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The Razor's Edge - an impressive achievement


TomJH
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I wonder if others were as generally impressed as I was with The Razor's Edge (1946). I haven't read the Maugham novel so have no idea how much of a success the film was as a translation to the screen. Fans of the novel will undoubtedly have a far different take on the film from those who have not read the book.

 

Having said that, I appreciate the courage of the filmmakers to attempt to film a "think piece" like this, even though, I suppose, the philosophical aspects of the film are the portions that will possibly leave many viewers a little cold or confused.

 

 

Where I think the film succeeds MAGNIFICENTLY is in regard to its art direction, augmented by stunning black and white photography (though I thought last night's print didn't have as much contrast as I would have hoped). The Razor's Edge has some of the most remarkably detailed and realistic studio sets of any film that I can think of from the 1940s, ranging from an elegant night club to a French dive to a raucous blues playing dance hall to a serene Russian night spot to an opium den, all capturing the sheer variety of establishments existing in Paris in the 1920s. The film only falters, I feel, with the incredibly artificial looking yogi's palace in the Himalayas.

 

 

The film has a quite remarkable cast, with some really stunning work by a number of them. Anne Baxter won an Academy Award for her strong, sympathetic role as the tragic Sophie, and I can understand why. Her performance lingers in the memory even after her character has disappeared from the film. Herbert Marshall is perfect as Maugham (continuing the role from Moon and Sixpence), playing the book's author with an amused detachment.

 

 

Clifton Webb gives a grand performance in the juicy role of Elliot Templeton, an incredible society gossip and snob who is also, somehow, quite likeable inspite of his prickly manner. The film gives him a glorious death scene, with a great final line. And then there is the incredibly beautitiful Gene Tierney, convincingly gracious and conniving, as the selfish, manipulative Isobel, a Chicago society swan who can't ever hope to understand the "idleness" of the film's central character (played by Tyrone Power) though she continues to love him.

 

 

Also of note, the elegant direction of the underrated Edmund Goulding who, despite the film's vast tapestry, still infuses great interest in many of the scenes of interplay between the film's characters. A standout scene for me is that set in a coal miner cafe, between Power and Fritz Kortner (whom some might recall from Pandora's Box), the latter giving a small but powerful peformance as a coal miner who is a defrocked priest running from God. There is also a scene that Robert Osborne pointed out, in which Gene Tierney in a beautiful evening gown seems to virtually glide down a long winding staircase.

 

 

Yes, it's a long film, a very long one, but, for the most part (perhaps excluding those scenes with the yogi) I still found it quite compelling.

 

 

Of course, the year after this film was released director Goulding and star Power would be reunited for Nightmare Alley, a film noir melodrama that has attained something of a cult following over the years. Unlike The Razor's Edge, Nightmare Alley (which Zanuck only made to indulge his star's pleas to do so) would die a quick death at the box office. Today, though, it probably has a much bigger reputation than Razor's Edge, which would have pleased Power, inasmuch as Nightmare Alley probably has his best work as an actor.

 

 

One final comment. The Razor's Edge's dramatic and beautiful score by Alfred Newman was originally done by Newman a decade before for Goldwyn's These Three. The music works just as well here, heightening the visuals of this film tremendously. Since it was virtually a repeat score from before, I assume that's the reason why it did not win an Academy Award nomination in 1946. Since Newman won nine Oscars in his career, however, I guess he was somehow able to survive this "tragedy."

 

Edited by: TomJH on Mar 11, 2012 6:52 AM

 

Edited by: TomJH on Mar 11, 2012 11:25 AM

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Unfortunately, we're not as simpatico on this as we are on The Breaking Point.

