Interesting Failure #3: “The Razor’s Edge” (1984)
When I wrote my post “10 Awful Movie Versions of Good Novels“, the main point I was trying to make, of course, was how movie versions of pulp novels can be as bad as movie versions of literary novels are often claimed to be. But there was another argument underneath that. If I was a betting man, I would say most of the time when a person says they didn’t like a movie version of the novel (or play, or short story), it’s because they didn’t like how the movie changed the novel. And, to be fair, that’s often a valid criticism. But sometimes, it seems like people think fidelity to the source material is the only thing that makes a movie adaptation good, and that is simply not true. Many of the movies I wrote about in that list were faithful to the plot of the novel they were adapting, but they completely missed the tone, which is what made the novel work in the first place. Most often, of course, movies that are doggedly faithful to their source novel without being good movies aren’t the calamities I wrote about, but are merely lifeless.
One example that immediately springs to mind for me is Edmund Goulding’s version of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. It’s by no means an awful film – Anne Baxter won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, Gene Tierney was transcendent as the female lead, and while Clifton Webb had played his snobbish character before, there’s no denying he did it better than almost anyone (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Harold Russell for The Best Years of our Lives). And the movie certainly looks handsome enough. Still, there are three huge flaws in the film. One of them, admittedly, is a matter of personal taste – I know plenty of people who are fans of Tyrone Power, and I don’t mind him in adventure films such as Black Swan (not to be confused, of course, with Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological drama), but I do not buy him at all as a man seeking spiritual enlightenment. In addition, while the movie does, as I said, look handsome, Goulding (possibly at the urging of Daryl Zanuck, who produced the movie and did uncredited work on the script) is so careful and plodding with the tone that the movie seems constrained and self-conscious when it should be inspiring.
But the most damaging mistake Goulding, Zanuck and credited writer Lamar Trotti make is keeping the device of the novel of having Maugham serve as a character who narrates the movie and is told the events of it. This adds to how puffed-up the movie feels, but more importantly, while Herbert Marshall (who plays Maugham) is a fine actor whom I’ve enjoyed in such films as Foreign Correspondent, The Good Fairy and, of course, Trouble in Paradise, and does his best here, the character itself distances us from the story on-screen, which adds to how self-conscious the movie feels. The 1984 version of The Razor’s Edge, by contrast, not only cuts the Maugham character out, but shows scenes that were either implied or described in the novel, and changes a couple of them somewhat. This version, directed by John Byrum and co-written by him and Bill Murray, who also starred in the film, received horrible reviews when it first came out, and I won’t deny it’s flawed, but I think it’s a lot closer in spirit to the novel than the 1946 version is, and I also think it’s a better film.
The central character of the novel, and both film versions, is Larry Darnell. At the beginning of the 1984 film, Larry, along with his friend Gray Maturin (James Keach), is off to be an ambulance driver in WWI (which Maugham was in real life), with a promise that when he returns, he’ll marry his sweetheart Isabel (Catherine Hicks). We also see his friendship with Sophie (Theresa Russell), who’s marrying Bob (Joris Stuyck), who’s working his way through law school (unlike the others, he’s not rich). However, WWI turns out to be a sobering experience for Larry, especially when Piedmont (Brian Doyle-Murray, Murray’s real-life brother), his obnoxious superior officer, ends up saving his life by stepping in front of a bullet meant for him. Gray is able to return home in okay shape, even willing to accept a job in his father’s office as a stockbroker, but while Larry has the same offer, he’s unwilling to do so. Instead, he wants to take time to think about things. Isabel is upset about this, but her uncle Elliot (Denholm Elliot) thinks it might be good for Larry to sow his oats for a while, especially when he hears Larry wants to go to Paris (Elliot has a house there). Of course, being the rich snob he is, what he envisions for Larry (going on a cruise ship, staying at the finest hotels, getting a good job) is very different from what Larry ends up doing (going and working on a tramp steamer, living in a low-rent hotel, working at various low-paying jobs).
Sure enough, when Isabel comes to Paris, while she’s charmed at first by some of the things Larry does (greeting her with an organ grinder, taking her to a restaurant), she’s horrified by the thought he wants only to live on what he has, and that he wants her to do it as well. Isabel won’t do it, and gives him their engagement ring back. He tells her to keep it (so that she’ll know he’ll always love her), and makes one last appeal to her by taking her back to his hotel. In the original movie, Isabel tries to seduce Larry into getting her pregnant and thereby tricking him into marriage (more on that below), but here, they do end up spending the night together voluntarily; it’s when she gets a really good look at his living conditions (a bug on her pillow, the dirty communal shower) that she flees and ends up marrying Gray; she doesn’t love him, but he loves her, and she knows he’ll make her secure. Larry ends up working in the mines, and Mackenzie (Peter Vaughan), a fellow miner, figures out Larry is searching for answers; he tells Larry to go to India. Larry does, and ends up meeting Raaz (Saeed Jaffrey), a boatman who takes him to the mountains to meet the Dalai Lama. After spending several years in India, while he doesn’t have all the answers to the questions he had, he at least feels more at peace with himself and the world than he did before, and he returns to Paris.
