“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 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 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, ere 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 and 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 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
and 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. It 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. The fatal blow to any sense of coherence was the decision by producer Darryl Zanuck to further dilute any reference to religion or faith.
And yet, 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.