Sunday, February 1, 2009

Rants on The Razor's Edge (1946)

As the credits for The Razor's Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946) came flashing up on the screen, I sat on my futon for a minute trying to decide what this film was actually about. It's not that the film was confusing in the traditional sense; on the contrary, the narrative was as straight-forward as you could possibly get. What I had trouble understanding, rather, was what Goulding and company were trying to do with this adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. I thought for awhile it was about Larry Darrell's (played here by Tyrone Power, definitive proof that you could be the biggest star in Hollywood and never have an ounce of acting talent) journey toward self-discovery and enlightenment in a post-WWI world, but that plot line is resolved tidily half-way through the film and never really mentioned again. Then the film switched gears and started focusing on the relationship between Larry and Isabel (the beautiful, yet blank, Gene Tierney) and I thought, "Okay, now this is going into a tragic melodrama about forbidden love or something" but that, as well, never really came to be. Their relationship ended 30 minutes in and neither of them seemed that devastated, even when they ran into each other numerous times over the next decade or so. It wasn't until Isabel discovers that Larry wants to help their old friend Sophie (Anne Baxter), a hopeless alcoholic after the death of her husband and child, by marrying her and aiding in her recovery that we even realize she still has romantic feelings for him. Not only does she still love him, her character arc takes a complete 180 into Alex Forrest territory and plots the demise of Sophie. And while this is going on, Larry doesn't seem to be in love with Isabel at all. So, if The Razor's Edge isn't about either of these things, what the hell is it really about? Beats me. The film is a mess, but manufactured so it looks like everyone involved knew what the hell they were doing.

The cast is uniformly bland and uninspiring. Tyrone Power was nothing more than eye candy in the 30's (especially in Marie Antoinette, yum) and he never really matured as an actor, so it should come as no surprise how dull he is here. Gene Tierney casts some sort of charm over a lot of classic film watchers, but her appeal has always been lost on me. She's nothing more than a blank canvas who carefully reads her lines and that's about it. Anne Baxter won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance here and it's rather easy to see why they fell for it- a drunk scene was the surest way to Oscar attention in those days. She's not bad, but nothing about her performance really stood out to me. She was so much better four years later as the manipulative Eve in All About Eve. Clifton Webb was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for reprising his tired, old queen act that he did much better in Laura two years previous. His Uncle Elliott gets the best lines but it's nothing we haven't seen from Webb before.

All in all, The Razor's Edge is typical of the prestige pictures of the 30's and 40's (hell, even many modern day prestige pictures fall into this category) in that the makers felt that THE MESSAGE alone makes the picture great and the acting, writing, directing and technical work were all secondary to THE MESSAGE. If only someone had realized that THE MESSAGE alone couldn't save a film as dire as this one. D


Mrs. R said...

Razor's Edge recently played to a standing room only crowd at the Egyptian Theatre in LA, and it was magnificent. It's one of my favorite films and books.

As far as Tyrone's acting ability, see Nightmare Alley, The Long Gray Line, This Above All, Witness for the Prosecution, Love is News, etc. and take a look at some of the reviews for his stage appearances in John Brown's Body, Mr. Roberts, and the Devil's Disciple.

Of course you're entitled to your opinion, but many of us do not share it.

Dame James Henry said...

Yes I realize I'm in the minority here with my opinion about The Razor's Edge. When glancing at the reviews on IMDb, I was astounded at the number of positive reviews this movie got. Maybe I just missed something, but I couldn't find anything to get excited about.

I have seen Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution and although he's not terrible, he's certainly the weakest among the main cast members. I'll give him a look in Nightmare Alley because you're the second person who has mentioned his performance in it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Nightmare Alley is a favourite of mine also. I like Tyrone Power. I thought he did a great job with some of the junk he had to work with thanks to Zanuck. I don't care for the Razor's Edge, but that is because of the story....I just don't like the story. Maybe that is because of Hollywood's interpretation, or the author, I dunno because I have never read the book.

I thought TP did a great job of playing his part in WFTP; it was a wonderful all star cast. The court scenes I think were a little inaccurate and overly dramatic though.

I like Rawhide too, and A Yank in the RAF. IN Old Chicago is good too. Love is News is fun.

