Bohemian philosophers around the world have long felt validated by W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge, where soul-searching Larry Darrell’s quest for enlightenment sends him from high society to the mountains of the Himalayas. He finds Buddhism a useful tool for living a happy life and eventually returns to Paris to share his experiences with old friends, including Maugham himself as bemused narrator. It makes for an enjoyable read, but the search for spiritual wisdom is inherently more digressive than dramatic and Larry Darrell, a poster boy for human kindness, is a nearly unplayable role. The only way to even attempt it would be to cast a humorous wild card like Bill Murray, as they did in the unsuccessful 1984 remake, and not Zorro himself, Tyrone Power. Power tries to look thoughtful, but sometimes tries too hard.
A well made studio picture directed by Edmund Gouding, The Razor’s Edge takes delight in the characters surrounding Larry, who comes off as a bore. In the opening sequence, his indifferent lovemaking to Isabel (Gene Tierney) can’t be written off as World War I shellshock—no girl can sensually connect with a saint in the making. Tierney sinks her teeth into the role of a spoiled rich girl who can’t help falling for Larry, but won’t give up her social status in the name of love. Instead, she marries her second choice, Gray (John Payne), an earnest and hard-working stock broker. While Larry travels off to The World (big sets courtesy of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, complete with painted Himalayas in the Indian background), Isabel lives the high life with effete snob Uncle Elliott (Clifton Webb), suave closet homosexual Maugham (Herbert Marshall), and second-fiddle girly girl Sophie (Anne Baxter).
With all the characters in place, Goulding indulges in voluptuously lit scenes dominated by well-dressed extras, lots of carousing and booze, catty dialogue, and water fountains that upstage everybody. Goulding is in his element here. Cutting back to Larry and the monks feels like a real chore as they endlessly sermonize about virtue, and one dreads Larry’s return to high society, dominating scene after scene with his heart of gold—especially after the 1929 stock market crash knocks all the hypocritical sophisticates down a peg or two. Larry acts like a benevolent Jesus Christ when everyone else is desperately trying to hang on to their lives of freewheeling fun, even as it sends them to their graves.
The second half of The Razor’s Edge plays slightly better than the first, if only because it gives in unashamedly to its plot of melodramatic intrigue. Sophie’s husband and child die in a car accident, and the poor girl ends up in an opium den of sin. Larry attempts to save her from drinking herself to death, but Isabel (who still loves him) does everything in her bitch-queen power to send Sophie back to her squalid pimps. It also includes a prima donna deathbed scene for Uncle Elliott, vainly awaiting a dinner invitation to an upcoming soiree, and delicious “scheming” between Isabel and Maugham where Tierney gets to act imperial as Marshall purrs and preens.
The moralistic bent of The Razor’s Edge is impossible to translate into pure cinema. Therefore, screenwriter Lamar Trotti resorts to monologues and sermons, mostly coming from Larry. It’s all very well for a novel, but on-screen it’s a snooze—all the more reason for a comedian or unpredictable loose canon of the Marlon Brando/Montgomery Clift School to embody this part. For a movie about the meaning of life, it’s far less existential than Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Notorious, released the same year. That film philosophized too, in a more visual and emotional way about such timeless ideas as love, sex, and death. But because Hitchcock’s movie was about spies and intrigue, it was written off as perhaps a less important work than the highfalutin Razor’s Edge. Yet Hitchcock’s film is now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, and this adaptation of Maugham’s novel is well intentioned, well made, but hopelessly dated.