The Razor's Edge (1946)

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Razor’s Edge (1946 - 20th C. Fox):
         This film of the W. Somerset Maugham novel is always a wonder to me, with more there for me to find each time I see it. You can start in any direction and follow it, and never be disappointed.
         As a very young child I endlessly played on the floor by my mother’s bookshelves. I saw the book ‘The Razor’s Edge’ there for years, but hadn’t read it. In the late 1950s, this film came on TV in Kansas City, where we lived. Because I knew how much she loved the book, I made a point of letting my mother know it would be on. I don’t remember what I expected, but the film itself, even with commercial interruptions, left me profoundly touched.
         Much like the moment when you realize you are truly in love, and are flooded with the beautiful seriousness of the emotion, yet never want it to stop or go away, this film speaks to me. I’ve seen it so many times over the years, in possibly every kind of mood, yet I have never failed to be held close by it and all it speaks about people and life itself.
         After seeing the film, I read the book. One notable thing about both the book and film is the device of having the author, Mr. Maugham himself, as a character in the story. An important character. That always impressed me.
         The film’s director Edmund Goulding isn’t a familiar name these many years later, but his career stretched back to silent film days, and forward to 1959 and his death. Not only did he direct the film but wrote many of the songs used in it. One, ‘Mam’zelle’, became a giant hit in 1947, after the release of the film.
         Where to begin with this great film! First, be warned that Spoilers abound.
         There are six major characters in the film. Larry, Isabel, Sophie, Gray, Eliot Templeton, and Somerset Maugham himself. Over the course of the film, our early perceptions of them are either verified, or radically changed.
         We first see them together in 1919 or 1920, right after the end of World War I at a country club outside of Chicago.
         Country clubs, do they even exist anymore? I remember, in the Mid-West, as late as my childhood in the late 50s, that a country club was a dazzling place for those of some means to recreate and meet each other.
         The film is narrated by Somerset Maugham. The great Herbert Marshall plays Maugham. A very subtle bit of work, much of it done with just his eyes and reactions. He is the continuity that keeps the film from being seen as episodic or unfocused.
         At this dance the former school chums reunite after the War. First we meet Isabel. a beautiful young woman. She introduces herself to Mr. Maugham, a friend of her very rich Uncle Eliot. Maugham is in Chicago, passing through on one of his travels. She is looking for her fiancĂ©e, Larry. She seems so idealistic and hopeful, the ideal young woman.
        Somerset Maugham’s career pre-dated World War I. Already world famous, he still is seen as lower socially than the Templeton family by Isabel’s mother. After all, at that level of society it is a badge of honor not to have to work. No Kennedy, Rockefeller or Roosevelt sense of wanting to ‘give something back’. No, these folks are content to just bask in the radiance of their wealth, and if the ‘others’, the non-moneyed, see their glory, they should feel blessed. Through her mother, we actually have one of the earliest glimpses into Isabel’s character.
         We next meet Sophie, a sweet young woman, not wealthy like the Templetons, but brought to the dance by her school friend Isabel, who even lends her one of her dresses to wear. She is engaged to Bob, who isn’t at the party, but working late. A serious young man, their love is real and good.
         Isabel’s Uncle Eliot, played masterfully by Clifton Webb, appears. Snide, with a caustic wit, we see in the talk between him and Mr. Maugham some glimpses into their world and friendship. We gather that both characters are homosexual. Although the evidence for this is underplayed, it nevertheless is there.
         At last we meet Larry, played by Tyrone Power. It is pretty evident that Uncle Eliot does not like him. Larry’s ideals have no place at all in the shallow world of Uncle Eliot, where everything is who you are and who you know.
         Somerset Maugham, however, immediately notices that Larry is a serious young man of truly good character.
         In fact, Larry is the strong center to the story. He seems to be the perfect compliment to Isabel, but when he tells her he wants to take time to go away to ‘find himself’ before he settles down to a life at a regular job, she is repulsed. But Larry, just back from the War, knows how quickly a life can be horribly altered, and that you should not casually regard your opportunities in life. Remember, this was World War I, when life was especially cheap. Larry knew that this was the moment when he best had a chance to check out his options. He knows that when you start down the steady job route, you’re not likely to be free again. For now, he tells Isabel, he is content to ‘loaf’, living off his inheritance as he seeks answers to the questions that bother him.
