Thursday, May 3, 2018

Razor's Edge, The (1946)

 20th Century-Fox
Director: Edmund Goulding


It is a tantalizing tale about a returning American soldier seeking a new perspective on life, perhaps a subject which may have appealed to many young men returning from World War II. Included within its plot are essences of love, jealousy, and deceit, bridging a gap to audiences of intrigue with a complicated and deadly love story. All together with a strong leading cast it is motion picture that would become the top grossing picture for 20th Century-Fox for 1947, a prestige picture that paid handsomely in the form of a complicated drama that questions the balance of philosophy and emotions.

The Razor’s Edge is a drama of a young man who sets on a journey of self-discovery following post-traumatic stress of World War I, and the effects it has on the woman he once loved. Larry Darnell (Tyrone Power) is a handsome young man from wealth, with a beautiful fiancĂ©e in socialite Isabel (Gene Tierney), but finds emptiness in life following the traumas witnessed during his service in World War I. Despite opportunities and romantic plans, Isabel lets Larry go on a journey of self-discovery where he lives and works with people far different from his class, eventually discovering enlightenment at a monastery deep in the mountains of India, coming to value love over all things material.

Encouraged to share his new views, Larry returns to witness the misfortunes in which his wealthy, materialistic people of his past had fallen into. In the ten years he was gone the stock market had crashed and Isabel had married, beginning a family, but cannot help but still have strong feelings for Larry. He shares his new ways to help his friends, and decides to wed an old friend fallen on troubled times, Sophie (Anne Baxter), in order to help provide for her, but Isabel’s jealousy arises. Isabel manipulates Sophie through her vice of alcoholism, a struggle Larry was helping her shake, leading to Sophie’s death with hope Larry would reunited with her. Revealing Isabel’s ugly side and finding quality in life with his goodness, far beyond the financial means of what she had valued, Larry rejects Isabel, to her devastation, leaving his former lover for good.

The picture is a rather interesting to discover out of American cinema during the later years of the 1940s. For an age that was historically viewed as conservative, this film takes a look what people should value, rebuking material wants for the ideal of sharing love and all things good with the world, with hope making the world a better place. Now this is not necessarily anything new of an idea shared in movies, but here it is portrayed in a manner of eastern enlightenment, albeit dressed up in a more 1940s American palatable manner perception of a “monastery” in India. The film and its stories question society’s views on human worth and in a way demonizes capitalistic values, encouraging audiences to think beyond the ideas many have been fed all their lives. With that in mind, the most surprising of all looking back on the film was that it became a huge hit.

The film finds its roots from the pen of W. Somerset Maugham, the famed English author, who sold his story rights to 20th Century-Fox shortly after the release of the novel for the same name. Like the novel Maugham plays a small role in his own story as a side character, here played by English character actor Herbert Marshall. While his fictional character helps to serve as a guide by playing a role by which the audiences perceives the events of the picture. Being one of the most successful English writers of the 1930s, in contract negotiations Maugham would work in profitable stipulations of 20% of the film’s profits as well as a bonus if production had not begun by early 1946. The author would make plenty in term of profit sharing, but Fox got around the handsome bonus stipulation by shooting random establishing shots in the summer of 1945, before there was a cast or director for the feature.

Larry discovers a new outlook from his time in India.
Creative disputes would see the film’s initial choice for director, George Cukor, replacing him with Edmund Goulding, a move that proved beneficial for the picture. The British born filmmaker, Goulding masterful uses sets, blocking, and camerawork to create a beautifully assembled production. It should not go unnoticed how Goulding moves his camera, taking longer tracking shots to utilize the fullest his sets and characters without a single wasted motion. You can tell each frame of each shot was carefully crafted to deliver importance to the picture. There are many cases of the camera moving from character to character, portraying complex emotions or motives that make many other films feel simple when compared to this. How on earth he was nominated for Best Director for this work is beyond me.

When I saw Tyrone Power’s name attached to the picture, my mind made a silent groan. For an actor who I have perceived as the studio’s 1940s incarnation of Rudolf Valentino and a lesser athletic Douglas Fairbanks with his many period action/adventure/romance pictures, my expectations were low. However, Power delivers a remarkably passible performance for a character that is supposed to share a sense of eastern philosophy to a western world. This ideal is dial back a bit, of course, to reach its key audiences, but on top of that Power begins as a character that is not to likable and reveals to be a man  of great redeeming character in the story, and I buy it.

His primary female co-star is Gene Tierney coming off her Academy Award nominated performance in Leave Her to Heaven. Here she replaces Maureen O’Hara who was fired studio head for leaking her initial attachment to the picture. Like in Leave Her to Heaven, Tierney plays a jealous woman who goes as far to death of a rival to be the center of his attention. Here her character is not as haunting as she is delusional. Caring herself in a more likable Katherine Hepburn type, she is a tragic character that loses her love, but fails to learn to let go, allowing inner ugliness to destroy what is good about her.

Tierney, Power, Marshall, Webb, Baxter, and Lucile Watson
Among the cast are many notable actors of the Fox stable, including John Payne who was known to play tough guys, but here portrays Tierney’s financially stressed husband. The before mentioned Herbert Marshall as Maugham provides the English dignity and steady voice of the picture. His polar opposite is played by Clifton Webb, who portrays Isabel’s Uncle, who strong disapproves of Larry, his ways, and his initial relationship with Isabel, representing the wealthy social class that looks down on all society that is not his. Webb’s acting is a bit over the top, but he aids in making Larry appealing to audiences, especially when Larry goes out of his way to give one last moment of satisfaction on the death bed of Webb’s character.

The performance of the picture goes to Anne Baxter in the role of Sophie. A friend of Isabel and Larry, she is struck with the greatest tragedy of the picture. Like the story of Job, she loses everything, her husband, her child, and all means of finances in one blow. Her performance at her lowest, being a drunk barmaid/prostitute breaks the hearts of anyone who sees her earlier joyous self. Her arch takes the greatest turn as she is helped by Larry, with plans to marry him in hope of permanently getting on her feet is demolished as Isabel sabotages he will power, sending her on an alcohol induced downfall that ends in her death. This performance is deeply emotional, with Baxter considering it her finest work of her career. This is further supported by her well-deserved wins for Best Supporting Actress from both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.

On a budget of $1.2 million, The Razor’s Edge would bring in over $5 million domestically, making it Fox’s greatest box office grosser of 1947, with the film released on Christmas 1946. The picture was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actor for Webb. Despite the financial success Maugham refused to write Fox a sequel picture due to the rejecting his insistence to pen the screenplay. He would never work for Fox or even Hollywood again, but The Razor’s Edge continues to be a very well done gem of this age in Hollywood movies, buried beneath the flashier pictures of its day.

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