“The Razor’s Edge” is not a good picture, not even close. It’s terrible. It’s badly acted by nearly everyone; it’s coarsely written; it’s pretentious; it’s silly; it’s phony. And a whole lot of people swear by it. If I didn’t like the picture, I wouldn’t write about it, but I confess I find it hard to get through the entire mess in one go. Happily, DVD technology has eliminated the need to do so: when I look at it (as I frequently do), it is always in digestible pieces. To watch the whole thing all at once is numbing, though not, alas, soporific. Some pictures put me to sleep like a charm (“Steel Magnolias” knocks me out cold in a matter of minutes), but not this one: there are many dull patches, but it’s too nutty for me to drift off while it’s on.
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), who wrote the novel, was the most successful writer of his day, and his works are still read today. I believe this is because his stories and novels are nearly always entertaining. He had a gift for epigrammatic dialogue and a near-genius for cooking up interesting plots that put his believably human characters through imaginative wringers. For my money, he’s the greatest second-rate writer of all time. If you’re going on a long trip and want to bring along something that is bound to hold your attention without entirely insulting your intelligence, Willie Maugham is your man. He never claimed to be a writer of the first rank, and insisted such was never his ambition. “The Razor’s Edge,” I’d say, gives the lie to this claim, for it has Big Ideas written all over it. The opening sentences suggest that he himself considered this one book different from all his others:
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage.
Nor does any of it add up to much. Something big is always just about to shake up this world of cocktails and engagement parties, but nothing does. Plenty happens, but only cocktails get shaken. Nothing happens all over the place. It was 20th Century-Fox’s big budget, prestige picture of 1946. It’s the story of a young man’s quest to find the Meaning of Life. Along the way, he travels to the slums of Paris, the high Himalayas, and eventually the slums of Marseilles. I don’t think It’s giving away too much to say that after two and a half hours of twiddling its philosophical thumbs, Lamar Trotti’s screenplay concludes that the Meaning of Life is, well, it’s not so easy to say, exactly. It seems to be something along the lines of “Be Kind” or “Be Good” or “To Thine Own Self Be True” or . . . aw, hell, let’s just say it’s “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” or, if you like, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” and leave it at that.
Several biographers have suggested that Maugham based the character of his hero, Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), on Christopher Isherwood, and the character of the arch-snob, Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), on Sir Henry “Chips” Channon (an American-born anti-American Member of Parliament). I can’t help feeling that Maugham — a randy old goat — would never have interested himself in such a story had he not found his young Seeker after The Truth physically attractive. As written in the novel, and as played in the picture, he’s a beautiful young man and a cracking bore. Maugham’s attraction to Larry is unmistakable in the novel, though he takes pains to suggest his interest is entirely high-minded. This also comes across in the picture, though perhaps not intentionally. At any rate, from this angle, the movie becomes far more interesting than if one takes Maugham’s interest in Larry as being purely Platonic.
Darryl F. Zanuck’s version of “The Razor’s Edge” starts out well: opulent party along Lake Shore Drive, beautiful costumes, charming dance tunes, Gene Tierney dressed by Oleg Cassini, Tyrone Power in a beautiful tuxedo. (When the story begins to drag, you can watch his sideburns, which keep going up and down from shot to shot.) But problems begin to crop up even in the opening scene: the exposition is barely concealed, if it is concealed at all. And, except for Gene Tierney, who makes no impression but looks beautiful, the acting by everyone else is terrible. Tyrone Power cannot speak the simplest line spontaneously; Anne Baxter overplays self-consciousness; Herbert Marshall (as Maugham) does his weary bemusement bit yet again and is only slightly less wooden than his prosthetic leg; Clifton Webb hisses and minces in his usual tiresome, predictable manner; Lucile Watson — the poor man’s Gladys Cooper — does her little old darling act that never fails to set my teeth on edge. But it all looks beautiful while the cast ploughs through the expository back forty, and the dance band plays “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “I’m Always Blowing Bubbles” to keep their spirits up.
Tyrone Power never looked better than he looks in this picture. And he has the sort of handsomeness that looks intelligent. But the way he speaks his lines while gazing into the half-distance makes him seem (at least to me) like he’s a numbskull, rather than the tongue-tied natural philosopher we’re supposed to believe he is. Perhaps I’m alone in this. Power always gives me the impression of being a nice fellow: I want to believe him, but his line readings make it impossible. On the other hand, it’s this very dopiness of his that becomes diverting when Maugham/Marshall listens to him with such rapt attention. Herbert Marshall was not the sort of actor to hint at homosexual undercurrents, but those undercurrents are there, touch wood. Why else would a celebrated author/sybarite listen so attentively to a loquacious dimwit’s pseudo-spiritual poppycock?
I’ll never understand why Seekers after The Truth always have to scale mountains to figure it out. Why is The Truth supposed to be more evident where the air is thin? And why are mountaintop hermits and Hindoos always so more in touch with reality than the rest of us, who actually live in it? And why is the Lama or Swami or Mountaintop Holy Man always British? In this case, he’s Cecil Humphreys, from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
Of its many hilarious infelicities, “The Razor’s Edge” has a score by Alfred Newman that is not only echt Newman, but also borrowed Newman: he wrote much of the score for another picture for Sam Goldwyn (“These Three,” based on “The Children’s Hour”) and recycled it. This is hardly unheard of, but it’s striking because Darryl Zanuck personally produced “The Razor’s Edge” — it was his most expensive picture to date . . . and he spared almost no expense. So it amuses me that his court composer should simply recycle his shit from ten years earlier — for a different producer. In “The Razor’s Edge,” for the demimonde scenes in Paris, when Sophie (Anne Baxter, who won an Oscar for her hammus alabammus performance) has become an incorrigible drunk and opium smoker, Newman uses a tune played on an accordion — it’s a song that my first voice teacher, Carl Pitzer, gave me to sing: “Mamselle.” (A small cafe, Mamselle/Our rendezvous, Mamselle./The violins were warm and sweet/And so were you, Mamselle, etc., etc.) BUT . . . Alfred Newman gives us only the refrain and never the bridge, which is the only interesting thing in the fucking song. So on and on and on it goes till you think you’ll go out of your head. If this is what Anne Baxter was listening to every night, is it any wonder she turned to Żubrówka and poppies?
Last time I watched the picture, I heard something in the score I’d never noticed before, right near the end of the picture. Clifton Webb is swishing away to meet his maker — he hasn’t been invited to a particularly important party on the Côte d’Azure — and he’s about to die an unhappy old maid when Ty Power winkles an invitation from the secretary (Elsa Lanchester in a touching, unusually restrained performance) of the woman who has chosen to snub Webb, and has it delivered to Webb’s deathbed. Webb’s dying words are “Elliott Templeton regrets he must decline the Princess’ kind invitation, as he has a previous engagement . . . with his. . . blessed Savior. . . . (the old wwwitch!)” I rely on your ears to hear how Webb speaks these words . . . next to him, Henry Daniell has iron in his loafers and anvils sewn into his bloomers. But no sooner has he spoken these words, but Alfred Newman comes in heavy on the contra bass . . . it’s too funny! Oh, it did make me laugh.
One last thing, and I’ll let it alone . . . for now. Here’s a clip to give you an idea of the high-minded claptrap that makes up this whole picture.
Nice poem, that. Middling reading, though he doesn’t recite the whole thing. He stops, like an NPR music clip, in mid-phrase. Finally — a small matter, perhaps, but important to some of us: it’s a sonnet, not an ode. Did nobody in that huge production know the difference?