THE RAZOR’S EDGE was a prestige $4,000,000 production from 20th Century-Fox, released Christmas Day of 1946, welcoming Tyrone Power back from the Marines with the lead role in a suitably handsome adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 best-seller. The 320-page exploration of the “search for meaning” caught enough war-flagged imaginations to sell 3,000,000 copies. Though directed by Edmund Goulding and scripted by Lamar Trotti, producer Darryl F. Zanuck took command of this picture and wrote a good part of the screenplay himself. A memo from the pulse-canny DFZ: “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.”
Maugham modeled Power’s earnest, forgiving hero ‘Larry Durrell’ after characters he’d met in Tamil Nadu, southern India, at an ashram, studying under the swami Sri Ramana Maharshi. The title came from a translation of a verse from the Katha Upanishads: “Rise, wake up, seek the wise and realize. The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of the razor, so say the wise.”
The story starts in 1919, with a disillusioned war veteran (Power, 32) setting off to seek something meaningful beyond money, status and security. While the boom of the 1920s, the crash of ’29 and the cold realities of the 1930s absorb and consume his friends, Larry looks for answers in the Bohemian scene of Paris, by laboring in a coal mine, and through experiencing spiritual transformation in the Himalayas. ‘Success’ at first finds his old friends, then abruptly deserts them, while Durrell continues on his lonely but rewarding quest.
Among those puzzled and touched by his journey are spiteful ex-fiancee ‘Isabel’ (Gene Tierney), her rich, kindly, fall-back husband ‘Gray’ (John Payne), her supercilious queen of an uncle “Elliott’ (Clifton Webb), Larry’s fragile childhood friend ‘Sophie’ (Anne Baxter) and author Maugham (played by Herbert Marshall), observing everyone’s progress and pathos in visits and chance encounters through the years.
Lengthy and unhurried at 145 minutes, the episodic structure hampers to a degree, and the script is taxed by having the characters deliver “what’s it all mean?” speech-dialogue about weighty existential questions. That sort of inner rumination comes off better on the page, where the ideas can air themselves at length, rather than spoken as bridges to the next scene. But the cast is good and the production polished. Plus, how many movies ever try to look at philosophical and spiritual angst, let alone how many did so seven decades back? Alfred Newman’s score occasionally overdoes it, but the main theme is compelling. It’s obvious that director Goulding, Zanuck and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller were aimed to helping Power get a shot at not just a deeper character than he’d played before the war, but with dramatic close-ups at key moments they were angling for award recognition. Forever underrated, Power’s very good (as usual); he was even better in his next picture, also directed by Goulding, a story about someone who didn’t search for his soul, but sold it, cheap, to Nightmare Alley.
The ethereal Tierney, 25, paired with Ty for the second of three times (Son of Fury in ’42, That Wonderful Urge in ’48), had just scooped a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her chilly murderess in Leave Her To Heaven, and she does well here, as someone who just doesn’t—and never will—get it. Payne’s role is rather thankless, with Gray a bland cipher. Marshall does Maugham as urbane, bemused, and decent.
Plum assignments went to Webb and Baxter. Anne Baxter could be Good and she could be really Awful (her vamp in The Ten Commandments breaks every subtlety rule laid down since “The Book of Exodus”), but at 23, her work here as the shattered Sophie is her best-ever. Her agonized realization in the hospital scene, and the later blowsy drunken passages cinched her a golden statue from her peers. Webb gets to spew out cat-scratches like “If I live to be a hundred, I will never understand how any young man could come to Paris without evening clothes” and “I do not like the propinquity of the hoi polloi.”
Those who don’t like the film for its run at lofty and elusive ideas also usually dump on Power before reflexively praising Webb. We like the cutting Clifton here & there—and really admire him in Titanic—but the whole hissy bitch act gets old fast. The actor, 56, had recently been nominated in a similarly waspish role in Tierney’s Laura. Manner aside, his character here is just annoying, although near the end he does have a brief, bracing scene of heart-baring hurt that’s startling.
Critics or champions relegated to their own jeering or cheering sections, Zanuck’s gamble paid off with both the public and the industry prize givers. Variety marked it 11th place on the ’46 hit list, Cogerson puts it 5th. Baxter handily took the Oscar for Supporting Actress; nominations went to Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Webb) and the task-laden Art Direction. *
With Elsa Lanchester, Lucile Watson, Fritz Kortner, Cecil Humphries, Frank Latimore and John Wengraf. Remade in 1984.
* Baxter, on Zanuck : “Darryl Zanuck thought all women were either broads or librarians. He thought I was a librarian. He thought I was smart.” Also—“The Razor’s Edge contained my only great performance. When we shot that hospital scene in which Sophie loses her husband, child and everything else, I relived the death of my brother, whom I adored and who died at three. It gives me chills right now to think of it.”
The NY Times Bosley Crowther sniped “there is no doubt that The Razor’s Edge will appeal to a great many people who are sentimentally inclined to its vague philosophy. And the unctuousness of its expression will take care of a lot of vagrant hopes.” Well, aren’t we just a dick & a half? We’d rather concur with another critic, Harold Barnes: “What matters most is that The Razor’s Edge has had the audacity to philosophize.”
The score also features a song, “Mam’selle”, which became a Top 10 hit for five different artists in 1947: Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Frankie Laine, Dennis Day and The Pied Pipers.