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.
I came back to write this and the next paragraph after noticing I had already written well over 3,000 words about The Razor's Edge and had barely scratched the surface of all it has to offer. I make no mention of the beautiful sets, Edmund Goulding's direction, and somehow barely mention Clifton Webb's name and so I thought I should probably come back and say what you will find here.
A good deal of this overlong article is about the quest of the Tyrone Power character, Larry Darrell. I also spend a lot of time comparing Maugham's book to the film made out of it. I really enjoy Maugham, I've read quite a bit by him, but the script really sculpts his text into near perfection. There's also a little bit about that journey from the page to the screen and another bit about it being overshadowed by The Best Years of Our Lives. I touch on the characters played by Gene Tierney and Anne Baxter, who are both incredible in this film, but I seem to keep returning to Larry Darrell's quest. Hope you enjoy it.
A Very Unusual Young ManThe Razor's Edge is about "a very unusual young man," Larry Darrell as played by Tyrone Power, whom author W. Somerset Maugham takes a special interest in owing to the possibility that long after Larry has lived and died the world may realize "that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature." While that is Maugham the author speaking of Larry it is also Maugham the character in The Razor's Edge as played by Herbert Marshall.
Character Maugham first meets Larry Darrell in Chicago shortly after the first World War. Intrigued by this first meeting he comes to know Larry better through brief yet intimate sporadic intervals over a period of years that takes us through the Stock Market Crash and beyond into the early 1930's.
On the surface what makes Larry so unusual is that he's not content to settle into his expected life. In the opening scene, set at a country club party thrown by Maugham's acquaintance Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb) and Elliott's sister, Louisa (Lucile Watson), we learn that Larry has turned down a cushy career offer from friend Gray Maturin's (John Payne) wealthy father. We see Elliott raise an eyebrow as his niece, the beautiful Isabel (Gene Tierney), questions Larry's decision. Larry's straight-forward answer to the girl who loves him is that he "figured I'd be a disappointment to Gray's father so I decided I better refuse."
We're not questioning Larry's decision yet. It's only minutes into the movie and we already know that disappointing the fastidious Elliott might not be the worst thing in the world. But we as audience first raise our own eyebrows when Larry dances Isabel off to a far corner for a private talk and she asks him what exactly he does want to do with his life. "I don't know. Loaf maybe." His reply confirms our host Maugham's initial appraisal that this may very well indeed be a most unusual young man.
The Razor's Edge is a movie I've long delayed writing about. As I've said above, it is a favorite, and that makes any sort of distance difficult. I find Larry's quest for self-improvement and self-fulfillment inspirational, yet at the same time I think once Larry begins to find what he's looking for in India his story becomes much less interesting. I think what Larry is looking for is something that we all want to find, but while we tuck it into the back of our minds and get about with life, Larry makes the search his primary occupation.
The film was a great success with audiences even if it received mixed reviews from the critics. Matthew Kennedy, in his biography of the film's director, Edmund Goulding, wrote that "Even today, The Razor's Edge elicits vacillating critical opinions. Some see a moving, well-mounted examination of the search for the meaning in life. Others see a pretentious, pseudo-significant piece of cinematic claptrap" (240). Notable among the latter is Pauline Kael who calls the movie "Almost as irresistibly funny and terrible as The Fountainhead," in her 5001 Nights at the Movies (617). Well, I also like The Fountainhead quite a bit.
The story has a strong pedigree in being based on a work of Maugham, but remember that while some critics savaged the film and Larry's quest, Maugham was a popular writer who made a lot of money because his books sold to the masses. For proof of The Razor's Edge intended mainstream appeal look no further than its first publication which was as a serialization over six issues of Red Book Magazine beginning in December 1943. If Larry's quest seems at times over simplified or lacking in artful detail that is because of Maugham's primary audience, that being the greatest possible audience.
The Best Years of Our Lives
Despite some critics poking fun The Razor's Edge did receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in 1947, but lost to what was undeniably the film of the moment, the Samuel Goldwyn Company's post-war triumph The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The Razor's Edge never stood a chance.
The two stories actually emerge from the same relevant spark: problems faced by returning war veterans. But Best Years was in the moment, its returning vets were easily relatable World War II veterans, men dropped off in fictional Boone City, an Anytown, USA, to deal with problems their real life contemporaries were facing at that very moment. Larry Darrell of The Razor's Edge had faced the traumas of World War I and so the world he returned to, and especially the people who surrounded him, were less familiar and much less immediate.
Darrell's restlessness compared closest to the plight of the Dana Andrews character in Best Years. But Razor's Larry came equipped with a $3,000 per month trust and a group of high toned acquaintances. Instead of finding himself stuck in his home town Larry plays out his quest over Paris, India, and eventually the French Riviera. Rather than returning to marital woes, Larry ran from the arms of one of the most beautiful actresses to ever grace the screen.