         At this point we see that the ‘ideal’ Isabel is actually rather shallow. She is willing to love Larry, but only if he is willing, right now, to make a life for them in keeping with her wealthy upbringing. She knows the proper stages expected of a young lady. Waiting for ‘your man’ is acceptable, but poverty is not.
        When Larry does not immediately bow to her wishes, she agrees to an arbitrary date in the future for him to come back to her. But we see that it will be unlikely for these two to ever be together.
         In the background is Gray, played by John Payne. He, too, loves Isabel, but is more the kind of man she is seeking. A good young man, but not exceptional as Larry is. Just good and decent and rich.
         We next see Larry high in the Himalayas seeking the answers to his questions. What truths he found in his sojourn in ‘the East’ are never delineated, but we see how Larry has grown. He has a new depth to his character. He was like this before, but now it is as if he is focused.
         When Larry does return, with these ideals of his only strengthened, Isabel sees something must be done if she is not to lose him. She tries to entrap Larry into a situation – sex, then later, a false pregnancy - where he will have to marry her. But at the last moment, she just can’t do it to him. He leaves.
         Her Uncle Eliot, has observed how she has handled Larry and confronts her. She is angry at first at being seen with her ‘trap’ exposed. But Uncle Eliot in fact tells her she should not have stopped, but continued with her plan. Now, facing her nature, she makes the decision to marry Gray. He will be the kind of man she is after, although she doesn’t care for him nearly as much.
        We don’t see Larry for a bit, but we are part of a tragic time that will destroy Sophie’s life. Her beloved husband Bob, and their infant daughter are killed in a car accident. After this, she isn’t seen until later.
         We next see Larry, in Paris. He is back from India, and runs into Somerset Maugham. He hears that Isabel, who has married Gray, is staying with her Uncle Eliot, due to Gray having a nervous collapse following the catastrophic failing of his father’s company, which he, since his father’s death, has been running.
         Larry goes to him, and using a method of planting a suggestion in Gray’s mind, succeeds in eliminating his illness. They go out to dinner and then later go slumming. At one of the dives they visit they see Sophie, who since the death of her husband and baby has thrown her life into the trash, becoming promiscuous, an alcoholic and drug user.
         Larry chooses to help her. We next see them together and planning to be married. But Sophie is barely hanging on, her sobriety of the white-knuckle kind.
         Seeing this, and jealous of her having Larry, Isabel sets Sophie up to fail. Giving in to her weakness for alcohol Sophie disappears.
         Larry seeking to find her, goes from dive to dive. In a den in Marseille, Larry seeks to bring her with him but the men abusing her fight him back. Sophie flees again into the night.
         Later, the police contact Maugham. They question him about a young dead woman. It is Sophie. Larry appears, having come from identification of her body.
This is the end of Sophie’s story. Now there is another.
         Maugham and Larry go to visit old Eliot Templeton, who is dying. On his deathbed he is upset that he hasn’t been invited to ‘the party of the year!’ How this moment plays out, and the final face-to-face moments between Larry and Isabel sum up this beautiful statement by Somerset Maugham on the nature of character and honor. No cardboard heroes and villains here, but people who, like us all, only become what we are inside over a lifetime of reacting to the events of our lives.
         Most American films proceed from point to point along a direct path. occasionally the structure will change, but most often it is straight on; A to B to C.
         Amazing things have been done using this straightforward structure, but it is a special film that within those bounds creates a world of its own, where your mind can soar and you see great truths in the events on screen. This is one of those films.
         There are many amazing performances in this film. The main characters of course are very good, but great moments are found even in smaller parts. Fritz Kortner, the German actor (Pandora’s Box), is amazing as a haunted man Larry meets in a workers bar. The intensity of his performance lays the groundwork for Larry’s quest. Much later Elsa Lanchester has an important bit as a wealthy woman’s secretary / companion.
         The writing, the acting, the music, everything in this great film combine to make a strong statement for honor, sincerity and personal integrity.
         I love this film and recommend it to everyone.
                                                                        - Electro de Fog / JBW, November 15, 2010.