20th Century Fox were masters of the prestige picture. Even when a movie wasn’t about grand sweeping themes it at least looked and acted opulently. Considered a hard sell for adaptation Fox snatched up the rights for $250,000 plus 20% of the net profits to W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. With a clause to rush it into production, it’s surprising the results don’t look sloppy. Fox’s recent Blu-ray shows off the grandeur of its glamour, complimented by a fantastic performance (winning her an Oscar in the process) by Anne Baxter.
Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) has struggled with an existential crisis after returning from the war. He’s in love with wealthy socialite Isabel (Gene Tierney), but her family believes Larry’s a layabout with no money. Larry goes off to find himself instead of marrying Isabel and in the process learns about life’s cruelties and the people perpetuating them.
The Razor’s Edge holds a lot in common with Power’s earlier epic, Blood and Sand. Power plays a character lusting for something only to end up in a nest of vipers un both movies. The Razor’s Edge has a beautiful nest for said vipers, with countless sequences of cocktail parties, grand mansions, and Gene Tierney wearing beautiful gowns designed by Oleg Cassini (her husband). When Larry goes off to find himself, he ends up traveling to the Himalayas (more like Denver…due to budgetary concerns). There are sufficient majesty to the sets, enhanced by the stirring musical score which helps situate Larry as a man seeking less superficial beauty. Despite an overabundance of jargon regarding existentialism and philosophical crisis, the sets do more to convey the search for identity that words cannot.
Strip away the sets, the script feels like two different movies at times, and you’re left with some amazing work from actors who weren’t given the best opportunities to showcase it. Power had just returned from military duty and wanted meatier roles, as did Tierney (wanting the meatier roles, not returning from military service). The movie settles into a comfortable tale of domestic drama once Larry finds enlightenment, testing his newfound morals in a land that doesn’t think about them. Oddly enough, there aren’t many sequences of passion between Tierney and Power, yet this lack of chemistry allows their frustration to shine clearer. Larry knows he should make himself happy before marrying, and when he returns to Paris he sets about making Isabel’s life happy. He’s the modern-day savior, which can make his character a bit rote, but it all comes from a place of good which, according to Maugham (played by Herbert Marshall), is a difficult place to be.
I may be flippantly describing Power’s role in all this because I found Tierney and Baxter to be the film’s highlights. Tierney perfected the cold woman in Leave Her to Heaven and Laura (she reteams with Laura co-star Clifton Webb), but here she’s cold with a purpose. Isabel has been raised to be picky when it comes to love and life; she’s been wealthy all her life and wants to stay that way. Despite her love for Larry, she plans on tricking him into marrying her out of a desire for him and a need to follow social norms. When Larry returns from his search, the shoe’s on the other foot. Isabel is now the one struggling with little money. Because Isabel chose to marry and have children, she doesn’t enjoy the luxuries of going off and finding herself like Larry did. Her identity is chosen for her. Tierney knows when to turn into an ice princess – she perfected it – but there’s always a veneer of humanity within. When she kisses her children, you can see it. When she tells Maugham she loves her husband Gray (John Payne), you see it.
Baxter garnered an Oscar for her portrayal as Larry’s childhood friend, Sophie. All About Eve, the film Baxter is closely connected with, came out four years after. Sophie’s character has far more to be upset about than either of her compatriots. She’s the optimistic ray of sunshine at the start with a husband and child. An unfortunate car accident – life’s little mysteries – takes her loved ones away, leaving Sophie to lose herself in drink. When Sophie hears her husband and daughter are dead, Baxter said she channeled hearing about her little brother dying. The channeling worked because if there’s one emotional beat that rings true in the film it’s Baxter crying over her loss. This isn’t a theatrical, movie star series of howls, nor the quiet tears of dignity; Baxter presents real human emotion, crying like anyone would who just suffered a loss as traumatic. In the scenes where Baxter is drunk, her cherubic face still holds that vibrancy, but her eyes look hollow. If you thought Baxter was too evil in Eve, watch this for some true acting.
Fox’s Blu-ray also contains an audio commentary and Movietone feature, so those expecting in-depth examination of the film might be left wanting. However, The Razor’s Edge is a worthy movie for Baxter’s performance, first and foremost. Tierney and Power are great, and the movie looks beautiful (both on-screen and in the Fox restoration).
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I'm a college student getting my Master's in English, but dreams of getting an additional degree in Film. I'm a movie reviewer for several sites, but I also write classic film reviews for several other sites. I stretch myself pretty thin these days. You can usually find me at a bookstore, or a movie theater. I dream of the day when the two are combined. I base a lot of my friendships on favorite movies.