While certainly there were World War II vets whose minds wandered towards the same mysteries Larry Darrell contemplated, surely not many would have had the will-power to leave Isabel behind nor the means to realistically live the quest towards discovery and fulfillment that Larry takes up in The Razor's Edge.
Popular though Maugham's fiction may have been the film could never connect with post-World War II American audiences in the same way that The Best Years of Our Lives had. And so The Razor's Edge met a steamroller on its way to Oscar immortality.
While Anne Baxter did win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in her part of Sophie, the film only received three other nominations. Power and Tierney were not among them. Clifton Webb should have won, and he did win the Golden Globe that year, but I don't think anybody begrudges Harold Russell his trophy. Russell was the real life war veteran amputee who won not only the award for Best Supporting Actor but an Honorary Award as well for his part as one of the returning vets in The Best Years of Our Lives.
The Razor's Edge would become 20th Century-Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck's post-war pet project. The heavy-handed Zanuck told George Cukor, his original choice to direct the film, that "if I cannot make The Razor's Edge my way, I would rather not make it at all" (Behlmer 96).
Perhaps the book was simply better timed than the film. Again, the film was a success, raking in five million dollars throughout 1946 and '47. Still that number is less than half of what The Best Years of Our Lives, which had its New York premier two days after The Razor's Edge, would take in. That competition was not there when the story first showed up in print form. Maugham's novel was published while the war was still raging in 1944. Say what you will about the two movies, Maugham's book certainly reached many more hands that the source material for Best Years: a novella titled Glory for Me written in blank verse by MacKinlay Kantor.
Despite the great success of the novel The Razor's Edge hadn't drawn a lot of interest from Hollywood where it was generally thought to be unfilmable. Zanuck paid $250,000 to Maugham for film rights reasoning that "There must be a reason why the American public at this moment is reading this book more than it is reading any other book. The answer, I think, is simple: Millions of people today are searching for contentment and peace in the same manner that Larry searches in the book" (Behlmer 93).
The film project would be put on hold to await the return of Fox's top star Tyrone Power from World War II service. In the meantime Cukor mentioned problems with Lamar Trotti's adaptation to Zanuck and got Zanuck to concede to a re-write by Maugham himself, who offered his services free of charge though he did receive a $15,000 Matisse as compensation after the fact.
It's said that scheduling prevented Cukor from directing the film as he was working on the Greer Garson title Desire Me (1947) at MGM when Power returned and Zanuck was ready, though it is speculated that creative differences may have played a part as well. Whatever the case once Goulding was assigned to the project they returned to Trotti's original script.
Tyrone Power biographer Fred Lawrence Guiles wrote that "Zanuck hovered around and over the production in a state of agitation, worry, and total possessiveness. It was to be the picture he wanted to be remembered by" (206).
Compared to Maugham's Novel
Despite objections from such respected sources as Cukor and Maugham himself, the script as filmed masterfully trims and tones the novel into an even more gripping story than Maugham had originally written. The movie shuffles Maugham's storytelling, all first person from the author/character's perspective on the page, and places each incident in its rightful place.
The character of Kosti, only on film for five minutes albeit important in pointing Larry to India, is involved in a much longer section of the novel which sees he and Larry tramping through Paris working for food until Larry gets in a humorous sexual entanglement with the wife of their benefactor. Similarly dropped, altogether in this case, was the character of Suzanne Rouvier, a gold-digger with a passion for the arts who was saved by Larry in what would have played as a somewhat repetitive incident on film. What Larry tries to do for Sophie he accomplishes with Suzanne.
Another correct decision was to take two incidents from the novel, one of them key, and attribute them to Larry in the film rather than to Mr. Maugham himself as they were in the novel. The first is only of consequence in telling Elliott Templeton's story and occurs in the scene with Elsa Lanchester. The other is far more important as it places Larry in the final powerful scene of the movie giving the audience Tyrone Power with Gene Tierney in a spot where they would have really been shortchanged had it been Tierney with Herbert Marshall!
In the novel we seem to wait even longer to see Sophie again. The key moment in her life isn't shown but told in gossip by Isabel to Maugham. This incident in the film comes at a very important moment, about one hour in, and is sandwiched between the key scenes for Larry as he arrives and departs India.
The novel also includes an additional scene with Sophie where Maugham runs into her on the French Riviera after she's slipped again. Upon first meeting Sophie again in Europe Maugham expertly describes her in the book as looking "more of a slut than any woman there and I had a suspicion that she was not only drunk but doped." In the later chapter Sophie is open to Maugham about her drug use. But the foul-mouthed Sophie of the novel tells Maugham what led to her final fall in a scene that was once again better done in the film when we're shown how Isabel has lured Sophie to temptation.
