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THE RAZOR'S EDGE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, Herbert Marshall, John Payne
Director: Edmund Goulding
Audio: English 2.0 stereo and mono, Spanish 2.0
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Fox
Features: Commentary track, Movietone newsreel footage
Length: 146 minutes
Release Date: May 24, 2005

I don’t think I’ll ever find peace until I’ve made up my mind about things.

Film ***

The mid-1940's marked the peak years in the Hollywood career of silver screen siren Gene Tierney.  A major star for the Fox studio, Tierney appeared in numerous classics during this period, including Laura and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  Known mostly for her exotic beauty, Tierney also proved her acting versatility with an Academy Award-nominated performance in Leave Her to Heaven.

The 1946 film The Razor's Edge is testimony to the qualities which made Gene Tierney such a top box office draw for the Fox studio.  Not only does the film accentuate Tierney's glamorous allure, but it also allows her to portray a variation of the femme fatale persona that she adorns so well in her best film roles.  Gene Tierney’s character in The Razor's Edge is a controlling beauty whose mildly manipulative nature and overriding, intense love create the dramatic conflict between the film’s central characters.  In this sense, Isabel is a composition of Tierney’s previous memorable characters in Laura and Leave Her to Heaven.

The Razor's Edge, a stylized treatment of W. Somerset Maugham's famous novel, is a melodrama about societal mores and values and also about the difficulties encountered by a veteran trying to adjust once more to civilian life.  Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), emotionally scarred by the images of war still fresh in his mind, foregoes a promising career and his young, devoted fiancée Isabel Bradley to begin a soul-searching journey abroad.  Larry’s spiritual and metaphysical quest for meaning and purpose to life sends him on an odyssey from Europe to India and even to the Himalayas.  Tierney portrays Larry Darrell's suffering fiancée who, in his absence, eventually turns to a new suitor, Gray Maturin (John Payne), for the stability and comforting presence that Larry in his wanderlust cannot offer to her.  In a sense, both Larry and Isabel make personal sacrifices - Isabel sacrificing her devoted love that Larry might have the freedom to discover himself, and Larry sacrificing his material desires to realize a deeper and more universal truth about the nature of human existence.

Clifton Webb portrays Isabel’s rich but extraordinarily haughty Uncle Elliott Templeton.  He disapproves of Larry Darrell for being, in his eyes, a stubborn and impractical man.  Webb’s acerbic character is rather akin to his similar performance as Lydecker in Laura, and Templeton is nearly as protective of Isabel and as annoyed by the attentions of lesser men to her as Lydecker had been of Tierney's Laura.  Not surprisingly, Templeton is summarily delighted when Isabel's sweetheart Larry chooses an existence of "loafing" over a family life with his niece.  Other important characters include Herbert Marshall as Somerset Maugham himself (as an observer and occasional narrator for the film) and Anne Baxter as Sophie, an innocent childhood friend and ultimately one of the film’s more tragic supporting characters.

As the film opens, the First World War has recently drawn to a close.  Yet in the final days of combat, Larry loses a friend who perishes to save him.  The death of his friend, seemingly so meaningless and unnecessary, fills Larry with doubt about life and its injustices, particularly over the random nature of who dies and who has to live on.  Haunted by such thoughts, Larry begs for Isabel’s blessings to journey afar in solitude until he can work out the guilt and confusion in his mind.  Isabel promises to await his return, but even she cannot fathom his restless nature and will not wait forever for him.

Traveling as far as the Himalayan mountains, Larry does eventually find some of the answers which he seeks, but in the intervening years, much has transpired among his old friends, loves, and acquaintances.  In the second half of the film, following Larry’s return, the changes (positive and otherwise) in the lives of his friends test Larry Darrell's new-found beliefs and sense of spiritual contentment and self-sacrifice.  Isabel’s personal and financial situations have changed drastically, and her uncle, though as sharp as ever, has seen a certain deterioration in his health and societal standing.  Even Sophie’s once-bubbly personality has disintegrated for reasons elucidated in the film.  Ironically, while Larry remains the most impoverished of the film’s characters, he is the most content.

The Razor's Edge embraces the more somber themes that became increasingly common in American films of the immediate post-war era.  From stories such as The Best Years of Our Lives, which depicted the emotional and physical impact of the war upon survivors, to The Third Man, which touched upon the horrors and ravages upon war-torn European cities and the mindset of its people, the post-war era offered films of a more world-weary and less optimistic nature.  It is no coincidence that gradually during this period, film noir, with its pessimistic outlook and flawed protagonists, replaced the innocent idealism of Frank Capra-style productions and signaled the decline of the Hollywood musical.  However, the contemporary film to The Razor’s Edge that this film most resembles, with its metaphysical ideals of one man’s search down the back alleys and dark avenues of life, is probably Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels.  Both films emphasize the ideology that true happiness arises not from material wealth or earthly possessions but rather from inner peace.

