The Razor’s Edge (1946)

"The Razor's Edge" (1946) featured image

The Razor’s Edge (1946). 145 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Tyrone Power (as Larry Darrell), Gene Tierney (as Isabel Bradley), Clifton Webb (as Elliott Templeton), Anne Baxter (as Sophie MacDonald), Herbert Marshall (as W. Somerset Maugham), and John Payne (as Gray Maturin).

The Razor’s Edge wants badly to be a profound story of one man’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. Its title comes from a passage in the Katha Upanishad: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” Protagonist Larry Darrell’s path is challenging insofar as it takes him across several continents and lasts many years. I cannot say that the terms with which Larry articulates his personal quest are as sharply focused as the titular image, but then again most of us have probably met people who describe their project of finding themselves using similarly broad strokes. As a result, the movie is an interesting depiction of the oblique spirituality espoused by more than a few New Age believers.

But spirituality in The Razor’s Edge is not limited to the character of Larry Darrell, and there are other characters in this movie whose journeys are compelling and meaningful in their own right. The film features the wonderful Clifton Webb, whose character Elliott Templeton offers a useful counterpoint to the protagonist. Additionally, actress Anne Baxter won an Academy Award for her depiction of the alcoholic Sophie MacDonald, whose determination is put to the test when she attempts to go sober. Ultimately their stories make the film worth watching.

The film portrays roughly ten years in the life of Larry Darrell (played by Tyrone Power), a society fellow who has returned home from serving in the First World War and is shaken by what he experienced in combat.  Although engaged to the beautiful and admired Isabel Bradley, when the film begins he cannot commit to marrying her or taking a job that will provide for her in the manner to which she is accustomed. He elects instead to travel to Paris to find himself. Isabel’s cantankerous uncle Elliott Templeton disapproves mightily, although as an expatriate, he himself lives part-time in Paris and pops in and out of Larry’s life there. Eventually Larry asks Isabel to wait for him indefinitely, which she cannot consent to doing: she marries Gray Maturin instead, which pleases Elliott and the rest of the family. Disappointed but understanding, Larry finds humbling work in a French mine. From a fellow laborer he hears about a holy man who holds the key to enlightenment, so Larry travels to India and discovers the guru in a commune nestled in the Himalayas. After living in the mountains and finally having the spiritual experience he has been searching for, Larry returns to Paris and learns that Isabel, although married, is still in love with him. There he also finds childhood friend Sophie MacDonald living a dissolute life in Parisian cafes after her husband and daughter have been killed in a car crash. Larry thinks he will marry Sophie, who becomes sober, but at a jealous Isabel’s instigation, Sophie goes on a drinking binge and disappears, ultimately winding up murdered in the south of France. Isabel’s uncle Elliott is dying nearby, and Larry and Elliott’s family gather around him in his final hours. We may think at first that his death will bridge the divide between the characters, but in the end, Larry blames Isabel for Sophie’s deterioration and leaves her.

I have said that this movie longs to show us a man on a deep personal quest. I think that what it shows us instead is why so much of modern soul-searching can be a self-indulgent practice. Sure, Larry is a very decent person, and what he saw in the war has caused him to experience a great deal of pain and discontent. He earnestly tells the Indian guru at their first meeting that he has read every book and asked every question yet still cannot find what he is looking for. This is odd, though, because over the course of this lengthy film, we never actually see Larry studying or engaged in philosophical discussions with anyone. Knowing even a few of those texts or questions might help us to locate Larry’s quest in a particular tradition. Admittedly, late in the film we see him pick up one of Sophie’s books and skim over an ode by Keats that he and she used to treasure; this scene is a gesture towards something we have needed all along, and in stronger doses.

We may think that Larry’s trip to India will bring about some connection with a particular philosophical framework. Yet even when Larry has his moment of divine revelation in the Himalayas and reflects on it with the Indian holy man (who is appropriately nameless), it is not clear what the significance of Larry’s vision is. We hear him describe the experience, but his vision is not scrutinized very closely. The search for enlightenment is typically fraught with a good deal of reflection and discussion and involves a great many disappointments and missteps. What Larry finds seems to come easily.