The film adds dialogue in the opening scene between Larry and Isabel where Larry explains just what he saw in the war which made him feel so empty. "The dead look so terribly dead when they're dead," he tells her in the movie. This does not happen in the book leaving Isabel and Maugham to speculate about Larry's quest throughout several of their conversations.
Discounting the dropped portions with Kosti and Suzanne Rouvier along with the reordering and in some cases reattributing of scenes, all of what you see in the movie is in Maugham's book. In fact, much of the dialogue is verbatim. A cute difference comes in the final words we hear Elliott Templeton speak: "The old witch," on film, but the more likely real life alternative on the page.
Returning to the basic story of our hero Larry, after the party at the open he embarks upon his quest to find himself. He returns to Paris where he refuses Elliott's hospitality in favor of roughing it in the coal mines. It's here he meets Kosti (Fritz Kortner), who's a man on the run from a greater power himself. Kosti offers us the most apt description of Larry Darrell to this point telling him that he sounds "like a very religious man who doesn't believe in God." Larry replies that he's not sure he believes in anything.
Kosti suggests India to Larry and we find him meeting with a Holy Man (Cecil Humphreys) in the very next scene. It's here in India where Larry takes his first major step towards finding himself, but as entertainment it's a mildly unfortunate step.
The Holy Man tells Larry that "The road to salvation is difficult to pass through, as difficult as the sharp edge of a razor," giving title to the film*. Larry's trip to India proves to be an uncomfortable section of The Razor's Edge as we drift from Larry's goodness being something innately within him which he strives to perfect towards his having a brief moment about which he confides to the Holy Man that he believes he and God were one. This scene is another case where the film shows us something which was told in the novel, in this case as Larry talked with Maugham.
*Though if you focused on the advertisement towards the top of this page you'll see that Fox also went a more fantastic way with the title declaring "Between love and hatred there is a line as sharp as a Razor's Edge!"
I preferred the Larry who Kosti knew in the mines before sending him off to India. That seemed a more complicated Larry, who sought betterment through himself rather than the man who emerges from India a bit of a mystic.
The film neuters specific religion making Larry's quest more the type of fulfillment you read about in self-help books today. Zanuck deserves credit for realizing Larry could have easily overstepped his bounds and become completely unrelatable to the audience. Zanuck famously compares his movie to Going My Way (1944) starring Bing Crosby, noting in a conference that "Crosby wore a collar and talked baseball. Larry doesn't wear a collar and he talks religion" (Behlmer 94).
Zanuck correctly draws the line. In a memo written a few months earlier he surmises "As I see the basic story, it is an adventure picture. It might even be referred to as a melodramatic adventure, wherein a man searches the face of the earth for the hidden key to contentment. In his particular case he finds the key is within himself" (Behlmer 93).
Returning to his socialite friends Larry is indeed a better man, a man in control, but the best way that the screen can show us this is when Larry cures Gray. Unfortunately this is the worst played scene in the film seeming as though Ty Power were simply pulling parlor tricks on his pals who are all duly impressed. I'd imagine this scene more than any other would have brought chuckles from the audience and Pauline Kael.
But it's that little scene featuring what was up until then a very minor character which allows The Razor's Edge to maintain, perhaps even surpass, the quality of the first half of the film. We're cued from the start to know Sophie must be important, after all, Anne Baxter is playing her, but she all but disappears until that moment stuffed between Larry's adventures in India. Sophie's trauma provides a great scene for Baxter as well as some of the best work in the film by John Payne as Gray, who isn't tasked with saying much but is very tender in reacting to Sophie's loss.
And so the second half of the film is highlighted by Anne Baxter's own journey to the Academy Award she won as Best Supporting Actress. Don't get me wrong, the action between Larry and Isabel is wonderful as well, though much of it is punctuated by Sophie acting as a wedge between them. The Larry who has emerged from India is the fully-realized version of the Lost Larry we'd been with through the first half of the film. The growth of his character is basically done and now being projected onto others, specifically Sophie.
Gene Tierney as Isabel
This is perfect casting. Beyond being one of the most beautiful women of the screen, absolutely necessary for the part of Isabel, Gene Tierney can play icy better than most. She has to be extremely cold as Isabel, yet beautiful and cultured enough to nearly trap Larry and keep him from his self-fulfillment.
