This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association‘s Words! Words! Words! blogathon. Some of the entries have been collected into an eBook, which is free on Smashwords or .99 on Amazon, with all proceeds going to the National Film Preservation Fund. I hope you’ll get the book or go here to read the words of my talented peers.
When I learned that CMBA’s spring blogathon would be devoted to writing and film, I decided to tackle one of my oldest literary phobias (of twenty years duration): watching The Razor’s Edge, an adaptation of one of my favorite novels. W. Somerset Maugham’s cynicism and lack of judgment about human behavior have always won me, and his Larry is a fascinating hero: elusive and religious, known for his evasions, gentle but of strong will, a scholar without pretension.
I’ve always loved how the story is told. The narrator, an unveiled W. Somerset Maugham, simply ties together a series of Larry encounters (both his own and others’), trying to explain why someone he barely knew had such an impact. Many believe Larry was someone the author actually knew, and have speculated on his identity.
Larry is an unusual character.
He is disillusioned after his time in WWI, looking for something to believe in, and wanders around Paris, through Europe, and eventually to India to find it, a quest he calls “loafing,” which actually means intense intellectual pursuits. He decides to let go of his love, Isabel, when she won’t join in his journey, and she never gets over him. While he finds what he needs (faith), Isabel pines for him even after her marriage to a millionaire (Gray Maturin). I shuddered at what Hollywood would do with such a religious quest–probably turn it into a romance.
Alternatively, the movie could focus on Isabel’s uncle, Elliott, and his high society ambitions–a better option, given how delightful that character is, but still not the story I knew.
I wanted to give the screenwriter some slack, since creating a good movie from such a story was a pretty tough aim. Lamar Trotti managed better than I would have thought, and has moments of real mastery. But alas, much of the film tips toward tedium. I’ll start with what works, and lead into the atrocious.
Elliott (Clifton Webb).
A lot of the credit for the characterization of literature’s most endearing snob goes to the actor. (After all, he excelled at this role in Laura and Titanic.) But much goes to Trotti too: he retains great lines from the novel, which capture the snobbery and yet the sweetness of the man. I like how occasionally Trotti uses him as a stand-in for the narrator, as when Isabel (Gene Tierney) thinks of luring Larry (Tyrone Power) to bed to trap him with a pregnancy, and her uncle rips on her for it.
This moment was much livelier than the narrator’s conversation with her in the novel. Maugham and Elliott share a sardonic humor and lack of pretense about human behavior; it’s not at all surprising that they’re friends (in Elliott’s case, of course, he is quite blind about his own). This switch works much better than (oh horror!) when the writer exchanges the narrator and Larry later (see “The Ugly.”)
Isabel’s Selfishness. I was afraid the writer would take the cruelty out of Isabel, soften her up to earn sympathy. High marks to Lamar Trotti for letting her be who she is; her self-centered behavior is one of the highlights of the novel and the film.
She comes across as real, like Maugham’s other fascinating heroines: charming and fun, but judgmental, conniving, and occasionally ruthless. As the narrator says of her, “You only lack one thing to make you completely enchanting…tenderness.”
Montages of Larry’s Actions. What a stroke of brilliance to pair Elliott’s guesses about Larry’s likely debauchery and high-class life in Paris with scenes of his real actions (hanging out on a steamer with a bunch of guys rather than the glamorous voyage Elliott would have booked, reading books rather than finding a mistress).
The juxtaposition made me laugh aloud. Beautifully done.
The Narrator. While his absence in much of the first half makes little sense, when he appears, Maugham is quite similar to his character in the book, though (thanks to the casting of Herbert Marshall) less animated.
The Strange Opening about Larry. The writer falters with his introduction. Instead of trusting his scenes to show Larry’s originality and holiness, he preaches it to us by lifting a whole passage from the book. Since we don’t see the many encounters between Larry and the narrator or the narrator and Isabel that appear in the novel, this knowledge of and admiration for Larry are puzzling, as is Maugham’s later intimacy with the Maturin family.
Sophie (Anne Baxter).
True, the girl had her romantic side, but what happened to the dry cynic we saw in those early scenes in the book? The cool-headed observer of her peers? She was passionate about her husband, yes, but theirs was a kind of exclusive love; they weren’t exactly the social butterflies we get in the film. Nor was she ever a fan of Isabel’s. She was an outsider from the start, which made her tragedy all the more acute. Baxter does a good job (though her Oscar was a stretch), but she’s given a far less interesting character to work with than in the novel; the character’s lack of boldness in the film also took away the dark humor of her reactions to Isabel’s superficiality.
The Absence of Suzanne Rouvier. What this film really needs is some comic relief, and the sensual artist offered a trove of it in the novel. A one-time lover of Larry, she is an unapologetic, sensual woman who made a career of being an artist’s model/mistress. Her frankness about her life is hilarious, and her insights about Larry’s kindness (he only took her in because she was sick and destitute) fascinating. True, the majority of her words and actions wouldn’t make it through the censors. But surely a toned-down version could have been attempted?
When Larry Talks about His Faith. Those ponderous religious speeches!
So much more could have been accomplished with wit, with expressions, and with Larry’s dodges when asked direct questions (which we see frequently in the book). In fact, his mystery was one of Larry’s biggest appeals, and is utterly absent from this characterization. He also took himself far less seriously than we see here, and only rarely talked about his beliefs.
Instead, the camera freezes on Power’s intense expressions; we hear his words about doubts and faith. The melodramatic music and shots of clouds don’t help, but I doubt those are the fault of the screenwriter. I know some will blame the boredom of these speeches on Power, but honestly, he does seem like the joyful Larry when in motion. Just when he’s still do I roll my eyes and try to avoid drifting off to sleep.
Larry’s Sanctimony. What happened to his “aloof” quality, which is mentioned in the movie? His lack of judgment? His desire not to have a hold on others–or to let them have a hold on him? Now he’s lecturing Isabel about Sophie? What? By taking the narrator’s scenes and putting Larry in his place, the writer has turned Larry into a stuffy character I’ve no interest in knowing. And this is one of my favorite characters in literature.
The Holy Man. Until this man said, “We Indians,” I wasn’t sure if this was the Benedictine monk from earlier in the book, or the Hindu who helps Larry find his faith. After all, the latter was described in the book as someone who “didn’t talk very much” and mainly meditated.
This strange bearded guy is the chattiest of yogis ever seen on film and perhaps the most European looking. He also is guilty of some serious close talking. Come on. I know this wasn’t exactly a racially/ethnically enlightened time in American film, but surely some understanding of the faith being displayed was required? In a film about faith?
I can’t decide if I’m happy I saw the film or not. It certainly didn’t ruin the book for me, and I enjoyed the scenes with Isabel when Larry wasn’t present, and Elliott with everyone. I’m curious what others think who haven’t read the novel. Did you just fast forward through Larry’s religious scenes to get to the juicy ones, as I wished I had? Now that I’ve gotten over my phobia, maybe I can give Bill Murray’s version a chance; he’s a softer presence than Power, and supposedly really fought for the role. Maybe it’s a bit closer to the novel, and at the very least, it’s more time with Murray….