Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Razor's Edge (1946)

THE RAZOR'S EDGE, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, is a lengthy but absorbing film, well acted by an all-star cast.

THE RAZOR'S EDGE tells the story of Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), a WWI veteran who was particularly shaken by seeing the combat death of a friend. Larry, on a quest to find the meaning in life, is unwilling to settle down to a steady job, to the dismay of his fiancee, Isabel (Gene Tierney). Isabel is willing to give Larry a year to roam Europe and find himself, but when he ultimately refuses to return to the U.S. to work and settle down, she gives him up and marries kind, wealthy businessman Gray Maturin (John Payne).

The other characters in Larry's orbit include his childhood friend Sophie (Anne Baxter), who will figure prominently in the story after a devastating tragedy; Isabel's Uncle Elliott (Clifton Webb), obsessed with his standing in society and the more shallow aspects of life; and the book's author, Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall), who closely observes all these people and narrates.

THE RAZOR'S EDGE marked Tyrone Power's return to the screen after service in World War II. Along with his next film, NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) -- which was also made with director Edmund Goulding -- THE RAZOR'S EDGE showcased Power's acting ability as well as his desire for more challenging, substantive roles. Power is consistently interesting as a man who is at once frustrating, enigmatic, selfish, spiritual, and deeply caring.

I was particularly struck that the film concludes with Maugham telling Isabel that Larry has "goodness," as that ties in directly with something Power's NIGHTMARE ALLEY costar, Coleen Gray, said to me earlier this month about what a good person Power was offscreen.

THE RAZOR'S EDGE is a sprawling tale which takes place over a span of many years, and it clocks in at a somewhat unwieldy 145 minutes. I did think the movie feels too long; I confess I had an impatient moment of thinking "Find yourself, already!" as Larry meandered through the early scenes in the film, and Sophie's decline is elaborated on at great, great length.

Although I felt the storyline could have been condensed to a more manageable running time, the film nonetheless held my attention throughout. The excellent performances continue to draw the viewer onward from scene to scene, and watching the film is something akin to immersing one's self in a long, thought-provoking book. The characters are not always admirable, but their human frailties help make them more interesting. This includes Larry himself, who despite his overall "goodness" is in some ways also a very self-absorbed man, particularly when it comes to his lack of regard for Isabel's feelings early on in the film.

Given Larry's lack of desire to be tied down, one wonders why Larry became engaged in the first place -- then looks at Gene Tierney and wonders no more. In fact, it's a bit of a stretch to believe these two were able to resist one another! The library scene where she attempts to seduce him into marriage is perhaps the most striking moment in the movie, superbly acted and deeply sensuous, yet by modern standards showing nothing. Truly, less is more.

Anne Baxter is excellent as the tragic Sophie, her early innocence and loveliness ultimately giving way to a puffy-faced alcoholic. It's easy to understand why the 23-year-old Baxter won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, although, as hinted at above, this is one of the areas I feel screenwriter Lamar Trotti could have condensed. He faced quite a challenge pulling together a cohesive story, and it's to Baxter's credit that the scene where she learns that she's lost everything is as powerful as it is, given that it's quite randomly inserted into the middle of Larry's quest for spiritual peace in India.

While John Payne gets the short end of the stick as Gray, with relatively little screen time or interest in his character's point of view, the other actors fare better. I particularly admired Herbert Marshall's performance as Maugham, taking a character who is mostly a commentator on the action and making him interesting nonetheless, particularly in his frankness with Isabel and his tolerance of the petty Elliott. As a man who pays attention to people and what "makes them tick," Maugham seems to find Elliott entertaining, yet he also expresses genuine sympathy for the man.

Elliott might be said to be the flip side of Larry -- while Larry is self-absorbed in his quest to understand Life and What It's All About, Elliott is wrapped up in money, the social niceties, and the importance of invitations. The collision of Larry and Elliott's stories, at the end of Elliott's life, is thus a nice touch, with Larry going out of his way to do something that will bring Elliott peace, no matter how silly it might be. Clifton Webb, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, takes his typical waspish "Clifton Webb" performance to the next level in his final scenes, bravely acting with a rawness which is almost shocking.

The Best Supporting Actor winner that year, incidentally, was Harold Russell for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES -- another film of particular significance for postwar audiences. THE RAZOR'S EDGE was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Art Direction/Interior Decoration.

I've enjoyed becoming more acquainted with the work of director Edmund Goulding in recent years, including THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943) and NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947). I hope to see another classic Goulding film, DARK VICTORY (1939), in the next few days.

I was fascinated to learn that Goulding was also a composer who wrote the music for several songs used in the movie, including one which became a standard, "Mam'selle." The lyrics were written by Mack Gordon. The song was perhaps most notably recorded by Frank Sinatra.