In this post-war environment, Tyrone Power represented a good choice for the protagonist in The Razor's Edge.  Power had himself recently been discharged from the U.S. Marines just prior to the production of the film.  His role as a war veteran thus coincided well with his actual life experiences, adding a deeper personal resonance to the soul-searching quest by the film's protagonist.  While Power is not entirely successful in establishing his character’s nebulous motivations for his necessary travels, he nevertheless is able to convey Larry Darrell’s need for spiritual guidance and a meaningful direction to his life.

There are even subtle religious undercurrents in The Razor's Edge.  Larry, following his return, becomes almost a savior for the troubles and worries in his friends' lives.  Transformed, he is portrayed as almost a righteous man who has rejected the evils of the world - materialism and avarice, as represented by Elliott Templeton, or temptation and the flesh, as personified in the alluring Isabel Bradley.  In Sophie, there is even the symbol of the fallen woman who Larry tries to save from her own self-destructive behavior.

Originally, director George Cukor envisioned a literal adaptation of the novel's mysticism.  Ultimately though, producer Darryl F. Zanuck decided to go with director Edmund Goulding's more liberal interpretation.  The Razor's Edge became a lavish endeavor, incorporating 89 sets, several real mansions, French nightclubs, and even a Himalayan holy site into its production.  However, at its core, The Razor's Edge remained the story of a conflicted man searching for the truth behind human existence or even life itself.

The Razor's Edge was a solid commercial success for the Fox studio and its top female star Gene Tierney.  Anne Baxter even won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the tragic Sophie, although the film was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), Best Art Direction, and Best Picture.  Today, the film's sentimentality and melodramatic acting style may seem old-fashioned to modern audiences, but The Razor's Edge nevertheless remains a fine example of the opulence and refined classiness that Hollywood, in its studio-era golden years, was capable of creating.

Video ***

The Razor's Edge is shown in its original full-frame format.  The black & white images are crisp and detailed with only a trace of age-related defects or dust speckles.  Contrast levels are solid with just a minimum of wash-out in a few long shots.

The film contains quite a remarkable number of long takes, yet under Goulding’s confident direction and fluid camera movements, the film never feels slow or awkwardly paced.  Furthermore, celebrated cinematographer Arthur Miller, winner of Oscars for How Green Was My Valley, Anna and the King of Siam, and Song of Bernadette, envelopes The Razor’s Edge within a vibrant glow and a wonderfully visual style.

Audio ** ½

The Razor's Edge is presented in its original English monaural soundtrack.  The overall audio quality is about what one can expect for a film made over half-a-century ago.  The audio is clean, if slightly shrill, and the soundtrack is mostly devoid of pops or background hiss.

The Alfred Newman score is a reliably lush and lavish one that suits the film’s occasionally romantic sets well (although a great deal of the music is also derived from source music and period pieces).

Features **

The road to salvation is difficult to pass over, as difficult as the sharp edge of a razor.

The Razor's Edge is a 2005 entry in the on-going Fox Studio Classics series.  Previous films in this series to have featured Gene Tierney include The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Leave Her to Heaven.  The bonus features are sparse and consist of a commentary track and some archival newsreel footage.

The commentary is provided by film historians Anthony Slide and Robert Birchard.  Both commentators generally talk about the actors, their biographies, and various trivia bits and anecdotes concerning the film’s production.  The two film historians also describe differences between the film and the source novel.  Other topics of discussion include the various vintage songs found in the film’s score, the processed and stock shots, and the film’s numerous luxurious sets.  Oddly enough though, there are still several stretches of silence during which neither commentator says much.

The newsreel footage (3 min.), from the Fox Movietone archives, is comprised of three short clips.  The first clip covers the honoring of Somerset Maugham's book for the Library of Congress, another clip provides glimpses of the film's premiere, and the last clip shows a portion of the Oscar presentations.

Summary:

The Razor's Edge is a philosophical melodrama representing a more serious and plaintive side of post-World War II Hollywood filmmaking.  The theatrical style of acting may be outdated now, but The Razor's Edge still possesses a fine all-star cast and some stand-out performances.

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