Meanwhile, while Isabel and Gray started out with a happy marriage that included two daughters, their financial state has been in tatters since the 1929 crash, and that, along with the death of his father, has left Gray a broken man. He suffers from serious migraines and rarely goes out. Isabel and Gray travel to Paris at Elliot’s invitation, as he still has his fortune and dotes on Isabel. Larry hears they are back in Paris, and goes to visit. Using a trick he learned in India, he cures Gray of his headaches (of course, it’s really Gray who cured himself), and Gray is happy enough that he, Isabel and Larry are able to go out on the town. That’s when Larry gets a shock; at a lower-class restaurant he takes them to, Sophie is there, working as a prostitute. Years ago, she had been devastated when a drunk driver hit the car carrying her, Bob and their baby, and while she survived with some injuries, Bob and her baby were killed. Sophie never really recovered from this, becoming an alcoholic (at the funeral for Gray’s father, we see her on her way towards this), and when her in-laws finally washed their hands of her (as did Isabel and Gray), she went to Paris. Driven as much by his past friendship with Sophie as with the need to save her, Larry gets Sophie to move into his place (a low-rent apartment) and away from her boyfriend/pimp Coco (Serge Feuillard). Sophie, with Larry’s help, eventually cleans herself up, they fall in love, and plan to be married. But Isabel, who is still in love with Larry, is aghast at the news, and makes a fateful decision.
There are a couple of things that must be acknowledged about the 1946 film version, aside from the terrific performances of Tierney, Baxter and Webb (as well as the decent one by John Payne as Gray – to be fair, there’s not much to the role – and a sharp cameo by Elsa Lanchester in a role not in the 1984 version). One is studio films at the time were still mostly shot on sets, and the very idea of shooting in France or India would have been unheard of, so naturally, the sets are at a disadvantage. This doesn’t matter so much in the Paris scenes – in both versions, most of the scenes are in Elliot’s house, hotels and apartments, restaurants, or nondescript city streets, all of which can be easily faked – but while the Indian set obviously can’t compete with the real thing, Goulding and his designers do a decent enough job. Secondly, Goulding and Zanuck were dealing with the Hays Code, which meant, for example, they could only approximate the degradation Sophie had reduced herself towards, and what they’re able to show is still suggestive enough. Nevertheless, even with those caveats, I still find the 1984 version holds up better.
For one thing, part of how the 1946 version seems constrained is how it explains everything, instead of letting you the viewer figure it out. This, again, is one of the major drawbacks of the Maugham character; maybe he’s meant to be an audience surrogate, but it comes across as someone underlining every point. The scenes in India are also problematic because of this; again, I grant no set built could compete with the natural wonders of India, and therefore you’re going to get more outright philosophical discussions, but the discussions between Larry and the holy man (Cecil Humphreys) in the original seem like Eastern philosophy for third-graders. And even granting the fact Eastern philosophy wasn’t the only philosophy/religion/science treated that way at the time (Freud came off far worse in movies at the time, for example), it doesn’t make the movie come off any better in this regard. By contrast, Byrum’s movie shows you parts of the story instead of telling them to you. One example right up front is that opening sequence, which takes place at a party, which not only sets up the Larry/Isabel relationship, but also shows how Gray feels about Isabel, and the friendship between Larry and Sophie, instead of us being told about it later. And with the India scenes, not only does Byrum let the majesty of the scenery speak for itself, but we also see Larry interact with the locals as well as the holy men in a meaningful way, so we can see the way the experience has affected him. Also, while it seems the 1946 version is merely paying lip service to Larry’s conversion, Byrum and Murray seem fully invested in it, which also makes the movie resonate more. Finally, while I’m going to talk about this more below, we get to see Larry’s romance with Sophie late in the movie play out in detail, which makes it more meaningful than when it was just talked about in the earlier version.
Of course, when the 1984 movie came out, much of the criticism focused on Murray’s performance, about how he seemed too modern for the role, and how he didn’t express himself well enough in the dramatic scenes. It also seemed odd, to say the least, that Murray of all people, whose entire comic persona seemed to be of the wise-ass deadpan snarker deflating any serious situation (or, as Anthony Lane once put it, “we stand on our dignity, and Murray ties our shoelaces together”), not only starring in but co-writing a movie about, as the tagline put it, one man’s search for himself. And while I think there’s something knee-jerk in the hatred of comic actors taking on more serious roles (the people who criticize comic actors for doing this, no matter what their intentions, often come across as “How dare these actors step outside the box I created for them and want to do something different?”), there’s no denying the fact when comic actors go towards more serious roles, they either flatten themselves so much there’s nothing on screen to enjoy, or worse, embrace a blatant sentimental streak that can come off as embarrassing.
