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The Razor’s Edge (1946)

The-Razors-Edge-1946-posterMy local library recently acquired The Razor’s Edge and since it’s a small library and DVDs of classic movies seem to appear and disappear mysteriously, I thought I had better watch it while I could. And, actually, I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. The cast is excellent and although the middle gets silly, I sympathized with Tyrone Power’s character.

The movie is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, published in 1944. The novel is narrated by Maugham himself as though he were meeting the characters of his story and in the movie he is played by Herbert Marshall. The character who Maugham is chiefly interested in is Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), who has just returned from WWI. But although he is engaged to socialite Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney) and offered work by the millionaire Gray Maturin (John Payne), Larry is not sure what he wants to do. Isabel’s uncle, Elliott Templeton (Cliffton Webb), thinks he’s a bum.

But Isabel is smart enough to realize that Larry’s not going to settle down until he finds peace of mind and agrees to wait while Larry takes time off to “loaf,” as he calls it. He goes to Paris, seeking to discover what the meaning of life is and what it means to be alive and why he is alive (his friend died saving his life during the war). But although he finds some answers –  he knows for certain that he does not want to make earning money his standard of achievement – he’s still searching. He asks Isabel to marry him, but although she’s crazy about him, she can’t imagine living the life he wants to live, without wealth, without society, and she refuses him and marries Gray Maturin instead. In the meantime, Larry’s search leads him to India, where he feels like he’s come much closer to the answers he’s looking for. He returns to Paris, but finds his childhood friend, Sophie (Anne Baxter) now self-destructing with alcohol after losing her husband and child in a car crash. Larry wants to help Sophie, but Isabel grows jealous and concerned.

Although Larry is the main character, The Razor’s Edge provides a tableaux of characters and their intersecting lives. The film covers over ten years (beginning with the roaring twenties with the cult of making wealth that Larry rejects to the crash of ’29, were Gray loses everything and Isabel ruefully reflects that she is now as poor as she would have been with Larry. Somerset Maugham, as played by Herbert Marshall, is a sympathetic man, though often wryly amused by people, who can generally see through their pretenses, but admires Larry’s quest in life. He is also the only person Isabel will talk frankly with, partly because he can see through her anyway.

Herbert Marshall, John Payne, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power

Herbert Marshall, John Payne, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power

Isabel is a good role for Gene Tierney, not evil, but selfish and puts her love of Larry before anything (though she tries to make Gray happy and seems to succeed well enough). It seems like she loves Larry more than Larry ever loved her (she was the one who pursued him in the first place). And although she is smart enough to realize in the beginning that Larry needs time to sort things out, she never does see that the two of them want different things in life. Were she crosses the line is in her jealousy of Sophie, who becomes engaged to Larry. She doesn’t exactly sabotage Sophie, but she makes it easy for Sophie to relapse…with disastrous results for Sophie.

Anne Baxter earned an academy award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sophie, who begins the film passionately in love with her husband (though there are hints that she likes her drinks a little too much) and goes completely to pieces after he dies. She’s partially a parallel character to Larry. Both are wounded people who lived when someone close to them died and don’t know how to go on. He responds by trying to find the reason for living, but she does not even try. It seems to hurt her too much to even face it. And ultimately there is some truth to Isabel’s assertion that Sophie doesn’t want to be helped.

The film is extremely earnest in tone, though it is lightened by the presence of Clifton Webb and one scene with Elsa Lanchester (who made me wish she was in the film more). Webb’s Elliott Templeton is a snob of snobs, but as the film goes on one realizes that he is also kind and generous, and rather vulnerable at core (he’s often ridiculous and in his heart, I think he knows it).

But the heart of the film is Larry’s quest and the film tends to be vague on this point. We hear that he has learned things about himself, but we never learn what they are. Partly, this is because it’s difficult to write about finding something most people have never found. There’s no vocabulary for it. Even the character of Larry has trouble expressing what it is he’s looking for. The meaning of life? Why is he alive and what should he do? What’s his place in the world? Ultimately, what he really seems to be doing is being a part of life, working, meeting people from all walks of life, being a friend who listens, trying to help. He’s not a bum, he works, but he’s living in a way that allows him to be as open to people and experience as possible.

downloadIn some ways, it made me think of Lost Horizon. The novel of Lost Horizon was written eleven years before the novel The Razor’s Edge and the movies were only nine years apart. But in Lost Horizon, the main character is looking for a place of peace, as if the author knew a terrible war was coming and wants to avoid what is ahead. But Larry is looking for inner peace, since the war feared in Lost Horizon has already happened (at least it happened in real life; the story takes place before WWII) and now he needs to live in the world. One weakness of the film, however, is the middle, with the hollywoodized portrayal of Eastern philosophy and religion which come out sounding so vague it’s hardly recognizable as any particular religion. Still, I admire the film’s ambition.