 

Yes, The Razor's Edge is gorgeously shot, with terrific sets and a great score (I did not know it was recycled from These Three, how odd that they would not do an original score!) Clifton Webb was a little tiresome at first, re-re-doing his Waldo Lydecker bit- but he blew me away in his death bed scene wherein he bemoans not being invited to sit at the table with the elites to whom he has made a life of toadying to. That was some amazing work. Elsa Lanchester aced her tiny role, her rendition of The Bonny Banks of Loch Loman was lovely. Herbert Marshall- as always- was fantastic and very inn-teresting as Maugham- watch his eyes as he reacts with Webb and Tierney, you get a lot of suggestiveness from his glances. And the *gorgeous* Gene Tierney does the most she can with another thankless, one-sided role.

 

Now the bad.

 

Tyrone Power, with the very notable exception of Nightmare Alley in which he does give a GREAT performance, was such a glib presence in every film he was ever in that he deflates any intended gravity within minutes. He absolutely does not have the presence or the depth to flesh out his character, who is the ostensible center of the story, and the film cannot recover from his lack of characterization of a role that is already something of a question mark. He was a handsome man- but ugh! That voice! So flat, yet so high. He's blown out of the water by everyone around him, not returning a single volley sent his way by his fellow actors and I don't see him bringing anything he might have learned or seen in WWII to his role, which is tragically evident in the scene where he discusses his fellow soldier who sacrificed his life for him. He is also a very well coiffed, shaved and manicured Bohemian, I have to note.

 

Anne Baxter compensates for Power's lack of presence by doing her usual deep breathing, heavy intesity routine- although I do say she succeeds for about ninety-five percent of her performance, fumbling the end of the restaraunt scene where we first see Sophie at her decline so badly I laughed out loud at how ludicrous she was. Note: her character is barely a blip in the novel, mentioned for maybe all of about four pages.

 

All sorts of bizarre, idiosyncratic things about the film occured to me as I watched last night, but this morning they are all gone. Very little of it has stayed with me- another not-so-good indicator.

 

I've read the book. I didn't really care for it, but in the intro, Maugham warns the reader that nothing happens in it- so I can't help but give him something of a pass. I wish more authors would do that.

 

In the end, maybe I'm just not a Fox Film person. They don't have the style and the pace of the Warners and MGM films. The films of 20th Century during this period all try so hard to be well-meaning that I feel as if they forgot to put effort towards much else. In the end, a lot of them are dry, dull, static, set-bound and stagey; and I don't feel like they had as many inn-teresting supporting players on tap at Fox as they did at the other studios.

 

*Two and a half stars (out of four.)*

 

P.S.- There is no reason on God's Green Earth for this thing to be so damn long. At the very least half-an-hour could (and should) have been trimmed.

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Though I wholeheartedly agree that Power's best work was *Nightmare Alley*, I don't think he's done so badly in this movie. I especially enjoyed his scenes with Tierney. With the philosophical element, I found depth in the concepts, but the way the yogi delivered them felt hokey. I wonder how it went over with 1946 audiences. Yes, Tom, the art direction was fantastic. Webb, Marshall, Baxter all added a lot to the story. Webb, especially, was delightful - he seems born to play this kind of a role!

 

I'd enjoyed the book years back (it's one of my favorites); I think the movie was a good adaptation, though yes, the scenes with Sophie are fleshed out in the film in comparison.

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> {quote:title=JonnyGeetar wrote:}{quote}

>

> In the end, maybe I'm just not a Fox Film person. They don't have the style and the pace of the Warners and MGM films. The films of 20th Century during this period all try so hard to be well-meaning that I feel as if they forgot to put effort towards much else. In the end, a lot of them are dry, dull, static, set-bound and stagey; and I don't feel like they had as many inn-teresting supporting players on tap at Fox as they did at the other studios.

>

And all these years I thought it was just me. I've always felt that Fox did the worst job of all of the studios depicting people living in the present day - their present day of the 30's, 40's, and 50's - and it always seemed that they did an excessive number of period pieces. There's just something missing when you compare their product to the output of the other studios of the time. That being said, I do think "Razor's Edge" was one of Fox's better achievements of the 40's. There just never seemed to be much to look at in the way of Fox films past their well known tent pole classic films of which "Razor's Edge" is one.