To be sure, Murray doesn’t entirely dodge the charge of seeming too “modern”. At that opening party, when Larry takes Isabel out of the kissing booth she’s running and starts horsing around with her, it’s hard not to think of Todd DiLaMuca giving noogies to Lisa Loopner. And then there’s the scene where Larry and Sophie are at a bar, and Larry dancing with another woman while watching Sophie to make sure she doesn’t drink; the bobbing and weaving he does on the dance floor seems to come out of a 70’s or 80’s movie. Still, for the most part, I think Byrum and Murray contain Murray’s persona to make it fit the character of Larry. He certainly looks more convincingly low-rent than Power did in the original. And again, while Larry is supposed to be a simple man who can’t really express the unease he feels other than the fact he doesn’t want the life Isabel has laid out before him, Murray, to me, is more convincing expressing that than Power ever was (even though Power, in real life, apparently felt very close to Larry’s point of view, which was one of the reasons why he took the role). He certainly looks different in look and manner after his India experience, which Power doesn’t. Murray also expresses more of a range of emotions, especially anger. The scene where Larry eulogizes Piedmont was apparently inspired by Murray’s grief at the time over the death of John Belushi, and while the words he says seem to fit Belushi more than the character of Piedmont, the grief and anger are very real. Similarly, the last scene between Larry and Isabel, when he says goodbye to her for good, is much more powerful with Murray than it is with Power because Murray’s feelings come through more than Power’s did. Murray may not have been as developed a dramatic actor as he would later become in movies like Rushmore, Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers, but I think he not only comes off better than he was given credit for at the time, he’s also much more convincing than Power was.
If there’s a performer who suffers in comparison with the original, for me, it’s Hicks. Again, this may be a matter of taste, but except for Garbo Talks, I’ve never found her very appealing; she’s certainly attractive-looking, but she doesn’t have much of a range beyond earnestness. Isabel is a tricky role to play, because you have to believe she really does love Larry even though she wants the life she’s been told she deserves, and that what she does to Sophie near the end of the movie is as much motivated by her feelings for Larry as it is her selfishness about not wanting anyone else to have him. Yet Tierney was able to pull it off completely, being convincing every step of the way. The scene where it seems like she’s going to seduce Larry so she can get pregnant and trick him into marrying her – because of Code restrictions, this is never said out loud, but it’s pretty well implied – is a good example, because Tierney lets us see her feelings when she realizes what she’s doing is ultimately a mistake, and yet doesn’t overdo it. And we see the dangerous calculating side of her when she makes her decision about Sophie, and yet because Tierney’s feelings about Larry seem genuine, it’s hard to make up our mind about Isabel. Hicks, on the other hand, just comes off as petulant.
In fact, what this ends up doing is tilting the balance of the movie towards Sophie, so we want Larry to successfully help her and end up with her. And credit here must also go to Russell. Sophie is someone who starts out feeling too much and then ends up deflecting those feelings by drowning her sorrows. As much as I liked Baxter in the original, there’s no denying it’s a self-conscious performance, but I do think it worked for the character. Russell goes the opposite tack, being much more naturalistic. That party scene at the beginning, when Sophie gives Larry a book of her poems and jokes that her nightmare was she’d end up with Larry, is a good example; Russell says the lines almost like she’s embarrassed by the feelings she’s expressing, and yet you can feel what she’s expressing. And when Sophie goes downhill, Russell doesn’t overdo those scenes either, even in the scene where she finds out about Bob and the baby being dead; it seems like her sorrow is being ripped out of her. Russell is also extremely attractive (I will admit to being biased in this department), and she has great chemistry with Murray. So it’s all the more tragic how Sophie ends up.
The characters that are changed somewhat in the 1984 version, as I mentioned above, are Gray and Uncle Elliot. For Gray, it’s minor; in the original, he was badmouthing Sophie to Larry as much as Isabel was after they see Sophie as a prostitute for the first time, while in the 1984 version, when Larry and Sophie announce their engagement, Gray couldn’t be happier. As for Uncle Elliot, Webb, as I’ve said before, had cornered the market on playing snobs, but he certainly does it well enough here, and brings a bitchiness to the role that is very entertaining. Denholm Elliot, who I think has more range than Webb, and is also capable of being entertainingly over-the-top, gives a more naturalistic performance by contrast, and makes Uncle Elliot a more rounded figure; in the original, when he confesses a sneaking admiration for Larry going off to Paris instead of marrying Isabel right away, it seems like only a matter of form, while in the 1984 version, it comes off as more believable. Still, I must confess I do miss the theatrical brio Webb brought to the role, so it’s a wash.
Byrum’s film version was poorly received when it first came out, and I think this is mostly because of the shock of seeing Murray attempt this type of role right away (after the film’s poor critical and box office reception, Murray went into a self-imposed exile – except for a cameo in Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, he didn’t appear in a movie again until Richard Donner’s “Christmas Carol” update, Scrooged, in 1988). And there apparently are some deleted scenes, such as Larry telling Isabel about his spiritual quest while they walk through a cathedral, that might have lent more flow to the movie. Still, I think despite its flaws, this is a much better movie than is generally given credit for, and I also think this stands above the 1946 version in many crucial ways, precisely because it’s paying more attention to the spirit of the novel than the letter of it.