THE RAZOR'S EDGE was filmed in black and white by Arthur C. Miller. The score was by Alfred Newman. Gene Tierney's beautiful gowns were created by her then-husband, Oleg Cassini. The supporting cast includes Lucile Watson, Frank Latimore, and Elsa Lanchester, in a memorable one-scene part.

For a thoughtful, detailed analysis of THE RAZOR'S EDGE, including a comparison of film to book, please visit Cliff's post at Immortal Ephemera. Cliff writes "THE RAZOR'S EDGE is a personal favorite. When I say favorite, it just might be, if you catch me on the right day, my favorite movie of all time. It's not without its faults but it's an impeccably cast 145-minute drama that moves at a swift pace carried by some big ideas. I love this movie, even if I do think that final execution of the biggest idea turned out slightly flawed."

THE RAZOR'S EDGE was No. 30 in the Fox Studio Classics DVD series. Extras include a commentary track. It can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.

Amazon Prime members can stream THE RAZOR'S EDGE at no extra cost. It was also released on VHS.

THE RAZOR'S EDGE was the eighth film seen from my list of 10 Classics to view in 2012. I hadn't planned to leave so many titles on this list to watch the very last week of the year, but it's worked out well as vacation is a good time to tackle longer movies. I'm hoping to see the last couple titles by New Year's!


Blogger dfordoom said...

Truly, less is more.

If only modern film-makers could learn that simple lesson.

I quite liked this movie as well, and Tyrone Power is very very underrated.

9:36 PM  
Blogger mel said...

That's very interesting information about Edmund Goulding being a composer. I didn't know. I certainly wasn't aware that he had composed the song "Mam'selle", my favorite version of which will always be the one Frankie Laine recorded for Mercury in 1947.

I'll have to take a look at the movie sometime...

9:49 PM  
Blogger Kristina said...

You know I LOVE this movie & Tyrone, and was eagerly awaiting your thoughts, really glad you enjoyed it! Like Cliff I never tire of this movie, and though there's the joke about having hundreds of fave movies in my top 10, Random Harvest and Razor's Edge are always in my top 3. I was lucky to see it really early on in my movie collecting& watching and I just felt like I found a hidden gold mine. Razor's Edge & Nightmare Alley are quite the 1-2 punch from Goulding & Tyrone, loved learning about them while writing for the upcoming Dark Pages issue you mention (and will be joining!). Now I'm looking forward to your list of things you need to watch in 2013!

5:05 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Thank you for excellent review of one I've never seen. Will watch out for it

5:59 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you all so much for your feedback!

DforDoom and Kristina, so glad you have enjoyed this one too. Hope Mel and Vienna will have a chance to catch up with it, it's a very worthwhile film.

I certainly agree with you about Power being underrated, DforDoom, and am glad it seems that he has become more appreciated in recent years.

Mel, I'll be on the lookout for that Frankie Laine recording of "Mam'selle," I'm not familiar with that one!

Kristina, what's the third film in your top 3? Inquiring minds want to know. :)

I believe my list of 10 Classics to see in for the first time 2013 is complete, and I'll be posting it next week. Thanks for asking, Kristina! It's a little bit different as it includes a few titles which may not have been recognized as top classics when they came out but have come to be more recognized in recent years. But first I need to watch STALAG 17 and DARK VICTORY over the next few days!

Best wishes,

12:02 PM  
Blogger Cliff Aliperti said...

Laura, I'm so glad you enjoyed THE RAZOR'S EDGE, though truth be told I had wished you had loved it even more.

I enjoy Larry's meandering, actually wishing this part was expanded as I found his quest more satisfying than some of the hocus pocus proof of him having found himself. I think the movie shows us this story as a whole a lot better than Maugham himself did in his original text, though one of the more interesting scenes tossed aside from the book is an additional somewhat lengthy meeting between Maugham and Sophie (which would have never made it past censors had it actually fit into the movie). So glad though that you enjoyed Marshall as Maugham (interesting that he is also in both versions of THE LETTER and the Maugham/narrator character in THE MOON AND SIXPENCE too), Baxter as Sophie and made note of Clifton Webb's wonderfully played final scenes.

On the surface I'm more of a NIGHTMARE ALLEY kind of guy, but something about THE RAZOR'S EDGE really touches me (the quest I suppose, finding yourself, being a good man, etc.) and makes it stand out as an all-time favorite. So glad you saw it and enjoyed it!

PS: Thank you so much for the excerpt and link!

11:32 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Cliff! I found your post really interesting; your love for the film really shows. I think I will be going back to this film in the future and suspect it's the kind of movie which might grow on me more with continued exposure.

I hadn't thought of Herbert Marshall's other Maugham connections before, that's a fascinating point! Have to check them out too. :)

Best wishes,

6:10 PM  

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