Tag Archives: W. Somerset Maugham

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 Letter (1940) – Bette Davis and Her Unsympathetic Roles

lett2Bette Davis liked playing unsympathetic roles; she actually preferred it. Her first one was in 1934, her breakout role, as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage with Leslie Howard. She was so impressive that her name was written as an add-in on the ballot for Best Supporting Actress, though she lost. She went on to play so many of these roles that it was all I ever heard about  when I first began to watch her films. But in the first fifteen movies that I saw her in, she was thoroughly sympathetic in them all.

Of course, I even sympathized with her in Jezebel, so perhaps I just have the wrong perspective on things. I kept hearing about how bad her character was in that movie, but really, she just seems extremely proud, stubborn and willful – her own worst enemy – but not especially evil.

However, I am happy to say that I have finally seen a movie where she plays a genuine Jezebel type. The Letter, directed by William Wyler, is based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. Set in Malaya, it is about Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), wife of a rubber planter, who shoots gambler Geoff Hammond because he was drunk and assaulted her…or so she says. Her husband (Herbert Marshall) is devoted and protective and gets his lawyer (James Stephenson) to defend her at the trial- everybody thinking the trial will be a mere formality. Local opinion is strong against Hammond, especially when they find out that he had a Chinese wife (Gale Sondergaard).


Bette Davis with Herbert Marshall

However, it soon comes to Mr. Joyce’s attention that there is a letter, in the possession of Hammond’s wife, that she is willing to sell. A letter that indicates that perhaps Leslie’s relationship with Hammond was not what she said it was and might cast doubt on her story in court. Every instinct of professional ethics is against it, but friendship with Leslie’s extremely devoted and trusting husband convinces the lawyer to buy it.

This is one of the finest performances I have seen Bette Davis give. She plays Leslie Crosbie so demurely, so properly, ladylike, watchful, always working on her fine lacework, but still managing to convey the inner passion underneath it all that no one else can see, except the lawyer and only because the letter demonstrated to him that she is not as she appears.

I read a fascinating article on the blog The Hollywood Revue, called “The Significance of White Lace in The Letter (1940),” that talks about Leslie’s penchant for lace work. Leslie is always working on lace projects and at one point even goes out wearing a shawl of white lace when she goes with the lawyer to get the letter from Hammond’s wife.

Sen Yung, Bette Davis and James Stephenson

Sen Yung, Bette Davis and James Stephenson

The Hollywood Revue points out that white symbolizes innocence and “it’s as though she’s trying to create a shroud of innocence for herself” with her constant wearing of white clothes and making white lace, as well as demonstrating her “attention to detail” in her lies. I think the lacework is also a symbol of irony. Lacework seems very domestic and tranquil, but highlights the difference between Leslie’s apparent employment and her secret life. Yet another possible meaning of the lacework is that Leslie uses lacework to channel all her pent-up energy into something that requires tremendous focus and concentration to create something highly intricate. Or is it “the tangled webs we weave?”

I could probably go on forever about the lacework, but it is a wonderful detail in the film, highlighted repeatedly by the camera and by comments made by other people.

Leslie’s husband is played by Herbert Marshall, who has one of the loveliest speaking voices in cinema. His love for Leslie is so strong, but curiously blind. He would forgive her anything and seems, as his lawyer notes, to have lived ten years with his wife and hardly known her at all. He doesn’t, apparently, love the real woman… or even know her. Joyce is played by James Stephenson, who was a relatively unknown actor at the time and did a marvelous job. He is torn by his conscious and utterly fascinated by the obscure depths of this woman he has to defend.

Bette Davis, lace in hand, with James Stephenson

Bette Davis, lace in hand, with James Stephenson

Not only is the acting is good, but it is a beautiful film visually, and is full of memorable moments, most notably the opening scene, when the quiet night is broken with the sounds of gunfire, then we see a man stagger out of a house, with Bette Davis behind him, shooting repeatedly.

I do have one complaint, however, regarding this marvelous film, which is the ending. Sometimes censorship makes a movie better (like Double Indemnity), but in this case I think it weakened the film. In the play, Leslie Crosbie lives out the rest of her life without her husband. However, since crime could not go unpunished under the Hays Code, William Wyler had to change the ending. What happens instead is that Leslie is murdered by Hammond’s widow. The widow is seen by a guard (presumably so the audience is assured that she, too, will be identified later and pay for her crime – I must say that Hammond sure picked a murderous lot of women to love) and the camera pans over to Leslie’s lace, laying over her chair in her room.

My problem with this ending is that the film seemed to me to be building to something else. There is a dramatic scene near the end when Leslie admits to her husband – after he forgives her and asks if she loves him – that she still loves the man she killed. The very bleakness of this statement, however, is undercut by having her murdered very soon afterwards, a convenient out that saves her from having to live with what she did. I was expecting her to turn into the crazy lace lady, always doing her needlework, without soul, without thought, living her days out having killed her own heart. The actual ending of the film, I felt, is deflating and not consistent with what came before.

The ending does not, however, detract from a very good film. And I did still find it in my heart to feel for her, despite her evilness. Perhaps I’m just chronically in sympathy with her.

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Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Movies


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