power The Razor's EdgeIt is an excellent performance at its best moments. Powers’ natural intelligence and personal growth shine through.

The second problem is that the script and direction present a conundrum. On the one hand, Larry’s personality comes off as sanctimonious, humorless, and pious. On the other hand, what exactly he learns and what revelations he has are left very vague. This is not Tyrone Power’s fault. The direction is poor. And the original source material was vague and muddied about what Larry had exactly learned from his time in the Himalayas. Added to that was the decision by producer Darryl Zanuck to further dilute any reference to religion or faith.

For all of its flaws, I find “The Razor’s Edge” to be quite fascinating. Reflecting the changing nature of America after World War II, the film presents an intriguing look of the society that is in transition. Gray and Isabel represent both the past and the future of America. Both are concerned with money and appearances. The suffering of others in the Great Depression and the war seems not to touch them at all. Larry represents something deeper. His search for meaning reflects the way America was trying to find itself in the face of the unparalleled difficulties brought on by two world wars and the Great Depression. What makes “The Razors Edge” so involving is the uniqueness of Larry’s quest. Most American movies would focus on the economic and social success of Gray and Isabel. Very few American movies, let alone big-budget films, are about spiritual journeys.

Making a Movie of Popular Novel

Here is a quick quiz for you. Please leave your answer in the comments below. Have you ever seen a movie based on a great book where the movie was better than the book? I would list “The Godfather” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” But most movies pale in comparison to the books that are based on period one of the reasons for this is that books can take us deeper into the lives and thoughts of the characters. “The Razor’s Edge” as a film can only give us a big glimpse of what Larry learns in the Himalayas. The novel, for all its flaws, spends more time trying to help us see how Larry’s worldview has changed. It also shows us more of his impact on the world outside of his friends.

A Final Thought

“The Razor’s Edge” was remade in 1984. Bill Murray played the Tyrone Power role. Like its predecessor, the remake has many good things going for it. I’ve seen interviews with Bill Murray where he indicated that he would love have loved another shot at filming the story. Maybe someday there will be one more film version that will combine the earnestness of the 1946 film with the larger scope and greater willingness to discuss spirituality of the remake. I actually recommend both versions, for different reasons. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please leave them in the comments below.

33 thoughts on ““The Razor’s Edge” – A Frustrating & Fascinating Film

  1. Ouch. This one is in my Hollywood sin bin. I really never could get the point of the thing, even though all the details are clear; it’s just so long and muddled. It doesn’t help that I wanted to beat Gene Tierney with some sort of blunt metal object. :)

    The one saving grace is Power; while he doesn’t save it for me, he’s as captivating to watch as always.

    A nice pick for the blogathon, thanks!

  2. Clayton,

    The script went through many, many rewrites…that is almost never a good thing! Part of the problem is the source material – half soap opera of the rich and famous, half fascinating muddle on the search of a man for an understanding of his life on a deeper level. Gene Tiereny is actually good with the script as written. The problem is more with the dialogue than the performance.

  3. Barry, Your response to the 1947 version of The Razor’s Edge is very much in line with my own. I can live with artificial-looking sets (films of the era were rife with them), but a poor script and weak direction are a deadly combination. Basically, the film lacks life – except for the sections of the film that involve Anne Baxter.

    In her autobiography, Myrna Loy commented on the similarities between Tyrone Power and Larry Darrell – she thought he was perfectly cast, “that was Ty,” she wrote, referring to the Darrell character.

    As for movies that are better than the books they’re adapted from, I prefer Hitchcock’s Rebecca to du Maurier’s.

    • Lady Eve,

      Many thanks you you and Patti for hosting this wonderful tribute to Tyrone Power. I always enjoy your blog!

      The artificiality of the sets was a point I mentioned not because I objected to them per se. Like you, as a fan of movies of the era, we understand the technical limitations they face. But Fox made a huge deal about how this film had an indoor miss budget, used thousands of extras, and built almost 90 individual sets. It made me wonder why Darryl F Zanuck would not bring in set designers could have come up with something better than a picnic table and the paintings of a mountain to set a scene in the Himalayas. We note that they did a bit of early shooting in the Rockies. Why not build a simple cabin set with that is the background? I don’t mean to over focus on this one scene. I used it as an illustration of how frustrating “.Razors Edge” can be. There are moments when you think that it is going to be a great film. There are moments within it that are superb. And then there is the listless script and the meandering direction that undercut the dramatic nature of Larry’s transformation.

      BB

  4. Barry, thank you for this terrific addition to the blogathon. It was wonderful having you aboard to celebrate the 100th birthday of one very under-appreciated actor.

    I have seen this film only once, and that was about 4 years ago. I recall liking it enough to say that it may well have replaced “Son of Fury” as my favorite Power/Tierney pairing. I’ve wanted to revisit it, so when TCM aired it a few weeks ago, I set my DVR. I look forward to catching it again.

    Wow, Bill Murray in this role!? I pretty much think of him as comedy. I can scarcely imagine him in a dramatic role.

    One movie I love more than the book is “Pride and Prejudice”…the 6 hour, BBC, Colin Firth version.

