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The Razor's Edge
Fox Studio Classics

The Razor's Edge
1946 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 146 min. / Street Date May 24, 2005 / 14.98
Starring Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, Herbert Marshall, Lucile Watson
Cinematography Arthur Miller
Art Direction Richard Day, Nathan Juran
Film Editor J. Watson Webb Jr.
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by Lamar Trotti from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by Edmund Goulding

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Fox's Studio Classics Line has hit upon one of Darryl Zanuck's prestige pictures, a 1946 release that discriminating audiences felt obligated to see. Top draw Tyrone Power's first appearance back from the war makes him the hero of W. Somerset Maugham's best seller about finding happiness in the modern age. With a huge cast of extras and the longest shooting schedule yet for a Fox picture, Zanuck hoped to bring home a blockbuster. The Razor's Edge is well directed and features some appealing actors but it has some serious problems, starting with a suffocating attitude of self-importance.


Returning to Chicago from duty in WW1, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) dodges a future as a stockbroker and instead goes to Paris to seek enlightenment, frustrating his fiancée Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney). Although her snobbish uncle Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb) would rather she forget Larry, Isabel follows him to Paris to force a decision. Not much later she marries another faithful beau, Gray Maturin (John Payne), while Larry seeks his destiny first in a French coal mine and later from the teachings of an Eastern Holy Man (Cecil Humphreys) on an Indian mountaintop. Eventually returning to Paris, Larry finds that Isabel and Gray have been wiped out by the 1929 Wall Street crash. Isabel is eager to rekindle their relationship but the now spiritually elevated Larry desires instead to help Sophie (Anne Baxter). Having lost her husband and child in a car wreck, she has become a fallen woman.

The Razor's Edge spans fifteen years or so but because nobody ever seems to get any older, requires constant updates from the characters to let us know that time has passed. It's arranged as a series of short scenes that can't help but feel like a Cliff's Notes of a larger tale. The main character arcs are nicely drawn for all but the main figure of Tyrone Power's Larry Darrell. He's one of those characters that doesn't make much sense outside of the pages of a book, where his mystery can be observed in poetic prose. Author W. Somerset Maugham appears as a character (played by Herbert Marshall) using his own name. He's a fly on the wall with little to do but admire Larry Darrell from afar and say great things about him.

Darrell is the recurring hero of the modern novel, the free soul who responds to his inner emptiness by going out into the world to find those unspoken verities that give life meaning. You don't have to be Herman Hesse to see Larry Darrell as a quester-figure just as thin as later counterculture souls who feel the need to drop out of society to "see what it's all about, man." Cary Grant in George Cukor's Holiday was a watered-down version of this kind of seeker, a "safe" character because he's already earned the right to be a bum by making a killing in the stock market ... i.e., reaping profits from the labors of others. Maugham's Larry Darrell wants to stay away from artificial structures like stock markets. He's already had his fill of Evil at the front in WW1. He's out the door, Ma, and not even the bourgeois enticements of to-die-for Gene Tierney are going to change his mind. He's a regular proto- Jack Kerouac, conveniently supported by a stipend inheritance.

The Razor's Edge handles its dramatic curve well enough but the Larry Darrell character does little beyond make embarrassingly weak speeches about his quest for enlightenment. It's not the kind of thing that movies do well. Even David Lean couldn't show the soul of a poet and had to resort to trite shots of his Yuri Zhivago in a writing frenzy while flowers grow and icycles form. Lamar Trotti invents creakily insubstantial scenes like the old coal miner telling Darrell that he too once searched for The Truth (crash of thunder on the soundtrack) and failed. Darrell then embarks on a voyage of spiritual enlightenment that consists of three disjointed scenes in the Indian Himalayas. He talks to a guru on arrival, talks to him again while encamped in a lonely cabin, and talks to him a third time before returning to civilization. It's all woefully inadequate to express what a transcendant experience might be like; comic strips about "wise men atop lonely mountains" are just as convincing.