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Well, Jonny and Eugenia, thanks for throwing your reviews of the film right back at me. I just love the visual look of The Razor's Edge. That party scene at the very beginning was a wonderful visual feast (if you pardon the use of that word for a party). Watching the scene of Power and Tierney talking, when you see the moonlight reflecting off that giant body of water in the background (Lake Michigan, I assume), I was looking at that rear screen projection as much as I was the stars because it is just so gorgeous.

 

Those Parisian cobblestone streets just breathe authenticity yet we know it was all done on a Fox backlot.

 

We seem to be in agreement, Eugenia, about those yogi scenes being a detriment, and we all seem in general agreement about most of the superior quality of the performances. And I agree with you, Eugenia, that Power and Tierney are enjoyable to watch in their scenes together.

 

But, Jonny, you've really got a thing against Tyrone Power, it appears. I agree that he can be a rather handsome bland presence in some of his films. (When I was a kid he and Errol Flynn were my two favourite stars; Flynn still blows me away but Power, well, while I still like him, he really can't compare to Errol in excitement-but part of that is also because of their studios because Flynn was at Warners, a great studio, while Power was stuck at Fox).

 

One thing, though, Jonny, you must admit: Power was fan-tas-tic in The Mark of Zorro. He beautifully played the fop scenes as Don Diego, often with a delightful gentle humour, and he more than lived up to his dashing chores as the masked swordsman. And he is truly remarkable in that duel with Rathbone. Even though you can see that Power was doubled in a few of those shots, his swordsmanship in that film is extraordinarily impressive. He stands up more than credibly to Rathbone, and Rathbone, when it came to natural fencing ability, was the best there was, I suspect.

 

I even question that Flynn could have been as good in this film as Power because I'm not certain that Errol could have pulled off the Don Diego scenes as well.

 

Sorry, folks, I got off topic from The Razor's Edge, but, if Power is not at his best in this film, I just wanted to cite a film in which he was.

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I like The Razor's Edge, Fox films, and Tyrone Power. I particularly like Power in Lloyd's of London, The Rains Came, In Old Chicago, and Alexander's Ragtime Band. Fox's The Egyptian is my favorite epic, and Fox's Wilson is one of my favorite biopics, if a bit hagiographic. Like every studio, Fox had a distinctive style. I'd like to see My Gal Sal again -- a very enjoyable musical biopic. This political season, it would be interesting to see Wilson again -- those convention scenes provide a fascinating look into the old style political convention.

 

 

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Swithin, have you seen Power in either Mark of Zorro or Nightmare Alley? Two more contrasting films you'll never find but he's quite brilliant in both, in my opinion. You named a lot of Power's late '30s films but I have a hard time enjoying his early work because I always find him a bit shallow back then.

 

All of Power's '40s costumers are worth watching, if only for the production values, Son of Fury, Black Swan, Captain from Castile (though that one is reeeeally slow) and Prince of Foxes. The latter film, stunningly photographed on location in Italy with real castiles in the background, also benefits from Orson Welles, a bit over-the-top but fun as Cesare Borgia, and a brilliant performance from Everett Sloane as a two faced assassin.

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Tom, I've seen Zorro and Alley. I'm not a fan of Zorro but Alley is quite powerful. I like The Long Gray Line -- a later Power film as well. Made by Columbia, but it had the scope of the big Fox films. You're quite right, although I didn't realize it when I was writing -- the Power films I mentioned were all 1930s. I think in general, I prefer the look of the films of that decade to the 40s. This has nothing to do with Fox, or with Power, but I love 30s musicals and am not a fan of the big later MGM musicals with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, though I love Fred with Ginger.

 

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*If you're about to marry a woman who looks like Gene Tierney, would you relent at the last minute and instead go to the Himalayas to search for the meaning of life?*

 

Well, I wouldn't. But, then, I guess I'm a lot more shallow than Ty Power's character is in this film. Then again, when I look at Gene Tierney, I think, "Three Cheers for Shallowness!"

