The Razor's Edge Review
Released in 1946, celebrating Tyrone Power's return to the screen after several years service with the Marines during the Second World War, The Razor's Edge is an odd film to have come but a year after American and Allied success in both the European and Pacific fronts. Concerned with the story of an American, Larry Darrell, who has returned to Chicago after years spent fighting overseas in World War I, he is expected to enter industry and society, with the film opening at a country club at a dinner hosted by Elliot Templeton (Clifton Webb), a waspish snob, a gossip and the owner of a business doing impressively well in the post-war years. As Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall), who both narrates the film and occasionally appears within its story, describes Darrell, he is not famous, writing of him that, "It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water."
But as introduced to Maugham by Elliot, Darrell is described as bone idle, turning down the offer of a good job within a business belonging to a good friend in favour of, well, nothing. His fiancee, Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), Elliot Templeton's niece, fears for her future, particularly when her relatives all look set to enjoy the prosperity of the coming decade but any attempts by her to convince Darrell to put his mind to a career is met with short shrift. Indeed, his only ambition is to loaf, preferably in Paris. Surprisingly, Isabel agrees to wait for him and Darrell catches the boat to France, leaving with some small amount of blessing from Elliot, who sees his adventure as that of a young man looking to see something of the world.
Elliot, though, doesn't reveal to his niece what he has learned of Darrell's life in Paris and, regrettably, puts him down as one of his failures. In time, so too does Isabel but in spite of marrying a friend of Darrell's from back home, Gray Maturin (John Payne), she remains in love with him. And, as Larry journeys from Paris to Marseilles, from Bombay to the Himalayas, Isabel never forgets him, following him through the occasional cables he sends to Somerset Maugham. But when he tells her of his intended marriage to Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter), emotionally unstable and alcoholic after the death of her husband and daughter some years earlier, Isabel returns to Paris determined to end that relationship and to claw her way back into Darrell's affections.
It's rare for a Hollywood film to so clearly have an eye on the hereafter, or even to look beyond the hero's immediate gratification but The Razor's Edge does just that. In the commentary that accompanies the film, historians Anthony Slide and Robert Birchard tell a story of Tyrone Power explaining the difference between his film and the Bing Crosby picture, Going My Way. The Crosby film, he said, was a religious movie that almost avoided all mention of religion whilst The Razor's Edge was never done considering faith, the meaning of one's life, of a man's place in the world and how what we do here affects what happens after our death. I considered the difficulty in writing so explicit about religion and about faith in my recent review of Saints And Soldiers, a World War II film about a small group of Allied soldiers who survive the Nazi slaughter of their battalion and find themselves escorting a British spy through the snowbound forests of Belgium and behind enemy lines, wherein they witness a miracle that changes their view of the Germans they are fighting.
As with Saints And Soldiers, The Razor's Edge finds that it's often difficult to convincingly portray a true sense of the divine on film. As Larry Darrell, Tyrone Power says himself that his search for enlightenment sounds vague and trivial and this isn't helped by the occasionally hackneyed visuals, described by Pauline Kael as leaving the film, "irresistibly funny and terrible" whilst Arthur Miller described it as looking like something out of Coney Island. The sunlight, shining like Christ's halo around a cloud, fills the sky at the very moment that Larry Darrell agrees, under instruction from the wise man whose advice he sought, to stop hiding from the world and to rejoin those that he'd previously loved. As the score soars heavenwards, what sense there is of one's faith being a personal search for meaning is lost in the biblical burst of sunlight that falls with real purpose on Larry Darrell. In that moment and in others that precede and follow it, such as his faith healing of Gray Maturin on arriving back in Paris, The Razor's Edge gets lost in an attempt to answer the big questions, which is a real pity because what it does very well is to reveal the seething jealousies within relationships.
The men, Tyrone Power amongst them but with the exception of Clifton Webb, are a fine collection of stuffed shirts but the film ought to be viewed through its two female stars, Gene Tierney and Anne Baxter. Tierney plays Isabel Bradley as a woman who'll never let her love for Larry Darrell pass. Indeed, as the film goes on, we're not really left knowing for sure that she actually wants him, more that with Darrell having once left her, she doesn't really want any other woman to have him. When, later on in the film, Darrell sees that he can rescue Sophie Macdonald (Anne Baxter) from the rotten life that she's sunk into in Paris, it's Isabel who bitches about her childhood friend, archly exploiting Sophie's alcoholism and the loss of her husband and daughter to make sure that Darrell remains within her reach. Happily, Darrell's search for both enlightenment and for peace of mind comes and goes throughout The Razor's Edge but it's this smaller melodrama that sustains the second half of the film, with the invulnerable characters from Chicago now weakened, financially and emotionally, but without the strength of character gained by Darrell on his long voyage in search of meaning to his life.
Whilst important in seeing how Darrell ends the film without labouring under the self-imposed crises of the rest of the cast, the issue of faith and of enlightenment isn't handled awfully well, whereas Sophie's descent into the dangerously murky drinking clubs of Paris is, with Anne Baxter fully deserving her Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Together, they make for an occasionally uneasy film but look past the worst excesses of Darrell's soul-searching and this becomes an enjoyable drama that works best in its smaller studies of love and of happiness.
As with other Region 1 Fox Studio Classics releases, the print is in remarkably good condition with the image on the DVD looking crisp, clear and with excellent levels of contrast, which allows the black-and-white picture to shine on the screen. In one respect, The Razor's Edge, with its sense of melodrama, is perfectly of its time but the picture quality of the DVD is so good that it feels a much more modern film that its release date of 1946 suggests. Happily, the transfer of the film onto DVD has incurred few penalties with there being only a little digital noise throughout.
Fox have included both a stereo and a mono audio track and, although it's only a personal preference, I tended to stick with the latter. Although the stereo track has less background noise, there's a warmth to the mono track that the other fails to replicate, leaving it as one that I only dipped in and out of. Finally, there are English and Spanish subtitles.
As well as the Fox Movietone news footage that's commonplace on these Fox Classics releases, there's a commentary by film historians Anthony Slide and Robert Birchard that's well worth a listen. Recorded together, the two men chat about the film, offer the occasional piece of background trivia, including budget, box office, the numbers of extras in any given scene and other facts and figures, and ensure the viewer has the film placed in context, not only in terms of the source novel but also its place in Hollywood. There are moments of silence throughout, often occurring at the tail end of a scene when it sounds as though they've little left to say on it, but both Slide and Birchard are interesting hosts, relaxed enough to joke a little whilst keeping the ear of the viewer throughout.
These Fox Classics are on their way to Region 2 but there's no need to wait for The Razor's Edge when it's so well presented here. The film, although probably overlong and something of a failure in terms of its hero's search for enlightenment, is an entertaining melodrama in its second half and with an excellent commentary and a superb transfer, it's a good release that, I suspect, won't be treated quite so well over here.