    • Patti,

      Many thanks to you and The Lady Eve for hosting this wonderful and very appropriate celebration of Tyrone Power.

      Bill Murray loved the original source material. He felt that the role would be a perfect way for him to show that he could be a dramatic actor. Numerous later films, including “Lost in Translation” have proven that he is, indeed, excellent actor. His version of the film suffers from different problems than the Tyrone Power film. First, although the remake benefits from a budget that allowed them to travel to convincing locations and boasted magnificent sets and costumes, it suffers from a fairly weak supporting cast. Catherine Hicks and James Keach are no Gene Tierney and John Payne. secondly, while we would certainly neither want nor expect delivery to re-create Tyrone Power, the direction is disjointed and Marie’s performance is sometimes jarring in his use of wit and irony at odd moments. It is a noble failure. Not that Bill Murray would ask for or respect my opinion, but if I had the chance to ask him about the film, I would be one suggesting that now, as a much more mature and thoughtful man, he rewrite the script and produce a third version. I have a feeling that he could knock it out of the park this time.

      • Clearly, Murray’s stint on Saturday Night Live and his performance in Larger Than Life have clouded my perception of his abilities. Then again, I rarely watch movies made after 1960, so he doesn’t cross my path all that often. (Though I did just catch him in The Monuments Men.)

        • Patti,

          Bill Murray has certainly had a quirky career. His performances in films such as “Lost In Translation,” “Rushmore,” “Hyde Park On Hudson, and “Moonrise Kingdom” demonstrate that he can be extremely good in non “Caddyshack” type roles. He is really talented!

  5. Oh, and I agree with you about Clifton Webb. He was spectacular in this film!

    Also, that is interesting that Gene wore what was supposed to be her real-life wedding gown in this film. I’m glad she got a chance to wear it.

    • Anyone who loves movies MUST check out Patti’s fantastic blog!

      Clifton Webb played the same character with slight variation in a number of movies. Compare his role in “The Razor’s Edge” with his role in “Laura” also would Gene Tierney. It is variations on the same theme. That is not a knock on Clifton Webb. There are a number of actors from the golden days of Hollywood and beyond who played nothing but variations on the same character and did so perfectly.

      • Barry, thanks for the kind words and shout-out about my blog.

        You know, speaking of Clifton Webb playing the same kind of character over and over again (to perfection), have you ever seen “Satan Never Sleeps?” It’s his final film, and although William Holden actually gets top billing, I deem Webb the real star of the film. Although his character (a priest) does mellow a bit by the end of the movie, for much of it, he’s his usual crotchety self. I love him that way—he makes crankiness funny.

        • He was a fantastic actor – in The Man Who Never Was and Titanic he showed that he had an excellent range, and I believe he started in Broadway musicals.

          • I agree with you that he was a great actor; although his range in films was never really explored. He did indeed start on Broadway where he he was noted for his dancing in musical revues. He also was a favorite in Noel Coward plays.

            Webb was gay and lived with his mother until her death at age 91. Mr. Webb grieved deeply. Coward is supposed to have remarked “”It must be terrible to be orphaned at 71.”

            BB

  6. Interesting! I reviewed The Sun Also Rises for this blogathon, and it similarly features a too-old-for-the-role Power and a movie that is less wonderful than the book. And exotic locations, Power’s character a veteran changed by the war and now feeling his life has little meaning. What intriguing parallels!

    And I think the Craig version of Casino Royale is better than the book. And I like the movie Giant WAY better than Edna Ferber’s book.

    • Your review of “The Sun Also Rises” was superb. What a shame that Tyrone Power didn’t get these kinds of meaty roles when he was of the right age to play them more convincingly. Maybe he needed his experiences in the Second World War to help him grow as an actor out of swashbuckling parts and into the swords of complex characterizations. Or maybe he had it in him the whole time and that the studios simply failed to realize what an excellent actor he was. it makes me wonder what might have been…

      • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

        I feel like many actors really start to shine when they’re in their 40s, and I think Power is no exception. While his earlier films are enjoyable and well-made, certainly his acting only continued to improve as the years went by. So I’m really glad the studios were willing to give him meaty parts like in “Sun” and “Edge” even though the characters were supposed to be much younger — what a shame it would have been if they had passed over Power because he was the wrong age!

        • I am going to disagree just a bit….

          While I agree that many actors get better as they age, that does not mean that they should be cast in roles not appropriate for their age/look. For instance, Judy Garland developed a lot as an actress in her 40s. But if she had been 44 when “The Wizard Of Oz” was made, would you have still cast her in it? I would argue that Powers should have gotten different roles as he aged, rather than parts that no longer fit him. The problems with “Edge” haven’t much to do with either his acting or his looks. The script, the director and producer are mostly to blame. Still, as you can see from the stills in the article, he is not credible as a 22 or 23 year old at the beginning of the film.

          • Depends on the role, obviously. “The Wizard of Oz” demands an actor credible as a child. But what about something like “Hamlet,” where the lead is a student, yet is rarely played by anyone college-age because they simply lack the depth and range. Does casting a 39-year-old Richard Burton in the role make sense, or does the role no longer fit him?

