Friday, October 2

Good 40s Films: The Razor's Edge

1946 Drama
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Edmund Goulding

Tyrone Power
Gene Tierney
John Payne
Anne Baxter
Clifton Webb
Herbert Marshall
Lucile Watson

In 1938 English author W. Somerset Maugham traveled to India because he had developed a keen interest in Indian spirituality and wished to learn more, perhaps at the feet of one of the great masters.  He was taken to an ashram to meet such a man.  Learning about him, Maugham was taken with the Maharshi's devotion to silence, mortification and prayer. 

Likely due to the stifling heat, while waiting for the great man, Maugham fainted.  When he came to, he discovered he could not speak but the Maharshi assured him that silence was also conversation.  News of the fainting spell spread and it was said that the pilgrim had been translated into the realm of the infinite.  While Maugham himself would later say he had no recollection of the infinite, it and his entire spiritual journey enabled him to come home and write The Razor's Edge.

The story of a young Chicagoan in 1919 who is seeking enlightenment and spiritual awakening by understanding life and the infinite made quite a statement when it was first released and it has charmed and captivated at one level or another for generations since.  I didn't see it for 20 years or so after it was made and to this day I can recall the rather other-worldly, out-of-body experience I had.  I saw it at a friend's house in the country and afterwards went alone to sit on a dock, feet dangling in the water, contemplating all of life's greatest mysteries.  I will never forget it.

20th Century Fox's oft-mentioned head honcho, Darryl F. Zanuck, who jumped in here for a producer's credit, wanted it to be the Fox film for which he would be most remembered.  And let's quickly recall the man produced some mighty fine films.   Such was the magic and the allure of The Razor's Edge.

Maugham (Marshall) is a character in the story and often serves most effectively as the narrator.  (I'm not altogether in favor of narration but when it is used as strategically as it is here, it is most welcomed.)  The story opens with Maugham arriving at a country club engagement party thrown by his friend, Elliott Templeton (Webb), and Templeton's sister, Louisa Bradley (Watson).  The glamorous event yields a galaxy of characters with whom we will become fascinated.

Templeton is a fussy old snob, obviously gay (as was Maugham) and critical of how his laid-back high society sister handles things, especially her daughter Isabel (Tierney).  The affair is attended by Sophie (Baxter), a family friend of lesser means, whose fiancĂ© has asked her not to drink because she likes it too much.  Then there's Gray (Payne), a quite likable son of a shipping magnate.  Gray is in love with Isabel and everyone knows it, but he's had no luck because she is not only in love with Larry, but it is Larry and Isabel's engagement party we're attending.  Grab yourself some champagne and we'll tell you about Larry.

Whether you side with him or not, whether you find him to be an idealistic dreamer, an adventurer, a whack-job or an irresponsible
nitwit, Larry is the hero of our story.  Templeton tells Maugham that Larry doesn't want to work because he's bone idle and Isabel is disheartened when Larry tells her he turned down a job earlier in the day from Gray's father.

The lovebirds repair to the multi-tiered patio, dance a little (to the clever accompaniment of I'll See You in My Dreams) and they recite some of the film's best lines.  Isabel asks why he turned down the job and Larry, looking for the right answer, says that he might want to just try loafing.  She is horrified.  Her Uncle Elliott has said she should marry for fortune and position first.  Besides, he doesn't like Larry, not because he's a fortune-hunter, which he is not, but because he is a flake.  It is clear to us audience members that Larry should pursue his dreams by himself, unless, perhaps he found a woman who would share his journey and that is clearly not Isabel.  We see that she loves Larry but she cannot let go of the lifestyle to which she has long been accustomed. 

Larry explains that he's not sure what he's looking for but he seems certain about what he doesn't want.  Perhaps, he intimates, that his direction is not apparent but he knows that making a lot of money doesn't hold any interest.  He says he's glad that he has the money he has to enable him to search for his answers.

Most women would probably tell a Larry to shape up or ship out but Isabel tells him to simply ship out.  She feels he needs to travel and search for his answers.  She will give him a year and then they will discuss matters again.  He decides to go to Paris where he has spent some earlier times with clear-headedness.

When Isabel visits him a year later she immediately questions how he can live in a flat so spartan.  Larry informs Isabel that he has gotten some of the answers he sought but it's an ongoing journey.  She lectures him by saying that men must work to achieve self-respect and reminds him that America is a young country and it's a man's duty to take part in its activities.

Their differences are expressed lovingly but each finds they have drifted further apart.  Larry tells her about an episode on the last day of the war when another soldier saved Larry's life and lost his own.  The effect on Larry was profound.  He found life so meaningless, he said.  He wasn't sure of the sense of it all and wondered if life isn't just a series of blunders. 