There's a scene in the novel which didn't make the movie though I found it best showed how the world viewed Isabel. It's when the Maugham character reconnects with Isabel after a decade and she's married Gray and had children. During what begins as small talk Isabel remarks to Maugham that her children worship her:
"I've noticed that. You're their ideal of all that's graceful and beautiful and wonderful. But they're not cosy and at their ease with you as they are with Gray. They worship you, that's true; but they love him" (178).
I don't think Isabel is ever wholly evil, just very human. She's driven by emotion and that takes on a tragic dimension when she's left to fend off the unsuitable Sophie as Larry's suitor. The first scene of The Razor's Edge establishes that Sophie is from the wrong class. Louisa Bradley, Isabel's mother, comments that Sophie is only a last minute invitee to the party just to even out the seating. In that same scene Sophie's small talk with Maugham reveals that she may have a problem with alcohol. The key scene between Isabel and Sophie involves temptation over a bottle of Zubrovka, the green-tinted flavorful liquor that Elliott and Isabel rave over.
Isabel must leave Sophie alone as she runs an errand. But watch her as she leaves the room. There's a moment when she could have saved Sophie, and she considers it before letting things play out naturally. I don't know if Isabel is better or worse for this awareness, but what makes it interesting is that you could argue over it with no one necessarily being right.
In the book after Maugham makes his observation about how her children perceive her Isabel replies that Gray is very lovable and Maugham reports to us that "I liked her for saying that. One of her most amiable traits was that she was never affronted by the naked truth."
Some of the most interesting scenes in The Razor's Edge are those when Maugham affronts Isabel with the naked truth. Their relationship is strange in that it's certainly the most honest relationship Isabel has ever had with anybody. But Mr. Maugham isn't always around, many years may pass in between their meetings, yet right from the start Maugham questions Isabel about her most personal and private matters. She always responds, perhaps being comfortable with such a mismatched confidante. What's more Maugham can see through Isabel from the start and pokes and prods her with intimate insults that at one point even leaves her throwing Elliott's Royal Crown Derby plates at him. He quickly re-enters her good graces by charming her and commenting on her beauty.
A Success Story
Ultimately The Razor's Edge is showing us something that is specifically spoken in Maugham's book. In a scene which doesn't appear in the movie Sophie meets up with Maugham after her rejection of Larry. Maugham is, of course, curious to know what set Sophie back, why she's run away from Larry. Sophie tells him, "Darling, when it came to the point I couldn't see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ, no sir" (239). In that regard, perhaps Isabel did her a favor.
Maugham concludes his novel wondering about his ending, finally deciding that he has "written nothing more or less than a success story." He then lists all of the characters naming how and what each has gotten what they've long wanted in their own way. Sophie is included. Maugham, the character, is not, though I think he's made himself a success to us all by way of this particular work of fiction in which he's given life to unique and timeless characters.
- Behlmer, Rudy, ed. Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox. New York: Grove Press, 1993.
- Guiles, Fred Lawrence. Tyrone Power: The Last Idol. Berkley Edition. New York: Berkley Books, 1980.
- Kael, Pauline. 5001 Nights at the Movies. First Holt Paperbacks Edition. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 1991.
- Kennedy, Matthew. Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
- Maugham, W. Somerset. The Razor's Edge. Garden City: International Collectors Library, 1944.
Cliff, I really enjoyed this detailed post! This is a film I’ve not yet seen, despite the fact that it has several favorites in the cast; my father recently saw it and highly recommended it! Thanks for a very informative preview. I’m going to bookmark it for a return visit after I see the movie.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks so much, @6c46afbc58a703991f6026e90f2c0107:disqus for reading far enough on this one to remember there was a comments section 🙂
I’m sure you know this already, but just in case, it’s airing on TCM this Wednesday night at 8 pm EST … set that DVR! Thanks again!
An expertly conceived synopsis — bravo!
What was the last words spoken by Maugham at the end of this movie. I loved this movie.
Cliff Aliperti says
Oh @c1ec40026bef6a43950a7e5d05724e48:disqus you’re making me work–luckily my copy was still near the top of the DVD pile. Isabel asks what Larry was hoping to find and the Maugham character responds:
“My dear, Larry has found what we all want and very few of us ever get. I don’t anything can fail to be better and nobler, kinder for knowing him. You see my dear, goodness is after all the greatest force in the world, and he’s got it.”
So glad you liked this one, it’s one of my own favorites!
I think personally this was first film I think deal with Eastern thinking and religion and other movie that really dealt with it find spiritual meaing with also Lost Horzion
Cliff Aliperti says
I think you’re right, Kelly, but it also gets ripped for how simplistic its views on the topic are.
BTW this month on OTA channel MOVIES TV network they been showing a lot this month Razor edge I saw on Saturday April 18 during Love movies spot
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, Kelly, that explains all of the traffic this post received this month!