When Twentieth Century Fox and Darrell Zanuck made “The Razor’s Edge” in 1946, they spared no expense and put together a wonderful cast that includes Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, John Payne, Anne Baxter and Herbert Marshall. Tyrone plays Larry Darrell, a man who turns his back on a safe and comfortable future to travel the world and find his true self. Somerset Maugham’s novel of The Razor’s Edge, published in 1944, provides an exceptionally rich cast of characters.
The director, Edmund Goulding, took his time with the material, so the film meanders along at a slow pace, with many long shots and seemingly extra scenes that add atmosphere but don’t necessary propel the story forward. The film concentrates on Larry’s story, but Maugham also wanted to emphasize the antics among snobbish Americans living in European high society. Herbert Marshall, who plays Maugham in the movie, says that he never considered himself an English gentleman, but his wealth and reputation certainly made him an insider and herald amongst the European upper class.
Clifton Webb, who plays a snobbish American named Elliot Templeton, provides most of the comedy relief in the movie, although Marshall as Maugham adds a few witty remarks. Gene Tierney plays Isabel Bradley, a woman so obsessed with Larry that’s she’s willing to manipulate a broken and desperate woman (Ann Baxter) to prevent Larry from marrying someone else. The film lets the movie do what the book does, which is to cast light on a set of characters rather than present a thrilling story.
Power’s Larry goes on a lot of adventures. Despite his apparent wealth and connections, he lives like a pauper in Paris, hangs out with the lower classes, and then makes a spiritual quest to India. But the character seems to lack passion, especially in comparison to the energetic Isabel. A guy like Darrow would like anybody, and probably would have a lot of friends at his local bar. But I’m not quite sure what he learns from all these adventures, except that perhaps Isabel is not very nice. Referring to Larry, Marshall as Maugham sums it up: “Goodness is, after all, the greatest force in the world, and he’s got it.”
Just when I had enough of Isabel, Larry and Elliott, Anne Baxter’s Sophie turns up in Paris. She plays a destitute alcoholic who knew the principals back in Chicago. Her exquisite performance as Sophie, which won her an Academy Award for best supporting actress, gives Larry something to do in the picture as he attempts to save her. She brings out the best in Larry and the worst in Isabel. It’s interesting that the Maugham character is the first one onscreen as we learn of Sophie’s fate — a case of a real author mourning the undoing of his own fictional character. Perhaps that’s why Maugham considers the novel a comedy, but the movie does not play it that way.