 

Edited by: TomJH on Mar 11, 2012 3:29 PM

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>If you're about to marry a woman who looks like Gene Tierney, would you relent at the last minute and instead go to the Himalayas to search for the meaning of life? Seriously?

 

She was nagging and bossy. He had a $3,000 a year inheritance income in the early 1920s, and she was nagging him because that was not enough for her to live on. She demanded that he go to work right away, and she wound up driving him away from her.

 

A good car could be bought in the 1920s for $600, and home that cost $500,000 to a million dollars today cost only about $3,500 in the early 1930s. So his $3,000 a year income in the early 1920s would be like an annual inheritance income today of $100,000 to $200,000 or more. Yet that was not enough for her.

 

Yes, I can understand why he went to the Himalayas. There are good looking dames all over the world, and greedy nagging ones should be avoided.

 

He worked on various jobs during some of the time he was away, but he didn't really have to work at all.

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If you're about to marry a woman who looks like Gene Tierney, would you relent at the last minute and instead go to the Himalayas to search for the meaning of life? Seriously?

 

On the face of it I can understand someone asking this question. My own interpretation is that Power's character had a yearning to find "the meaning of life" long before he met Tierney's character. I don't remember if it was stated as such in the book, but maybe the movie should have explained that part better.

 

Personal disclosure - I've stated before here that I've lived in India. I've actually met spiritual teachers there (though not in the Himalayas), so I can say with authority that the yogi in the movie was Hollywood hokum, Hollywood's perception of what a guru is. That's the only part of the movie that I kind of rejected out of hand.

 

With Power, people were mentioning *Zorro*, but I liked *Blood and Sand* even more. *Witness for the Prosecution* was good, but my favorite is *Nightmare Alley* (as said before).

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> A good car could be bought in the 1920s for $600, and home that cost $500,000 to a million dollars today cost only about $3,500 in the early 1930s. So his $3,000 a year income in the early 1920s would be like an annual inheritance income today of $100,000 to $200,000 or more. Yet that was not enough for her.

$3000 in the 1920's had the equivalent buying power of about $40,000 today. Certainly enough to live on, but hardly in the bracket you suggest.

 

 

>The Razor's Edge's dramatic and beautiful score by Alfred Newman was originally done by Newman a decade before for Goldwyn's These Three. The music works just as well here, heightening the visuals of this film tremendously. Since it was virtually a repeat score from before, I assume that's the reason why it did not win an Academy Award nomination in 1946. Since Newman won nine Oscars in his career, however, I guess he was somehow able to survive this "tragedy."

 

 

Taking over the running of Fox's music department in 1939 made Newman a very busy man; between functioning as administrator, conductor of others' scores and writing his own, it's a wonder that he even knew what day of the week it was. It's also hardly surprising that he'd re-use themes from other scores of his (which is what he did; he didn't simply lift his entire score from THESE THREE). There are, for instance, themes from THE BLACK SWAN in CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME in THE ROBE and PRINCE OF FOXES, and from THE ROBE in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.

 

Other composers did the same thing, usually due to time constraints, but also the result of a conviction that producers or audiences were unlikely to recognize or remember a theme from an earlier movie. They certainly didn't foresee, that decades later, obsessive fans, with these movies and recordings at their disposal, would sit around making comparisons.

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> {quote:title=TomJH wrote:}{quote}W

>

> But, Jonny, you've really got a thing against Tyrone Power, it appears. I agree that he can be a rather handsome bland presence in some of his films. (When I was a kid he and Errol Flynn were my two favourite stars; Flynn still blows me away but Power, well, while I still like him, he really can't compare to Errol in excitement-but part of that is also because of their studios because Flynn was at Warners, a great studio, while Power was stuck at Fox).

