Tyrone Power returned to the movies, after a three year hiatus gallantly serving in the U.S. military, in Darryl F. Zanuck’s plush and personally supervised production of The Razor’s Edge (1946); at 145 minutes, decidedly, one of the more lengthy melodramas in the studio’s canon, but thoroughly in keeping with Zanuck’s increasing verve to make ‘big pictures’ noteworthy for their content as well as their spectacle. The Razor’s Edge is, of course, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s best-selling novel about an American pragmatist, compelled to discover the deeper meaning of life in an era (the 1920’s) and strata (the upwardly mobile and socially affluent ‘ugly American’) dedicated to self-delusion and the self-indulgent pursuits of pleasure-seeking above all else.
Indeed, Maugham saw The Razor’s Edge as something of a social comedy of errors, unusually told in the first person, with the author placing himself as the central commentator within the story. Zanuck, however, viewed the piece differently; as a lavish and star-studded ‘serious’ melodrama, introspectively critiquing the social order of one time to mirror a similar folly inherent in the, then, present. It was a miscalculation from which the movie, alas, never entirely recovered. Viewed today, The Razor’s Edge is preachy, and prone to bouts of overwrought melodrama and ennui; the altruistic quest of our antiseptic gallant, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) devolving into a struggle of wills and fairly syrupy tragi-romance after his one-time beloved, Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney) turns her love inward to exact a vengeful contempt with catastrophic results.
Zanuck populates The Razor’s Edge with a who’s who of his most accomplished contract players; hunky leading man, John Payne, taking a decided step down as second fiddle, socially affluent, Gray Maturin, whose loss of fortune after the Great Depression destroys him as a man; Clifton Webb, doing a variation on his trademarked effete upper class snob as Isabel’s rather narcissistic and domineering uncle, Elliott Templeton; Anne Baxter, as pure-hearted Sophie Nelson, who succumbs to the bottle and is thereafter emotionally tortured by Isabel; lastly, Herbert Marshall, as Somerset Maugham – his second time aping the author, but herein strangely ill at ease in the part. Indeed, Marshall – usually accomplished – is awkward and stiff as the master of ceremonies; stumbling about like an interloper into all these troubled lives.
The Razor’s Edge had one of the longest shooting schedules of any 2oth Century-Fox production; 100 all told, as Zanuck continued to tinker with Lamar Trotti’s screenplay and be heavily involved in the day to day shooting. Wary he had not been Zanuck’s first choice to direct (Zanuck thought George Cukor a better fit), Edmund Goulding endeavored to please the edicts of his lord and master, while indulging in complex camera set-ups for which his stylistic approach to story-telling remains justly famous. Goulding’s style is very much marked by the long take, the camera constantly reframing the action in deep focus; the actors performing an intricate dance of maneuvers, never seeming forced or rehearsed. Reportedly, Zanuck grumbled “where’s the close-ups?” while viewing the dailies. But the liquidity of Goulding’s expertly timed camera work is a blessing. Whatever else can be criticized about this movie - it moves!
The war – and immediate post-war – years in film-making brought forth many an introspective critique about mankind’s purpose and folly, though arguably none more curiously conflicted than The Razor’s Edge. For in protagonist, Larry Darrell, both Zanuck and Tyrone Power had met their creative match. The characterization is problematic from the get go; Power’s ‘pretty boy’ looks strangely altered; his aptitude and contentment for merely playing the romantic lead suddenly transformed by his wartime experiences. Worse for Power and the picture, Zanuck seems hell-bent on delivering a weighty tome to high-minded philosophical debate. This sort of food for thought was wildly popular with Maugham’s readership. But it does not translate to the visual media well at all; leaving Power to dolefully/soulfully gaze about the plywood landscape and espouse principles of spiritual enlightenment in several lengthy monologues. For the most part, these only confuse and irritate Isabel as time goes on. Their effect on the audience is not much more progressive or purposeful.
