This screening was selected by the actor Terence Stamp as part of the BFI’s ‘Screen Epiphanies’ strand, whereby prominent figures from the worlds of film and the arts are asked to select an important film for them personally. In his introduction, Stamp spoke warmly about his early filmgoing experiences in Plaistow, East London (where he first saw this film), about his own encounter with Eastern enlightenment and mysticism in the 1970s, and about the quality of the actors in this particular film, especially the luminescent Gene Tierney (on whom he had a boyhood crush) and the resonant voice of Herbert Marshall.
As a film which pushes into melodramatic territory bordering on kitsch, and as a classic example of a “woman’s picture” of the era, this adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel is apt to be written off too easily by critics. It possesses in Tyrone Power (PS his real name) an apparently bland lead actor perhaps more valued for his matinee idol appearance than his acting ability (an apt modern comparison might be Zac Efron, likewise undervalued as an actor). It’s also somewhat uneven in tone over its extended running time, and turns on some rather hokey religious transcendence. However, despite these flaws, it’s a ravishingly expressive film.
Nominally, the story is one of Tyrone Power’s airman, Larry, who is engaged to Isabel (played by Gene Tierney) but, as the film opens, he has returned from the First World War seeking meaning in his life. Yet Larry’s story never really feels like what the film is interested in; his quest is as vacuous as his empty stare, and, like that piercing gaze so often directed at some distant point off camera, he never really seems to change. Where a man’s ‘dropping out’ of the rat race to ‘find himself’ would later (in the era of the Beats) come to be a hackneyed trope of American pop culture, one gets a vague sense of cynical unease from these post-war (European) filmmakers faced with telling the story of an (American) airman looking to the Old World of Europe and the even older world of the Near East for divine inspiration and guidance. The central section where he meets with the sage in India (a guru I suppose, though one espousing explicitly Christian theology) and then finds God in the mountains is scarcely played straight: there are few more natural responses than laughter to Power exiting a cave in a sumptuously painted mountaintop scene to a rising crescendo of music as the sun peeks over the lowering clouds, effulgent with divine light.
These scenes in the Indian mountains mark a fulcrum point for the narrative, for I would argue that the film is primarily about the characters around Larry and how they react to his period of disappearance and return — especially Gene Tierney as the mercurial Isabel. There is, it seems to me, a marked change not just in the characters but in the language of the film itself between these two halves. The constants that unify the film are Larry’s searching gaze, and the impassive mien of Somerset Maugham (played by Herbert Marshall), a character here as he is in the novel, bringing others together and eliciting confessions.
As the film opens on a society gathering in Chicago, it is to Maugham (and to us the viewers) that all the major characters are introduced. Aside from Larry and Isabel, these include Larry’s childhood friend Sophie (played by Anne Baxter) and her cheerful husband Bob, Isabel’s insufferably bitter uncle Elliott (Clifton Webb, on wonderfully catty form), and the rich stockbroker Gray whom the status-obsessed Elliott prefers as a match for Isabel. Goulding’s camera glides and insinuates itself in masterfully-controlled long takes amongst the guests of the party. In this as in other early scenes, the camera is at times lost trying to find the characters, picking them out from the throngs of people, constantly moving over them, around them and between them, reframing them in different groupings just as their relationships are constantly redrawn throughout the film. These youthful characters are all uncertain of their direction in life, just as the camera has trouble keeping up with them, and when they do pause, they seem lost among the elaborately rococo over-decoration of Isabel’s apartment in Paris, or in front of the shimmering ocean receding emptily to the horizon. This is a world of beautiful surfaces gorgeously captured in black-and-white, in which Isabel doesn’t want to be tied down by Larry’s small inheritance, so breaks it off with him to pursue a life of apparent ease with the stockbroker Gray.
The latter part of the film is set some years later, after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Thanks to the stockmarkets, life has taken a turn for the worse for Isabel and Gray and they have relocated to Paris to live with Elliott. Relations are strained between them, and it’s at this point that Larry returns from India to re-enter their lives. Isabel’s attitude has moved from mercurial to imperious (never more so than in a chilling scene between her and Sophie in her apartment), and the acting not only by Tierney but by the other central cast members is forced into ever greater heights of melodramatic stylisation. The earlier restless camera has settled down to shot-reverse shot compositions, taking in the various confrontations as the previously fluid relationships between the characters start to inexorably break apart.
It was Anne Baxter as Sophie who won an Academy Award for her work (which in unchanging Oscars™ fashion involves teary emotional jags and crippling circumstances, in this case a decline into alcoholism), but in many ways it’s Tierney who excels as the brutal emotional core of the piece. Power meanwhile drifts through as a tabula rasa, provoking her lust, scorn, pity and envy; it’s not that he’s a bad actor (far from it), it’s that his character is so nebulous. The Razor’s Edge may not be a perfect film — it may reach for more than it can really grasp — but it is an incredible example of the power of classical Hollywood to create and populate a world, filmed with immense inventiveness, and featuring some superb performances.
Director Edmund Goulding; Writer Lamar Trotti (based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham); Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller; Starring Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Herbert Marshall, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb; Length 145 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 May 2013.