I re-watched the 1946 film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s book The Razor’s Edge with my mom, explaining to her it was for this blogathon.
About a third of the way into the film, she asked, “Why did you pick this one?”
It’s a good question. The idea of the blogathon is to pick “gateway” films that might entice those who don’t like–or think they don’t like–classic films into giving them a try.
I chose it because in recent years movies have moved more and more away from the drama movie in favor of blockbusters and comedies. There are occasional adaptations of popular books–some successful, more often either awful or just plain meh.
The 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge is one of my favorite book adaptations, as well as a highly unusual story with an atypical protagonist and a story that doesn’t hit many of the expected notes for a film, classic, or otherwise. If you’re looking for something adult and complex, The Razor’s Edge is, in my opinion, an excellent gateway to classic Hollywood film adaptations that brought great books to life on screen.
One of the uncommon aspects of the film is that the book’s author W. Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall) is himself a character in the story, as he is in the book. The book is based on people he actually knew after World War I, including a young man he calls Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), who has returned from the war traumatized by what he has seen and experienced. He finds himself completely out of sync with his friends and society at large.
Though he is engaged to a young socialite named Isabel (Gene Tierney), he longs to, in his words, “loaf” and spend time learning, instead of starting the expected path for males his age–a brilliant career making a lot of money.
Isabel is flummoxed by his attitude but willing to wait for him while he figures things out. She fully expects him to get over it, marry her and settle into a good job. Her rich uncle Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb) disapproves of the match and hopes that after Larry has been away for a while Isabel will marry the more suitable Gray (John Payne). Larry’s childhood friend Sophie (Anne Baxter) finds herself much more happily matched with a man named Bob, and is soon married and a mother.
After a year living in Paris, Larry not only doesn’t want to return to the States to become a successful businessman, he wants Isabel to marry him and live his Bohemian lifestyle. Appalled, Isabel refuses and eventually marries Gray. Larry continues on a journey of self-discovery, traveling, taking odd jobs, reading, and befriending people wherever he goes. Eventually, he ends up in the Himalayas, studying under a Holy Man (Cecile Humphreys) and finding some peace and enlightenment.
Larry returns to Paris and reconnects with his old friends (including Maugham). Larry continues to puzzle his friends with his unusual lifestyle and outlook on life. Even though Isabel has what seems a happy marriage, she still can’t let go of Larry completely. When Larry finds out Sophie has become an alcoholic after the deaths of her husband and child, he sets out to save her from herself. Isabel sets out to save Larry from Sophie, leading to eventual tragedy.
The Razor’s Edge was Tyrone Power’s first film role after he returned from military service in World War II. He was very keen on taking a role that was different from what he played before the war. The film adaptation was a pet project of Darryl Zanuck, who loved the book, which had been published in 1944 and was very popular.
Although it was ragged on by some contemporary critics who ridiculed the film’s philosophical tone, it was Twentieth Century Fox’s top box office success of the year. Along with The Best Years of our Lives, also released in 1946, the film connected with many vets who were changed by their war experiences. Anne Baxter won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Sophie.
Stunningly, Tierney did not even receive a nomination. In my opinion, it’s one of her best performances, right up there with Leave Her to Heaven and Laura. Isabel is not in quite the same class of villain as Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven–in fact, I’d argue she’s far more complex. In many respects she is an awful person, and the irony is she embodies values often taken for granted by Americans. There’s a wonderful scene where Maugham and Isabel speak to each other frankly and we see that she simply can’t be talked out of having her cake and eating it, too. Her sense of entitlement is ingrained in her far too deeply.
Webb’s Elliott Templeton is a delightful snob, who seeks an in with European society, only to find himself rejected by it. His pretentions border on the absurd. But like Isabel, there’s a great deal more to the character. He’s generous and genuinely loves his family. He even shares a bit of a spiritual outlook (he’s a devout Roman Catholic) with Larry.
Larry is also unusually complex. The story acknowledges that his impulse to save Sophie is both unrealistic and even selfish. He may live the life of a poor person, but he’s never really poor (it’s established early on that he has a regular income from an inheritance) making him a bit of a tourist in the worlds he travels.
He’s a hero who doesn’t create anything, doesn’t save anyone, doesn’t succeed in challenging the status quo. Even though he has an epiphany about the mid-point of the movie, that doesn’t satisfy him and he’s still searching by the end of the film.
To me, Larry’s story alternates between frustrating and wonderful, but is always engrossing. There’s a modern tone that I think would appeal to many who erroneously assume classic films are too facile, too old-fashioned, and too predictable.