            Power in his mid-20s would have actually felt rather odd in The Sun Also Rises to me. Too full of joie-de-vivre or something, even though he’d be the correct age for the role. Power in his 40s could convey the frustration and despair the role needed. I haven’t seen Razor’s Edge so I can’t speak to it, but a wrong age for a character generally doesn’t bug me, if they’re the write actor for the role.

  7. Thank you so much for your review. This is one of my favorite films mainly because I love Tyrone in it so much. I also loved the book. It definitely presents some problems and that mountain scene – laughable. I saw it on the big screen as part of a Tyrone Power tribute in 2008. The audience loved it.

    • Maria,

      The funny thing is I like the film, also. I find it a frustrating movie, because it contain the seeds of a great movie but ends up pulling back from the core question of Larry’s conversion. The producer was so worried about making a “religious” film that Larry’s character is shown doing little more than a bit of hypnosis and an act of charity to confirm his enlightenment. The book makes it much clearer that he has gone through a huge metamorphosis and come back a very changed person. The script simply doesn’t give Power the scenes necessary to show how different he has become.

      Barry

      • That’s true about the religion but man, I still love it so much. I have a great story about it, actually two. For the India scenes, Edmund Goulding told Tyrone Power not to have sex while filming it. Annabella complained to Pat Boyer, her dear friend and wife of Charles. Pat informed her that Edmund Goulding told everyone to do that all the time. So she and Power had sex. The next day when they were filming, Goulding shouted out, That’s it! That’s the look I want!

        The other story is that Tyrone had real champagne served during the nightclub scenes so by the end, none of them were feeling any pain and were in GREAT moods.

        • Maria,

          One more interesting story about sex and the making of “The Razor’s Edge.”

          The director, Edmund Golding, was bisexual and developed a wild crush on Frank Latimore, who played Bob McDonald. Latimore was straight and faced a miserable work environment. Although he made a lot of films before The Razor’s Edge, her did not make another American film for over a decade.

  8. Count me as a huge fan of this one. I think its one of the most watchable movies ever made, warts and all. I think it was a huge hit at the time because it answered a need for all those returning servicemen and women. What can we do to make the world a better place?

    I can easily see a remake of this with updating that would be relevant to today’s society. A returning veteran from the Gulf War, unable to find work in the current economic condition, loved ones succumbing to drugs or alcohol. I can easily see it. If audiences could buy Julia Roberts going to India in EAT PRAY LOVE, surely they could buy a character who has experienced awful things going to India for some sort of spiritual salvation.

    While I enjoy this movie much more than you, Barry, I did appreciate your take on it. I understand where your reservations are coming from, but I found the film so affecting that I tend to gloss over them.

    • Kevin,

      I truly enjoy the film… I’ve owned copies of both versions since they were first released on DVD and have watched both and reread the book many times. I do not think that it is a great movie or even a particularly good one in many regards, but that does not stop me from enjoying it.

      Your point about doing a remake relevant to today’s society is very prescient. Bill Murray has said in at least one interview that if he had it to do over again, he would have made his film set in contemporary times. If you watch the Bill Murray version it becomes clearer that that would have been a better choice for him. Tyrone Power never seems to be the right age or the right mindset to be a man in the late teens and early 20s. And neither does Bill Murray. Tyrone Power really reflects the World War II generation in his acting and characterization. Bill Murray is far too contemporary in his ironic and witty self awareness to be convincing as a young man in the 1910s and 20s. If Murray had made himself, say, a Vietnam veteran it would’ve been much more believable.

      One other point of yours that I would like to comment on is about the search. One reason why the Tyrone Power version lacks emotional power is that it is far too timid about the search. It is willing to show him wear a turtleneck and not shave for a day or two, pulls back when it comes to the question of what has he found? The Bill Murray version actually does a somewhat better job of this.

      Thank you so much for your wonderful comments!

      Barry

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  11. Not to mention the actor portraying Somerset Maugham read cue cards throughout the whole film. He didn’t even try to hide it.

    • Marsha,

      Many critics have commented on how ill at ease Herbert Marshall seemed in the film, playing Maugham. It’s odd for two reasons. First, he was an excellent actor with many fine films to his name. Second, he had already played Somerset Maugham previously! (The Moon and Sixpence (1942)

      Barry

  12. Thoroughly enjoyed your take on the film. However, I am struck by the fact that you mentioned nothing of the character, Eliot Templeton, played MAGNIFICENTLY by the beloved Clifton Webb. While the characters of Isabel and Larry, like you said, represent the future, Uncle Eliot is the epitome of the past … and a dying breed. Would have looked forward to your observation of that courtly gentleman.

    • Linda,

      I agree with you 100%! Webb was perfect in the role. It was a variation of a character – the older, educated, snooty, slightly effeminate snob – that he could knock out of the park like nobody else. His role in “Laura” also with Gene Tiereny is almost identical and also perfect!

      Thanks for pointing out my oversight. I love Webb’s performance in the film!

      Barry

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