Equally silly is Darrell's "new" persona upon returning to Paris. He was always a determined fellow and now seems a self-composed determined fellow. He quietly spreads goodness-by-example among his friends and doesn't judge their often terrible shortcomings of character, especially the shallow and destructive Isabel. Of course, he was just as nice before he went on his journey, so the only difference we really notice is that he can apparently cure the depressive Gray Maturin by force of will and hypnotic suggestion, like Mandrake the Magician. The real benefit of a sojourn with Eastern gurus is the ability to dazzle one's friends with really impressive party tricks. Now if he could levitate people, that would be something.

The result of all of Darrell's searching is that he will return to the States and go back into some capitalistic trade anyway, so what's the big deal? Another cue to read the book.

The rest of The Razor's Edge follows the more compelling group of characters as they struggle with appearances and issues that eventually amount to nothing. It's an unusually lumpy and awkward narrative; deeply satisfying material alternates with cartoonish melodrama and scenes of the rich enjoying their entitlements. The celebrated role is Anne Baxter's Sophie, who falls victim to the jealousy and thoughtlessness of her more wealthy friends, but The Razor's Edge spends just as much time on tiresome tangents. After putting up with Clifton Webb's annoying abuse of just about everyone in the picture, we linger for a good fifteen minutes at the side of his deathbed. Larry literally jumps through windows to secure an invitation for a party the sick Webb cannot attend, just so he'll be able to die reassured that he's a social success. When I reach my spiritual Nirvana, I know I'll be motivated to perform petty mercy missions for undeserving rich people.

The film ends with Larry Darrell gracefully ascending to a higher moral plane than the vain and corrupt Isabel (not that steep of a climb) while the admiring Maugham looks on. Our only logical reaction is to think, "I better go read the book."

Actor-watchers will certainly enjoy Elsa Lanchester's rather unnecessary bit as a private secretary. The very keen will recognize that the Polish miner who sends Larry off to India is Fritz Kortner, who played the newspaper millionaire shot by Louise Brooks in Pabst's classic silent Pandora's Box. His attempt at a Hollywood career (Sorry, Wrong Number) fizzled, and he went back to Germany. The song Mam'selle from this picture made an even more poignant comeback on Thelma Ritter's phonograph in key scenes from Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street.

Fox's Studio Classics DVD of The Razor's Edge is a fine encoding of this glossy B&W blockbuster. Besides some Movietone news bits (Anne Baxter walked away with an Oscar), the extra of appeal is a commentary track shared by authors and film historians Anthony Slide and Robert S. Birchard. They communicate the relevant facts about the picture and its actors and have the literary overview necessary to place it in context with the book source and its colorful author. We only discover that the film doesn't have the highest reputation when they finally get around to relating the reactions of critics like Pauline Kael, who found it a laugh riot of incompetence.

Mr. Slide worries a lot about whether the Darrell character is or isn't a virgin - even though the character is supposed to be fresh from the WW1 flying corps in France, where we might rashly assume virginity would be fairly rare. Slide also has a lot to say about Maugham's homosexuality. This gives the movie a different twist as the character is forever admiring Larry Darrell and extolling his superiority as a human being in the vaguest of terms. Mr. Birchard tends to downplay this Hollywood Babylon angle with succinct facts: He caps Slide's eager description of director Edmund Goulding's Hollywood sex and drug orgies with a simple observation, "Don't forget the alcohol." It's an amusing track.

The commentators do pick up on the best thing in the picture, the incomparably suave Herbert Marshall. His Maugham corners an irate Isabel and soothes her with flattery and poetic admiration. She's completely melted by his old-smoothie gush in about twenty seconds - she ends up kissing his hands like a purring cat. Besides being a testament to classic seduction techniques, the great scene expresses Isabel's all-consuming vanity better than her soap-opera denials and confessions.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Razor's Edge rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Commentary by Anthony Slide and Robert S. Birchard; Fox Movietone News
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 19, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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