Isabel wants a man; one who desperately wants her back and desires the sort of cheeky, brash and moneyed lifestyle she has become accustom to in youth. Larry is in search of a guru – not a wife – and spurred on to…well…we’re never quite sure…his soul-searching taking various forms. As a lower class laborer in Paris he discovers value in personal accomplishment and hard work. Later, he becomes an apprentice of life, with a spiritual reawakening high in the Tibetan plateau. Larry’s self-discoveries afford him unique insight into the times in which he lives, that Zanuck and Trotti’s screenplay seem to be repeatedly faulting as insignificantly bourgeois. As Larry is the only clairvoyant in this cast, he exists in a sort of dramatic vacuum, ironically deriving no contempt for - or from - his peers (except, perhaps Isabel) nor is he able to effectively disseminate his eliminated outlook in ways that would benefit other lives around his in any meaningful way.
At its crux, The Razor’s Edge is something of a grand tragedy; Zanuck revealing how youthful optimism is crushed underfoot by this passing parade; one generation giving way to the next; the remnants of the previous regime unceremoniously and prematurely pushed aside, trampled and/or discarded before their time is actually up. It is a callous, occasionally cruel – if extremely telling – portrait of humanity at its least humane. No one, except, perhaps, Larry Darrell sees how tenuously balanced life’s joys are; forced to give way to the onslaught of inevitable physical corruption with the passage of time itself.
In reshaping Maugham’s story, Zanuck perhaps forgot what the public wanted to see: more light-hearted entertainment with stars looking and behaving like stars; drama with the clichéd dénouement to ensure everything would come out alright in the end. The Razor’s Edge makes no such allowances or even apologizes for their absence; its theatrics increasingly spiraling into a mire of truths; the story turning away from frothy escapism and elegance to post-First World War weariness; the pre-war generation unequipped and repeatedly victimized by their inability to adapt with this march of time.
Perhaps Somerset Maugham could appreciate the artistic struggles Zanuck endured in bringing his novel to the screen. Maugham had, in fact, been a fixture in Hollywood since the silent era; going on record with his belief that no novel could be successfully translated to the big white screen without inevitably losing its essence. Zanuck was, of course, a writer at heart – not of novels, but screenplays. Furthermore, he was a voracious reader and lover of the proverbial good story. Each man intuitively understood his medium and the concessions to be made from one form to the other. But Zanuck was to fall into another popular trap: having to choose between prestige and profit; the two most commonly irreconcilable commodities in Hollywood.
The Razor’s Edge is an A-list ‘prestige picture all the way. That Zanuck also hoped it would become profitable – and memorable – was part of his own showman’s grand self-delusion, alas, to remain unfulfilled. After a breathtaking fanfare preceding the famed 2oth Century-Fox logo, scored by the studio’s resident composer, Alfred Newman (and credits set before a thunderous surf), The Razor’s Edge settles into very familiar territory as a standard melodrama. Newman, who could be counted upon to provide dramatic orchestrations befitting virtually any era in human history, is strangely absent from The Razor’s Edge after this initial flourish; the underscore relying heavily on noted songs of the day and the curious inclusion of ‘April Showers’ – a pop standard not around in 1919, the year our story gets underway.
We are introduced to virtually all the principle players except Power’s conflicted Chicagoan, Larry Darrell; beginning with a voice-over narration from Herbert Marshall as W. Somerset Maugham. The camera descends from the heavens to a posh country club; Maugham in the flesh, followed by expatriate Elliot Templeton who has come to visit his sister, Edith Bradley (Lucile Watson) and niece, Isabel. We also meet Sophie, who intuitively understands her ‘place’ among these hoi poloi; something of a charity case, but rather content such ‘friends’ as Isabel have taken an interest in her. Gray is his usual charming self, as is Sophie’s beloved, Bob (Frank Latimore – who had to ward off the unwanted affections of his bisexual director throughout the shoot). It all makes for a fairly pretty, if utterly superficial picture of the fool’s paradise. Alas, the night’s festivities are intruded upon by returning war hero, Larry Darrell – much changed since the death of his fallen comrade, Patsy; his own purpose in life much unsatisfied by the pageantry set before him on this moonlit eve.
In short order, Isabel appropriates Larry for herself, hurrying into the garden to be alone with the man whom she cannot wait to spend the rest of her life, much to Elliot’s strong disapproval. Alas, the feeling is not mutual. Without any explanation, Larry announced his immediate plans to loaf on his meager $3000 a year inheritance. Furthermore, he refuses a lucrative job offer to work for Gray’s father. Wounded by Larry’s about face from the dreams they once shared, Isabel reluctantly agrees to wait for Larry while he runs off to Paris in search of…well…not even Larry is certain what he’s looking for. Gray, however, has absolutely no problem articulating his passion for Isabel. In the meantime, Sophie announces her pending nuptials to Bob. Alas, a very short while later, we learn of a tragic – off camera – accident that claimed Bob’s life as well as that of the couple’s young child, leaving Sophie emotionally tortured and prone to strong drink.
