There are several differences between The Razor’s Edge, a novel written by W. Somerset Maugham, and the 1946 movie that is based on it. The novel is told in the first person by Maugham himself, the result being that we are always with Maugham as he goes about doing one thing or another and making observations, while Larry Darrell, the main subject of the book, seems to just come and go; whereas the movie, although also narrated by Maugham as a character (played by Herbert Marshall), is free to leave him and stay with Larry (Tyrone Power). That difference and certain others that need not be mentioned in detail allow for a more dramatic effect, resulting in a movie that is better than its source.
The movie begins with Maugham finding himself at a party for the upper class, where we meet most of the characters who will figure significantly in the rest of the movie. One in particular is Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), who is exasperated that his niece Isabel (Gene Tierney) is engaged to Larry, because “he hasn’t any money” and “he doesn’t want a job.” In fact, as we quickly find out, Larry has turned down a job selling bonds, offered to him by Gray (John Payne), who comes from a rich family. Isabel is perplexed. When she asks Larry what he wants to do, he answers, “I don’t know. Loaf, maybe.” This confirms Elliot’s characterization of him as “bone idle.”
Isabel makes the observation that many of us watching the movie have been thinking about for several minutes running, which is that you can’t live without money. Larry replies that he has a little, which gives him the opportunity to do what he wants. As we find out later, he has an income of $3,000 per year, which, adjusted for inflation for the year 2019, is over $45,000. Now, that’s more income than I ever had, and I had to work for a living. Nevertheless, that is what Elliott meant by saying that Larry didn’t have any money.
In Larry’s situation, I would not have wanted a job either. The difference, however, is that whereas I really would have loved to spend my life loafing and being bone idle, Larry is bothered by the fact that during the Great War, a man gave up his life saving him, and he wants to know why, to understand what it all means. Upon hearing this, Isabel decides to put their engagement on hold. In part, she does not want to try to live on Larry’s income, but she is also bothered by Larry’s lack of ambition, saying that he should get a job as a matter of “self-respect.” They agree to wait, and Larry goes to Paris, where he believes he will be better able to see things clearly.
Isabel and her mother come to Paris a year later, and she finds that Larry intends to persist in his existential quest, but he thinks there is no reason why they could not get married anyway. She has no intention of living the bohemian life that would entail, however, and breaks off the engagement. Just before she returns to America, Isabel and Larry go out for a very multicultural night on the town, after which she intends to seduce him, get pregnant, force him to return to America and marry her, and presumably get a respectable job, but she changes her mind. Elliott, who was wise to her game, asks her why she did not go through with it. She said she could not bring herself to play such a dirty trick on him, but Elliott says she was just being realistic, knowing the marriage would never have worked. We all act from mixed motives, and probably her decision not to go through with it was a combination of the two.
Isabel returns to America and eventually marries Gray, which is what Elliott wanted for her all along. Gray has been quite successful selling bonds, and is now worth $20,000,000. Also at their wedding is Sophie (Anne Baxter), who has been Larry’s best friend since they were children, and her husband Bob (Frank Latimore). Sophie and Bob, a couple of modest means, were also at the earlier party with which the movie began. At that time, she declined a drink when offered, saying that Bob didn’t like her to drink because she was “too fond of it.” In other words, she is an alcoholic.
The scene shifts back to Europe, where Larry is working as a coal miner. Now, it was one thing for him to lie around, taking it easy, reflecting on the meaning of life, made possible by his income of $3,000 per year; but if he was going to work anyway, why not get himself a job selling bonds for Gray’s company? The reason, of course, is the purifying nature of manual labor. Working with your hands always seems to be more honest and spiritual than working with your mouth or with your mind, which some people regard as having a corruptive influence on the soul. It’s not for me, you understand. I once tried manual labor for half a day, and I found nothing honest or spiritual about it. Give me an indoor job, sitting down, no heavy lifting anytime. But a lot of people look upon manual labor in that way, and so, apparently, does this movie.
Larry has made friends with Kosti, a nihilistic, defrocked Polish priest, who says that Larry sounds like a religious man who does not believe in God. Larry says he doesn’t believe in anything. Kosti suggests that Larry go to India and meet a man that many have found inspirational. This Larry does, putting himself under the tutelage of the Indian guru. Whereas Western religions tend to see God as presiding over man and nature, the religious view to which Larry is exposed thinks of God as one with these things. The holy man tells him, “There is in every one of us a spark of the infinite goodness which created us. And when we leave this earth, we are reunited with it as a raindrop falling from heaven is at last reunited with the sea which gave it birth.” The movie reinforces this metaphor connecting God and the sea by beginning and ending with scenes of the ocean, not to mention the references to it throughout the movie. After studying for a while with the holy man, it becomes time for Larry to ascend to the top of a mountain and live in solitude. It is there, seeing the sun come up one morning, that he feels himself to be one with God.