It’s difficult to portray goodness (Maugham makes a comment about Larry having found genuine “goodness”). It’s something people instinctively recognized, but have difficulty expressing. We’re much better at portraying more negative emotions. And The Razor’s Edge doesn’t entirely succeed in showing what an alternate mode of living would be like. Partly, this is because Larry has means (he seems to have a mysterious income, small though it is, that allows him to live a lifestyle of searching) which are not available to most people. He also stays single. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre somewhat loses his contented state when he marries Natasha. Other concerns tend to crop up when one has obligations to other people. The vagueness also hurts. What has Larry found? But Power brings sincerity to his role and there is something sympathetic about his essentially humble search that allows him to non-judgmentally empathize with other people.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Luck of the Irish (1948) – A Little Late on St. Patrick’s Day

0040553I meant to watch The Luck of the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but somehow I didn’t get to it. Last week however, I went on a Tyrone Power bender and watched the last few movies I hadn’t seen from the Tyrone Power Matinee Idol CollectionOne of the movies was Cafe Metropole and the other was The Luck of the Irish, released in 1948.

Starring Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter, Cecil Kellaway, Lee J. Cobb, Jayne Meadows, and directed by Henry Koster (the man who directed many of the Deanna Durbin musicals and movies like HarveyThe Bishop’s Wife, and The Inspecter General), The Luck of the Irish is an unpretentious and surprisingly low-key comedy.

Stephen Fitzgerald (Tyrone Power) is a reporter who has been freelancing in Europe and earning very little for his efforts. He’s been hired, however, by publisher David C. Auger (Lee J. Cobb), an extremely successful man known for his unscrupulous methods, who now wants to move into politics. Stephen’s friend, Bill Clark (James Todd), doesn’t approve. He thinks Stephen’s selling out his principles for a big paycheck and job security. While the two of them argue about it on vacation in Ireland, they drive over a rickety bridge that collapses and their car sinks into the creek, stranding Stephen and Bill in a small Irish village with an inn and not much else, though the inn turns out to be run by Anne Baxter as Nora.

When Stephen sees a man (Cecil Kellaway) sitting by a waterfall (that all the inhabitants of the village swear doesn’t exist), hammering shoes, he is told that the man is probably a leprechaun and that if Stephen catches him, the leprechaun must give him his pot of gold. Stephen doesn’t exactly believe this story – he thinks it’s a prank – but when he does catch the leprechaun and is offered a pot of gold coins, he is surprised and refuses to take it.

Cecil Kellaway and Tyrone Power

Cecil Kellaway and Tyrone Power look at the pot of gold

He returns to New York and starts work for Auger, writing speeches and articles. He discovers, also, that Auger’s daughter, Frances (Jayne Meadows), was instrumental in getting him hired and has clearly decided that Stephen is the man for her. He’s uncomfortable with the very modern apartment she’s decorated for him, and though he tells Auger that he intends to maintain his own principles, he soon finds out that in working for Auger his principles must be sacrificed. You can’t write speeches for a candidate whom you disagree with without sublimating your own opinions and endorsing his.

But just as he is settling into his new life, the leprechaun shows up, claiming to be from the employment agency. His name is Horace and he is determined to serve Stephen in every way he can (though he doesn’t really know how to mix drinks, but he chauffeurs pretty well). He doesn’t actively sabotage Stephen and his burgeoning romance with Frances. He is really more like Jiminy Cricket; he represents Stephen’s conscious, reminding Stephen of what is really of value in life. Horace is not, however, above a few machinations to ensue that Stephen and Nora meet again in New York.

What I really liked is that it’s not about trading your soul for success; it is a much more personal story. It is about Stephen, who is trading his soul for success. He has definite principles, but somewhat weak character. He badly wants to settle down and live a particular lifestyle and earn good money and is willing to suppress the things he believes in to do it. Horace points out to him that it is important who you serve (Horace is speaking of himself, serving Stephen, but it is a clear metaphor for Stephen working for Auger). The person you serve is who you end up being like, whose principles you end up living by, whose interests and concerns become your interests and concerns.

Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter with an Irish fireman in New York

Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter with an Irish fireman in New York who is a bit jealous

The film also manages to avoid the trap of demonizing Auger and especially Frances (who manages to come across as more than just a heartless schemer). The focus is instead on Stephen and his decisions in life.

Cecil Kellaway is delightful as the irrepressible leprechaun, with a little hop-skip in his walk and an impish twinkle in his eye. I was expecting a slightly more fantasy-ish film, but it’s surprisingly grounded, despite the presence of a leprechaun. The focus is less on any magical things he can do and more on his very presence and his friendship with Stephen. And Tyrone Power is good as the principled, but vacillating Stephen who is confused about what he really wants, but remains likable throughout.

It’s not a screwball comedy, with lots of slapstick (though there are a few falls on Stephen’s well-polished floor). It’s more the incongruity of having a leprechaun in New York that provides the humor. I had no particular expectations for the film, so I was agreeably surprised. It’s a fun and satisfying movie that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is.

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2015 in Comedy, Fantasy

 

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