The middle act of The Razor’s Edge is marginally flawed in that it must grapple with Larry’s spiritual enlightenment, a cerebral quest for which no pictorial representation compliments; spanning many years in the novel, but decidedly condensed into a few ephemeral vignettes in the movie. In his zeal to make a lavish ‘period picture’, Zanuck indulges in some fairly extravagant filmmaking; Richard Day and Nathan Juran’s art direction running amuck within the Bohemian decadence of Larry’s Paris sojourn; superbly photographed by Arthur C. Miller. A year of contemplation is distilled into a sort of pub-crawl through Paris as Isabel, contrite, but growing ever impatient, comes to visit Larry with Elliot in tow.
She discovers Larry has taken up residence in a squalid little apartment, contented, it seems, to indulge in free-spirited hedonism. This isn’t the lifestyle Isabel has envisioned – for either of them, but definitely not for herself. Briefly, Isabel entertains the notion to entrap Larry by becoming pregnant. However, at the last possible moment she thinks better on this plan. Thus, when Larry asks for her hand in marriage she politely declines, returning to Chicago where she accepts Gray’s proposal to make ‘an honest woman’ of her instead. Bitterly disappointed, Larry redoubles his efforts to find deeper meaning in his own life. While toiling in a coal mine, he befriends a defrocked priest, Kosti (Fritz Kortner) who encourages a travel to India to seek absolute knowledge from the High Lama. Fascinated by this prospect, Larry makes his pilgrimage to the Himalayas, studying at a monastery under the tutelage of the Holy Man (Cecil Humphreys). His journey toward enlightenment is made complete after an arduous trek up the mountainside. Told by his mentor his education is complete, Larry returns home.
Back in Paris, Maugham has a chance social encounter with Elliott, learning Isabel and her family has since moved in with him after the stock market crash of 1929 virtually wiped out all of Gray’s holdings. He is penniless and, since his nervous breakdown, has fallen into ill health, suffering from crippling headaches. Maugham arranges for a luncheon at his house, reintroducing everyone to Larry. Elliot is as suspicious as ever. But Isabel is delighted to see an old friendly face once more. Using Indian hypnotic suggestion, Larry is able to cure Gray’s headaches. To celebrate, the friends decide to go out on the town, inadvertently discovering Sophie, a drunkard, fallen prey to the rough trade inside a notorious nightclub. With great sincerity and compassion, Larry rescues Sophie from these circumstances and gradually restores her to her former self. Moreover, he makes plans to marry her. Jealously, Isabel lures Sophie back to the bottle, determined to destroy her reputation, erroneously believing Larry will lose interest in her as a lost cause.
Alas, Isabel has once again underestimated Larry’s resolve. Worse for her own ambitions, she has truly become the sort of heartless creature Larry could never come to love in a million years. Thus, when Sophie disappears, and later, is murdered by one of her old acquaintances from the seedy district, Larry is heartbroken; briefly reunited with Maugham during the police inquest. A short while later, Elliot falls ill. Bedridden and dying, he laments the fact he has been haughtily excluded from a soiree hosted by a princess who, like himself, was once a Midwesterner. Even on his deathbed, the superficialities of life continue to haunt. Unable to hate the man who, in life, tried to keep Isabel apart from him, Larry instead persuades the princess’ social secretary, Miss Keith (Elsa Lanchester) to provide a blank, discarded invitation; presenting it to Elliot as proof he has not been forgotten, while knowing he is much too ill to attend the ball. Elliot dies and Isabel inherits his vast wealth, using a fair chunk to underwrite Gray’s attempts at rebuilding his father’s bankrupted empire.