Don't forget about all the other rotten movies that were put out during the 30s and 40s. A lot of them were just fluff and good actors had to play in them.

irish751 said...

Tyrone Power was a gifted actor, full of charisma and charm. The studio system was in full force when Tyrone was acting. He didn't write the story, he only acted in it. Try watching some of his other movies. Tyrone came from a family of well known actors and none greater than Tyrone.

Mrs. R said...

Regarding Witness for the Prosecution, I didn't find Power's performance the weakest, but it is definitely misunderstood (as one hilarious review on that makes fun of the "knowledgeable" pundits on imdb points out - not my review either). The courtroom stuff Leonard does is deliberately overdone because Leonard was trying too hard to show his innocence. It's actually very clever on Wilder's part, because what would someone like Leonard do in the courtroom but overdo it.

I think Power was great as Zorro and did a beautiful job in one of his best films, Blood & Sand. He got very few decent roles at Fox. Mamoulian was brought there because Zanuck would never lend Power out after Marie Antoinette so Mamoulian was unable to cast him in Golden Boy.

Goldi said...

I doubt that you were as surprised to see all the positive reviews of The Razor's Edge as I was to see your very negative review. I personally think that The Razor's Edge is one of the great films of the 1940's. And, while I wouldn't list The Razor's Edge as one of the great Power performances, I think that it was a pretty decent entry back into the acting world, following his World War II service with the U.S.M.C. There were many fine Power performances. He was terrific as the sleazy carnie in the film noir classic, Nightmare Alley. Loved his comedic flair in such movies as The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan. I thought he did an outstanding job as Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. And, with respect to Witness for the Prosecution -- His performance was absolutely brilliant. Many people seem to miss the point that, in the courtroom scenes, it wasn't Tyrone Power who was way overacting. It was his character, Leonard Vole, who was putting on a very bad acting job. And, really, many fans enjoy his roles in the musicals with Alice Faye, the lesser known movies with Loretta Young. Lots of movies of Tyrone Power to enjoy --- but, that said, opinions will vary.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't thought of it that way before with TP's character overacting. I didn't think Tyrone was purposely overacting, I just thought it was one of those things that Hollywood botched.

Isabel said...

Well, given that it was Billy Wilder and not some schmoe directing, and given that Tyrone Power a) did not overact and b) acted very differently in the courtroom scenes than he did in the rest of the film, it's evident that Leonard was hamming it up.

R.J. said...

I have been urged by my friends at The Tyrone Power Group on Google, to share something, re your opinions on "Razor's Edge".

Back in I believe it was the 1980's (or early 90's), I was present one evening at a revival of the picture in Santa Monica, Ca. The audience of (mostly) younger people, greeted and "embraced" the film in what I witnessed to be a very positive way, and not at all as the "confusing antique" which you seem to find it.

After the screening, I ran into two gentlemen whom I knew reasonably-well, writer Christopher Isherwood and his longtime companion, artist Don Bachardy. Isherwood, so it was rumored at the time, was the real-life role-model for "Larry Darrell" in Maugham's novel. He laughed when I asked him about this, saying in his gentlemanly and modest way, "To some extent, but Maugham was really drawing on a composite on several different people". However, as Isherwood HAD gone to India with poet W.H. Auden in the thirties, had met with a "guru", which he later wrote about, and had, as a result, gone through a self-proclaimed "Spiritual awakening" (all of which he had directly told me about some years earlier, when I was taken by a friend to meet him at his home in Santa Monica), the general consensus is that he was the "primary role model" for Darrell. Isherwood didn't seem to have any quarrel, that I was made aware of on that night, with Mr. Power's portrayal of "himself" on the screen, nor with Zanuck and Goulding's interpretation of the source material.

As for the cold-hearted,clearly contemptuous statement that Mr. Power became a "star" without an "ounce (!) of acting ability", I would like to put forth the counter-argument(and I come from a long background in the business, my grandfather worked on "Casablanca" and I've been acting myself since childhood), that ANYONE, man or woman, who can speak-out and reach and touch the hearts, minds and souls of millions of people around the world, not just within his own time, but half-a-century later,is a very rare talent, indeed. To be summarily - dismissed as mere "eye-candy", merely shows the rather limited,superficial and myopic viewpoint of the accuser.

