Movie: The Razor’s Edge (1946)

1946’s The Razor’s Edge has a central conceit which I was dumbfounded to encounter in a major studio film of that vintage.  Tyrone Power plays a man disillusioned by war, who sets out to wander the world looking for answers.  He doesn’t even have questions, exactly.  “Since the war, I’ve been searching—searching for something I can’t put into words.”

That this feature was released only a year after the conclusion of WWII is startling.  I have seen the label “unpatriotic” applied to some other movies released in the wake of the war—movies that also portrayed returning soldiers as broken men struggling to find their place in the world.

The period this film is set in is immediately after WWI, when prohibition is at its peak (or nadir, depending upon one’s perspective) and it felt as it there were boundless economic opportunities.  Gene Tierney even comments at one point how Americans will be living in unprecedented wealth and luxury come 1930.  Needless to say, nobody prior to 1929 foresaw the economic devastation just around the corner.

Tierney plays the fiancée of Powers, at least initially.  She is an heiress, and is disappointed when Powers turns down a cushy office job.  “Sitting a lot in an office and making as much money as I can just doesn’t interest me like it should.” 

He also isn’t in any rush to tie the knot.  Instead, he goes to Paris to, in his own words, “loaf”.  When she joins him there a year later, she is appalled by his bohemian lifestyle and his shabby, low-rent apartment.  The engagement off, she returns to the US and marries the affable John Payne.

Excuse me, while I get something off my chest at this point.  I admire this early picture for its positive portrayal of somebody yearning to accumulate knowledge and experience, instead of just wealth.  But here’s what stuck in my craw throughout the runtime: it must be pretty easy to be a bohemian when you have family money to fall back on.  I couldn’t help but think of all the trust fund kids to come in the decades that followed. 

The journey Powers takes eventually leads him to India, where he has some sort of religious epiphany.  The yogi he studies under has a line I particularly liked: “Acknowledging you want to learn is, in itself, courageous.”

Powers returns to Paris to find Tierney, Payne and their two children there.  Her asshole snob of an uncle, played by Clifton Webb, is also there.  Anne Baxter, as a former childhood friend of Powers is there as a drunk (and maybe a prostitute) after her husband and daughter were killed by a drunk driver. 

Oh, and even the author of the original novel, W. Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall) is hanging around, wryly commenting on the various dramas around in a patronizing manner.  I thought it interesting an author wrote himself into his novel.  I kept waiting for a moment like what happens when Kilgour Trout meets his author Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions, and his testicles retreat into his body so hard that he requires surgery.  Now that would have been an interesting development in this 1946 film.

But what I find odd about the movie at this point is the number of closely associated Americans (well, and one Brit, who had been hanging around so much in the US as to be American by association) who have all congregated in Paris independently of one another.  Why even move the characters to Paris?  Why not send Powers back to America and encounter everybody there?

Still, I really liked this movie, even if I didn’t love it.  If there’s one major flaw, it is the pacing.  If that had been better, I wouldn’t have been so aware this takes 2 ½ to play out.  There’s entire scenes I would have readily excised as, however nice they may be, their absence wouldn’t impact the plot or the development of any of the characters.

And that pacing issue works in the opposite direction, too, as some moments make it appear no time has passed, though a large amount of time has actually transpired.  This is especially troublesome when recovering alcoholic Baxter has a fall from grace that seems to spiral all the way down to opium addiction in a day or two.  It’s like that scene in Wet Hot American Summer where a group of camp counselors spend an hour in town that runs the gamut from drinking to petty theft to heroin.

I don’t think The Razor’s Edge is a masterpiece, though there is a great deal to admire.  Although it earns many of its more emotional moments, much it is overwrought and the entire affair could have benefitted from structural improvements.  All that said, I was stunned to see a major studio film from the 1940’s be more interested in questions than answers, in the journey more than the destination.  As Powers puts it, “I want to prove myself, but not in terms of what the world calls success.”

Dir: Edmund Goulding

Starring: Tyrone Powers, Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter

Watched on Signal One UK blu-ray (region B)