No, really I'm fine with Power- at least he did give one awesome performance- Nightmare Alley for which I feel he really should've been nominated for the 1947 Oscar (he's much better than Ronald Colman in A Double Life, and Nightmare is a much better film than Life.) As comparison, I cite Robert Taylor- who was also handsome and not at all an unlikeable presence- who never gave a real *electric* performance on a level with what Power did at least once. It has been a million years since I've seen The Mark of Zorro. I do feel that another good example of Power's weak acting would be in Witness for the Prosecution. He is, in the words of the great Rose McGowan "all loosey goosey" in a role that does not call for any looseness (or goosiness for that matter.) Granted, his character is performing an act during that movie, but there's no reason for someone as smart as Charles Laughton's character not seeing right through it. He does seem to be having fun in The Black Swan and he looks great in it.

 

 

P.S.- The Sisters (1938) was on yesterday and I was blown away by how good Errol Flynn was in it and how much real acting he did with his face and expressions.

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Jonny,I hope you're able to catch up with Mark of Zorro again. The final duel alone is worth the price of admission, but I really think Power pulls off the balancing act of the dual identities in that one extremely well. That, plus his scenes with Linda Darnell have considerable charm and, at times, a gentle humour. This is the only one of Power's swahbucklers to not be directed by the somewhat leaden Henry King. This time it was Rouben Mamoulian, and his stylish flourishes make a HUGE difference.

 

But I can't really agree with your assessment of Power's performance in Witness for the Prosecution. He gets top billing but is really part of an ensemble cast in that one. It's Laughton's show, of course, but I think Power is very convincing as the murder suspect. I'm not quite certain what you mean by Power playing it "loosey goosey" in the role but if you mean he's anything but macho, well, I agree. But I don't think that detracts from the film. I won't, of course, discuss the ending of that film because that would be, well, unforgiveable in case there are readers of this thread that still intend to see that courtroom thriller for the first time.

 

I read that Power, Laughton and Billy Wilder got along fabulously while making that picture (in fact, somewhere I think that I heard that Wilder called that film his happiest shoot) and, after the film was completed, the three of them travelled around together.

 

By the way, you mentioned Robert Taylor, and wrote that he never gave an electric performance. But have you seen him in The Last Hunt? It's a '50s western about buffalo hunters in which he's cast against type as a cold-blooded gunman with a hate on for Indians and anyone who gets in his way. He's chillingly effective in what may be the one villainous role of his career.

 

At the same time, though, his character can almost act like a child bewildered by his own behaviour. After commiting one particularly ruthless act you then see a conflict of emotions across Taylor's face, almost like he's sorry for what he just did. At the same time, though, if someone then crosses him, his expression will harden once again and you just know he's ready to kill. I'm not a fan of Robert Taylor but this performance really works.

 

Errol Flynn is another story. Since I love watching the guy in his prime years, needless to say I think he's a much underrated actor.

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I like Powers in lots of films, including *Nightmare Alley* and *The Mask of Zorro*. I don't blame his acting for what I consider the failure of *The Razor's Edge*. It is a good looking film, and an earnest film. It wants to be deep, but I find it hollow. It wants to be a bit like *Lost Horizon*, but was more like *Looking for Mr. Goodbar*. Although I have not read the novel, I attributed this to the difficulty of portraying a philosophical search on screen.

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*It is a good looking film, and an earnest film. It wants to be deep, but I find it hollow.*

 

I agree, VX. That's why I concentrate, instead, upon the visuals and performances for enjoyment. Oh, and that Alfred Newman music. This film has got way too much going for it to be dismissed just because the philosophical aspects are unsatisfactory.

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I had the feeling you were going to come up with an example in defense of Robert Taylor...It's entirely possible somewhere in his vast filmography there is a genuine *electric* performance, and I certainly think Taylor was capable of one, plus like I said, he is a likeable presence and I don't question his STAR credentials. At the very least, had Taylor not died so young(ish), there was a very real chance he could have gone ahead to a Leslie Nielson-esque career, harnessing that aggressive deadpan thing he could do for its comedic potential. Imagine what he could have done with a role in Airplane!.

 

ps- seriously.

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