UK Colin said...

I take great offence to the comment that Tyrone Power had "not an ounce of acting talent".... how ridiculous !!. Is the writer aware of Tyrone's years of stage acting? his multitude of radio shows? obviously not.

Here was a classicly trained stage actor who shot to instant fame at the tender age of 22. Sure enough, during his years in movies he HAD to make some poor pictures but so did EVERY other major Hollywood actor/actress. The word UNDER CONTRACT is the reason all the stars had to make movies they'd rather not.

Since childhood (I'm now quicky aprroaching 50) I've watched, studied and accumulated much knowledge of nearly all Hollywood as well as British movie films of 30s to late 50sm and feel more than qualified to give an informed opinion.

I sat & watched the Razors Edge for the 40 of 50th time in Hollywood last November. I really enjoyed it on the big screen and feel it is one of the best movies of the post war period. Anne Baxter later recalled that Tyrone Power did'nt have to act like Larry Darrell he WAS Larry Darrell in real life.

The following evening I sat in the thearte next to Anne Baxter's daughter and we watched "Love is The News" another splendid movie.

As an entertainer in England ( I'm a pro Singer/Guitarist on stage for the last 30 years) I am well aware of the acting skills needed to stay in the profession. I doubt the writer has the same qualifications & experience.

When the writer becomes older & wiser I trust he will look back with regret about his review of this Classic movie.

One last point-Gene Tierney is excellent as the selfish, devious villian of the movie. Once again another underatted actress. Just look at her in the "Ghost and Mrs Muir".

r.j. said...

I really do feel that by "all of us" ganging-up on you at once, it's perhaps a little unfair, and we would only be, in a sense, committing the same action toward you that we feel you have displayed toward Tyrone.

However, Sir, and just to "layer" what Colin had to say, again, both Colin and myself have been in the business. Only another "pro" knows (appreciates) how much concentrated energy, discipline, and total-focus is required to deliver even a "mediocre" performance. You can have the greatest, most brilliant, most highly-paid screenwriters, directors, even "cutters" (editors) behind you, all single-mindedly focused on disguising the fact that you have absolutely no ability as an actor -- however, as only those pf us "who have been there" know, once those lights are on you, and they've called "action", at that point you're on your own, baby! It's sink or swim!

If you cannot see how subtly-brilliant Tyrone Power was in "The Razor's Edge" -- that he was really the "glue-stick" holding together all of these disparate and varied characters and plots, thereby allowing his colleagues to give much "showier", "scenery-chewing" and "award-winning" performances, then you are really not qualified to critique even beginning high school actors, much less professionals.

However, to play "Devil's Advocate" for a moment, and take your argument on face-value, that Tyrone Power "Shot to the top" of his profession in 1936, and managed to stay there for 22-years consecutively, as a "major-star" without even "an ounce of acting ability", then the hilarious conundrum inherent in your own statement, is that he managed to successfully pull-off one of the greatest deceptions in recorded history -- by actually "hoodwinking the masses" into believing he was an actor -- which would in itself, qualify him as the greatest "actor" that ever lived!

Dame James Henry said...

First of all, I would to thank everyone for taking the time to comment. As a fan of classic movies, I'm glad to see others who are really passionate about this era.

Secondly, I'm sorry that I don't share your opinion about Tyrone Power's acting ability, but he just doesn't move me or get me excited as an actor. Granted, I've only seen a handful of his films (Alexander's Ragtime Band, Marie Antoinette, Jesse James, Razor's Edge and Witness for the Prosecution) but, Witness excepted, I don't get it. Good looking but his line readings usually feel and sound the same no matter what emotion he's supposed to be portraying.

I don't buy the excuse that he was put in a lot of rotten movies, so that makes some of his weaker performances okay. I agree that a lot of actors in those days were put in lousy movies but that doesn't mean they had to give bad performances in them. Take Joan Crawford at MGM for example. Look at all of those stinkers she was in between Rain and A Woman's Face. The difference between her and Power is that she was ALWAYS good, usually 10 times better than any film she appeared in during that period.