A change in Larry is revealed though when he says he wants to marry Isabel.  Now.  Tonight.  He wants her to travel with him.  She finds it mind-boggling that he would expect her to live in relative squalor and on very little money.  She gives him his ring back.

Isabel still maintains a look of hope but Larry trudges on, telling her that he sees that people are content to follow the normal course and take things as they are.  He knows that he can't accept that.  He feels he will never find peace unless he continues his search.  He appeals to her in saying that he wants to learn as passionately as Gray wants to make money.

After Isabel leaves, the film takes on a different tone.  For one thing, Larry, in large part, gets the answers he is seeking in India from both an impassioned holy man and from working the land, mainly alone, high in the mountains.  Join them for a few minutes:

Isabel marries Gray, whom she likes but clearly does not love.  She has two daughters by him and even stands by him when he loses his fortune.

We learn more about Sophie who after the deaths of her husband and child in an accident takes to the bottle and lives a wanton lifestyle.  When Larry leaves India, he returns to Paris where all his pals are living.  Where he had once lost confidence in the accepted values, he now is determined to live and thrive among them.  He says that he has learned that goodness is the greatest force in all the world and in this vein he offers to marry Sophie when he sees how downtrodden she is.  When Isabel learns of this, we witness how treacherous she can be.  Isabel's actions play a part in Sophie's gruesome death.

Isabel is out of sorts with everyone and both Uncle Elliott and Maugham tell her how out of line she is.  She tells Larry she has never loved anyone but him and she will do anything to have him.  When he learns of her role in Sophie's death, he walks out on her forever.  We feel elated that Larry has come to terms with his life and with her.

Tyrone Power was fresh out of the service and turned down the role that Gregory Peck accepted in Gentleman's Agreement to play the lead in The Razor's Edge.  Zanuck was thrilled to have Power back and in the film that was the producer's favorite.  He was perfection itself in the role.  It's said that Power, never a particularly religious man, was so taken with Larry's life that he took on many of his characteristics for some time afterwards.

This was the second and the best of the three films Power made with Gene Tierney.  See them in any of the three and the question arises about why there weren't more.  I should think it would be difficult to come up with a more beautiful pair.  One should see this film if for no other reason than to see her descend a staircase.  Trust me, I just played it back about 10 times and at the end felt I might go into terminal swoon.  While she may never be remembered as one of the screen's best actresses, she didn't do too badly in four films in consecutive years... The Razor's Edge being one of them.  She brought out the many shadings of Isabelle Bradley.  Husband and fashion maven Oleg Cassini designed her wardrobe and it befits both the character and the actress.  You'll be seeing more regarding Miss Tierney this month.

I don't think I've ever really given Anne Baxter her due as an actress and that included her turn as Sophie.  But in just watching the film again, I saw that she was certainly worthy of her supporting Oscar win.  The role of Gray is not fully fleshed out and certainly did not warrant John Payne in the part, but, like the others, except Marshall, he was a studio contract player and did what he was told.  The epicene Clifton Webb played himself as he always did which simply means one is in for a treat watching any of his movies.  Herbert Marshall and his air of kindly self-importance is spot-on playing Maugham.

The film, of course, was not without its dissenting votes... although none are mine.  It's been said that its sumptuous settings are in contradiction with a story dealing in part with the irrelevance of materialism (I saw it as a needed contradiction).  Also bandied about was Larry's failure to display a single selfless act (they likely forgot he wanted to marry Sophie).  Some, of course, probably found it too preachy.

I suspect Zanuck will be more remembered for 1962s war epic, The Longest Day, but for years this was his favorite film made under his regime.  No one's career was harmed because he or she worked on The Razor's Edge.

Next posting:


  1. A spot-on review and you even mentioned my favorite scene in Hollywood history: Gene Tierney descending down a staircase. There was a famous photo in Life Magazine showing all 67 technicians who worked on this one scene that last just a few seconds it shows that Hollywood was truly a Dream Factory. The music that follows Tierney down the staircase just adds to the scene. But its Gene Tierney's role as Ellen Berent for which she was first and only time nominated for an Academy Award in Leave Her To Heaven. The success of Leave Her to Heaven belongs foremost to Gene Tierney. She was much more than Hollywood’s most beautiful overbite. She had the preternatural ability to be alluring and icy at the same time; she could change emotional colors with magnificent yet subtle clarity. Wasn’t she sweet and warm a moment ago? Maybe, but now she’s ready to kill. She was at the top of her game in Leave Her to Heaven, and alongside Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Heaven Can Wait, and The Razor’s Edge, she amassed a list of credits to stack against any others of the late 1940s.

  2. Lovely comments. I have always bonded with drooling Tierney fans. Love your explaining her allure. And another person who noticed the staircase scene is great. I have done a posting on her alone and also Laura, Muir and the outstanding Leave Her to Heaven. Thanks so much for writing.