In contrast to the very general nature of Larry’s story, there are the vivacious scenes involving the character Elliott Templeton (played by Clifton Webb), who, like many Clifton Webb characters, is a complex and fussy amalgam of specific traits and proclivities. The expatriate and bon vivant Elliott keeps tabs on who dines with whom and where in Paris.  He know the histories of the characters whose parties he frequents. He is very particular about the embroidery of his initials and family crest on his linen. Although according to his doctor’s orders, Elliott should not drink very much alcohol, still late in the film he makes a distinct request for a bottle of liquor at a party that prompts a specific reaction—drinking it is like listening to music in the moonlight, he says. Even from his death bed he is precise: he asks that a Father Charles be summoned to administer the last rites, no one else.

While Elliott is being positioned in opposition to the spiritual Larry as a sort of worldly society person, there is something else going on here. Elliott’s very particular preferences make him seem more worldly, yes, but also more human. The idea of his dying at the end of the story is very sad: how could all of his fastidiousness simply evaporate with his death, we wonder? And yet that is what death is and what death does. In this way, watching Elliott pass on at the end brings home some of the sorrow that Larry says he feels at the end of the war—but I actually think that Elliott’s end conveys the idea of sorrow more convincingly.

That is not at all to say that Tyrone Power as Larry is ineffective in his role. In fact, the two speeches where Larry talks to Isabel about how his life was spared by a soldier who was killed in his place on the last day of the war are very moving. Presumably Power was drawing on his own time serving in the U. S. Marines in World War Two; he was discharged from the military just prior to making this movie. But ultimately it is easier to learn from Elliott because Elliott is a bundle of idiosyncrasies that we can more easily care for.

It is probably not a coincidence that of the two, it was Clifton Webb who was nominated for his work in this film, along with the wonderful Anne Baxter, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the devastated Sophie MacDonald. Both Webb and Baxter have less screen time but more to work with than Power. Baxter’s character, the most emotive in the picture, is fixated on trauma much as Larry is, and her journey also leads her to Paris as his does, but her tragedy is focused, and her feelings and reactions, like Elliott’s, are very acute. The scene where she learns that her husband and child have been killed in a car accident is particularly moving, and it lasts for only a few minutes, during some of which we do not even see the actress—we only hear her moaning and sobbing. Baxter’s work here is both effective acting and evidence of the kind of depth that the movie is capable of.

I have not read the 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham that this movie is based on and so cannot attest to whether the film inherited its weaknesses and strengths from the book. I do know that this movie employs an interesting device that is absent from the novel: screenwriter Lamar Trotti includes the author Maugham as a major character in the story. Maugham the character is present from the very first scene of the film—a large party set in the United States—to the story’s conclusion in the South of France, where he provides the movie’s final thoughts. This device is similar to the technique used in the film version of John Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). In that film adaptation, screenwriter John Lee Hancock included a character from out of town (John Kelso, played by John Cusack) who serves as a crucial guide through the story but is not present in the novel. Inventing these characters was a smart move in both movies: both Kelso and Maugham serve as outsiders who at times model our reaction to the characters we are watching. However, Midnight’s Kelso actually plays a major role in that movie’s crime story, whereas Maugham seems more like a detached fly on the wall. The Razor’s Edge does not hint at the relationship between the character Maugham and the origins of the story that he is part of. Still, it is very strange to observe the author of the story interacting with his own characters at length and without comment.

The presence of the Maugham character gives us a taste of the unusual direction The Razor’s Edge could have taken if it were a more adventurous kind of movie. The story unfolds over the course of ten years and many continents during its 142-minute running time, and the varied geography provides a kind of excitement and sense of adventure; but ultimately geographical exploration and spiritual exploration are not primarily what the movie excels at depicting. It is most notable for its complex secondary roles, which give the movie depth and richness. Although the supporting characters do not overtly pursue a spiritual education, in their own ways they have a great deal to say about enlightenment, suffering, and the meaning of life.