Isabel believes she can now divorce Gray and return to Larry. Alas, he has wisely deduced she is responsible for Sophie’s fall from grace, thus indirectly contributing to her death. Confronting her with these beliefs, Larry closes the book on this chapter of his life with a bittersweet farewell; electing to work his way back to America aboard a tramp steamer; his future uncertain but, at last, free of the associations that, for so long, have hampered his truer purpose in life. Maugham is left to comfort the distraught Isabel; quite unable to convince her of Larry’s enlightenment, though nevertheless placating her with compliments to make her believe Larry’s absence is better for her.
In retrospect, The Razor’s Edge is a very proletariat movie; Larry Darrell – our working class protagonist, desiring nothing greater than to ‘find himself’ by eschewing the luxuries only inherited wealth can provide. Zanuck could admire such a man – at least superficially; having come from virtually nothing himself; the meager Wahoo Nebraskan presently reigning over one of the most enviable movie domains in all Hollywood. The path for Zanuck – like Darrell – was paved with temptations and luxuries aplenty. Unlike Darrell, Zanuck was far less altruistic in his pursuits. The Razor’s Edge ought to have been a big moneymaker for Zanuck. Too bad its’ timely critique of a man discovering contentment without acquiring ‘things’ to satisfy his creature comforts did not ring true in post-war America, for too long having rationed their daydreams in war-time sacrifice, but now newly liberated and free to look forward to a new era of middle-class affluence and suburban prosperity.
Moreover, it was a different Tyrone Power who had returned the movies: only three years of military service behind him, and yet a discernable change in both his physicality and presence on the screen. Gone is Power’s breezy good nature; replaced by a newfound world-weariness that does not necessarily bode well for Darrell’s bright-eyed optimistic conversion. It’s a stumbling block, compounded by Lamar Trotti’s luridly soap opera-ish treatment of Maugham’s superior prose, herein condensed into rank melodrama; characters floating in and out of the central narrative; the audience never telescopically focused on their episodic ‘day in the life of…’ vignettes for more than a few scenes at a time. The Razor’s Edge is more than competently constructed. And yet it never distinguishes itself as anything better. As the drama devolves into mere theatrics, Zanuck’s necessity for surface gloss overpowers and eventually eclipses the story under a weighty artifice of vintage accoutrements. The effect is embalming rather than ‘lived in’ or ‘timely’. Certainly, nothing about the picture has become ‘timeless’ since. With his back to back disappointments – first Wilson (1944) and The Razor’s Edge, Zanuck was forced to reassess the public’s taste (or rather, his opinion of exactly what it was). What he found did not seem to satisfy his own, and by the mid-1950’s Zanuck would effectively leave the studio for what was then perceived as bigger/brighter horizons in Europe.
Okay, this is supremely disappointing. It appears as though Fox Home Video has done absolutely nothing but uptick its flawed 720p digital files, used in mastering its now defunct ‘studio series’ DVD to a 1080p signal for this outing. The B&W image remains softly focused with a curiously foggy patina; almost as though some sort of diffusion filter has been applied to the image. Fair enough, Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography is evocative of that tea dance twenties/moonlight and romance. But something here just seems remiss. Contrast has definitely been boosted. We lose a goodly sum of fine detail in the mid-register; the gray scale prone to slightly blown out whites and not altogether deep blacks. The image also has a scrubbed quality; grain practically non-existent. Thankfully, there are no edge effects. But the overall waxy look is rather disturbing and, I am quite certain, not in keeping with the original theatrical presentation. We still have age-related artifacts too. No, this isn’t a new scan at all – and comparing this image with the old DVD assures me virtually nothing has been done to improve the quality of this Blu-ray. Yuck and who needs it?
The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level without hiss or pop. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer and an audio commentary from accomplished authors/historians, Robert S. Birchard and Anthony Slide – the latter indulging in a lengthy debate as to whether Larry Darrell is or isn’t a virgin. I’m not sure I see the connection between Darrell’s spiritual enlightenment and self-imposed chastity, if indeed, it is just that. Bottom line: we are not amused! What ought to have been a stunningly beautiful visual masterpiece - if turgidly scripted - looks like a careworn old print, merely regurgitated from one format (DVD) to another (Blu-ray). What is the point, apart from a money grab? If you already own the old DVD there’s virtually no point to a repurchase here. I sincerely hope this isn’t the beginning of some new cost-cutting trend on Fox’s part...or perhaps, merely an extension of some of the penny-pinching that's been going on for a while over there. Decidedly, not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)