Examining how Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb’s characters interact with one another as well as narrator Herbert Marshall (as Somerset Maugham) in The Razor’s Edge, an adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel.
The Razor’s Edge
While home video did wonders for increasing film appreciation, I have to wonder if MGM’s embracing of the format for their old catalogue didn’t greatly hinder young people in the 1980s from learning about film. As a child, I had seen MGM, I had seen RKO, I had seen Warner Bros. But I never saw any Columbia (that I remember) and I’m pretty sure I never saw any 20th Century Fox films, because when I did start seeing them in the mid-1990s (on AMC), I was surprised. I had no idea they’d been around and done so much. It’s a laziness, I suppose, but film interest tends to start as a hobby. I guess it got better with cable (my AMC experience) and today, with DVD, it’s probably about even… Fox does have a good classics series, though their box set is rather crappy and doesn’t inspire much interest (just like their VHS box art). Fox didn’t originally release their VHS titles–they licensed them through Key Video–so each title was doubly selected for profitability.
The Razor’s Edge fell through the cracks. It won Anne Baxter an Academy Award (she’s great, but certainly not the best performance in the film, which has five excellent performances), and lost to The Best Years of Our Lives, which is fine. But, it was a big hit. It was Fox’s biggest hit… and it disappeared. I’d never heard of it when I first saw it in 1997 or 1998–and I had worked at a video store with a significant classics section. Watching it today, I’m upset the film doesn’t have the level of respect it deserves. It’s an amazing film; it runs 145 minutes and never feels like it, compressing 9 years into the first hour, then exploring the effects of those nine years in the second. There’s another bit of compression in there too, but the characters manage to grow beautifully over this time. The make-up crew “de-aged” the cast (particularly Clifton Webb), then gradually caught them up and beyond. The make-up and the handling of the timeline work beautifully. I can’t think of a better handling of such a long stretch than in this film.
It’d be easy credit the book the whole way, but Lamar Trotti does an incredible job adapting it, focusing it–The Razor’s Edge features its author, W. Somerset Maugham, in an instrumental role. I can’t believe Herbert Marshall didn’t get nominated for it (I’m looking at Edge’s Oscar competition right now at IMDb), but neither did Trotti so I guess I should. Not even Edmund Goulding got a nomination for directing and he’s fantastic. He’s got these long sweeps of the camera, beautiful movement, but my favorite is his lack of reaction shots. Someone will talk, as familiar viewers, we expect a reaction–we get none. Instead, we get the actor continuing, not breaking. It adds an particular realism–in this hugely produced film–a kind not many films have. It involves the viewer in the situation, which spans ten years and three or four continents.
Obviously (I already said it), all the acting is great. Tyrone Power is great in this incredibly difficult role–the film is somewhat from Maugham’s perspective, but also from Maugham’s reader’s perspective–so Power is the protagonist, but also the subject and it never separates that duality. For the first twenty minutes, it’s Gene Tierney’s movie, it’s not Power’s. It appear it ever will be Power’s movie. It’s an odd situation–there are other examples (Barry Lyndon, I suppose), but no one else has ever done such a good job I don’t think. As for Tierney, someone else who is overlooked for her acting ability… Tierney turns an amazing performance. I was going to say exactly what’s so amazing about it, but that description would spoil the film if one didn’t know the story. She’s fantastic. I already mentioned how good Baxter is in the film (Tierney’s better–Baxter has a few scenes, Tierney has ninety-five minutes) and Marshall, but Clifton Webb is great too. The film has incredibly complicated characters–so incredibly complicated it’s impossible to judge any of them, even at the end. Maugham–the writer, not the character–was quite good at delaying the readers judgement and I assume, in The Razor’s Edge, it’s just faithful adaptation, because studio films with big stars were never about reserving judgement.
Not since… well, last week, I watch a lot of movies, you know… This film’s level of excellence is rare. Even more, the lack of recognition for this film’s excellence is an unbelievable blemish to film history.
Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Arthur C. Miller; edited by J. Watson Webb Jr.; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Darryl F. Zanuck; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Tyrone Power (Larry Darrell), Gene Tierney (Isabel Bradley), John Payne (Gray Maturin), Anne Baxter (Sophie Nelson Macdonald), Clifton Webb (Elliott Templeton), Herbert Marshall (W. Somerset Maugham), Lucile Watson (Louisa Bradley), Frank Latimore (Bob Macdonald), Elsa Lanchester (Miss Keith), Fritz Kortner (Kosti), John Wengraf (Joseph), Cecil Humphreys (Holy Man) and Cobina Wright Sr. (Princess Novemali).