I agree that it takes something to be a star for 20 years in an industry as fickle as the movie business, but there's a genuine difference between "star power" and "acting ability." Tyrone Power had star power, which I feel is why he was able to stay in the business so long. Maybe once I explore his filmography a little more I'll be able to uncover his Erin Brockovich: the moment when his star power and acting ability came together in one performance.

If you cannot see how subtly-brilliant Tyrone Power was in "The Razor's Edge" -- that he was really the "glue-stick" holding together all of these disparate and varied characters and plots, thereby allowing his colleagues to give much "showier", "scenery-chewing" and "award-winning" performances, then you are really not qualified to critique even beginning high school actors, much less professionals.

There's a way to be the "glue stick" of the film and step back to allow your co-stars to chew the scenery while holding your ground and giving a great performance. Look at Stephen Campbell Moore in Bright Young Things from a couple of years ago. He definitely has the least showy role and is forced to step back a bit when his co-stars are on screen, but he remains interesting throughout the film- even when the scene wasn't about "him". Tyrone Power just didn't catch my eye at all in The Razor's Edge- whether he was alone or on the sideline letting another character have the spotlight. And just because I don't like this performance doesn't mean I'm unqualified to make judgments about actor's acting ability. Should I be allowed to say that just because you liked this boring performance in a pile of dreck film that you shouldn't be allowed to judge?

Again, thanks for commenting, no matter how much we disagree. I enjoy this kind of lively debate.

Goldi said...

Take Joan Crawford at MGM for example. Look at all of those stinkers she was in between Rain and A Woman's Face. The difference between her and Power is that she was ALWAYS good, usually 10 times better than any film she appeared in during that period.

Ooohhh. See. There we disagree. I often found Joan Crawford flat and boring. A much better example, in my opinion, of someone who was always good would have been Bette Davis.

Anonymous said...

I have been following these comments with great interest. I teach film, and readily admit that Tyrone Power is a favorite of mine and, until recently, was tremendously underrated. Jeanine Basinger, another film historian, has written a wonderful book called The Star Machine and it turns out that she is a great fan as well. It is heartening to see that in the last two years, he is having quite an upsurge due to the release of something like 17 of his films on DVD.

First of all, I like The Razor's Edge very much, but I respect your opinion. I think Tyrone Power is excellent in it, and he certainly held my attention every second. I think his best roles are in Nightmare Alley, This Above All, Mark of Zorro, and films others have mentioned.

It's not that Power was put in rotten movies, because everybody was. I do believe that thanks to Mr. Zanuck, he was put in more rotten movies than a lot of great stars and was forbidden to do some excellent films, again, because of Mr. Zanuck. What makes him unique is that he could make the worst dialogue in the world sound good. That was something, for instance, that Tony Curtis could never do; neither could Rock Hudson, neither could a lot of people.

I do agree with one of the people who wrote about Joan Crawford. My favorite performance of hers was in A Woman's Face which was purchased for Greta Garbo, and another of my favorites is Possessed (the second one). She was beyond dreadful in Susan and God. She to me was a true movie star. I don't think she was always good, though she was always watchable. If Tyrone Power had not been an actor, he would not have been successful on stage. The critics I'm sure were gunning for him and were surprised.

Maybe I misread something, but I'm not aware of anyone saying bad films are an excuse for bad acting. But if you look at Melvyn Douglas, who sailed through how much fluff, who knew what a phenomenally gifted actor he was until he was free of the studio system and too old to play the other man? Who knew when they saw "The Silver Chalice" that Paul Newman had a future? What was William Holden doing for 10 years before "Sunset Boulevard." Garbage that totally underutilized him.

I think it's evident in The Mark of Zorro how fabulous Tyrone Power was; if it's less obvious in The Black Rose, a yawn of a movie, it's still apparent that he invested his performance with a good deal of honesty when he probably just felt like a wind-up toy.

I wouldn't presume to judge someone's acting, especially someone from the studio days, on a handful of films. I don't let my students write someone off after a few films either. A body of work is important. Just think if I'd only seen Katharine Hepburn in The Little Minister, Sylvia Scarlett and The Iron Petticoat.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

Keep up the good work!