Just as manual labor is presented as spiritually preferable to office work, so too is nature presented as more conducive to the experience of revelation than the artificial constructions of civilization. Maugham, by the way, observes at another point in the movie, that Elliott looks upon “nature as an impediment to social intercourse.” In any event, having had this revelation, Larry is advised by the holy man that it is time for him to return to his world.
That world, it turns out, has not been doing so well. First, Sophie survives an automobile accident in which Bob and her baby are killed. Somewhat later comes the stock market crash of 1929, in which Gray’s firm is wiped out. In a conversation with Maugham, Isabel notes with irony that she and Gray and their two children are living all right on an income about the same as Larry had when she refused to marry him. Actually, they are doing better than that. It seems that Elliott not only got out of the stock market just before the crash, but actually sold short, making a killing. He has taken a place on the Riviera, where he can hobnob with royalty, while allowing Isabel’s family to live in his posh apartment in Paris.
At least, they are all right financially. Gray, however, has not only been unable to find work, but has suffered a nervous breakdown as well, afflicting him with terrible headaches. Just as manual labor and communing with nature on a mountain top has been spiritually uplifting for Larry, the fall from high society and the world of finance has been spiritually ruinous for Gray.
When Kosti told Larry about the holy man, he said it was not so much man’s teachings that affected people, but the man himself. This recalls what Maugham said at the beginning of the movie, that the man about whom he was writing was not famous and that he may be entirely forgotten after he has died. That is, there is something about Larry himself that impresses Maugham, not in anything that he has done. In fact, Larry does remarkably little.
The first thing he does on his return to Paris, where he becomes reacquainted with Gray and Isabel, is to cure Gray’s headache through hypnosis or the power of suggestion, which he learned in India. This is not farfetched, for Gray’s headaches are clearly psychosomatic. As Larry puts it, there is nothing miraculous about what he did; he only put an idea in Gray’s head, and Gray did the rest himself.
Gray’s having recovered, they all decide to go out to a nightclub, where Isabel confides to Maugham that she still loves Larry and has never loved anyone else including her husband, though she says she is too fond of Gray to ever hurt him. After they spend some time at a respectable nightclub, they decide to go slumming and end up at a dive where people dance the tango, of course. It is in that seedy place that they run into Sophie, who works there. She has given in to her alcoholic tendencies and is possibly using drugs. And she has a boyfriend that treats her rough, just the way she likes it.
It is only on the way home that Larry finds out about Sophie’s tragedy. He gets out of the cab and heads back to that nightclub. Somewhat later, we hear that he has gotten Sophie to quit drinking, and they are going to be married. Upon receiving that news, Isabel becomes furiously jealous. She tries to get Maugham to tell Larry not to marry Sophie, saying that Sophie is no good. “Do you think I’ve sacrificed myself,” she asks, “only to let Larry fall into the hands of a woman like that?” Isabel claims that she gave Larry up so as not to stand in his way. Maugham sneers at her characterization of what she did as a sacrifice, saying, “You gave him up for a square-cut diamond and a sable coat.”
Maugham gives the usual reasons for not interfering with Larry’s plans to marry Sophie, essentially that it is none of their business. But then he goes a step further. “There’s only one thing you can do,” he says. “Make the best of a bad job. Larry’s gripped by the most powerful emotion that can beset the breast of man: self-sacrifice. He’s got to save the soul of the wretched woman whom he had known as an innocent child. And there’s nothing you or I or anyone can do to prevent it.” Isabel’s self-serving talk of her sacrifice stands in stark contrast to the genuine sort that Maugham attributes to Larry. He advises Isabel to be nice to Sophie, and she seems to agree, but like Maugham, we are suspicious of her motives.
Isabel successfully tempts Sophie into taking a drink, leading her to go back to her old ways. Larry manages to track her down to an opium den, but she refuses to go with him, running away when a fight breaks out. No one knows anything about her until a year later, when her body is fished out of the harbor, her throat slit.
As Schopenhauer once noted, a good dramatist like Shakespeare knows to observe the principle that when the villain speaks, he’s right. Though Isabel is the villain of the piece, having successfully gotten Sophie to start drinking again, yet we can’t help agreeing with her that she only hastened the inevitable, Larry or no Larry. In the earlier scene, when Maugham tells Isabel that Larry has gotten Sophie to quit drinking, she says, “The fool thinks he’s cured her.” Maugham notes that Larry cured Gray, but Isabel replies, “Gray wanted to be cured. She doesn’t.” When asked how she knows that, she says, “Because I know women. Do you think she’ll stick to Larry? No. She’ll break out. It’s in her blood. It’s a brute she wants. That excites her. It’s a brute she’ll go after. She’ll lead Larry to Hell.”
Notwithstanding Larry’s influence, Sophie told Isabel on that fateful day that it was a desperate struggle for her to not take a drink, especially when Larry was not around. If she could not be left alone with a bottle of vodka for five minutes without gulping down two full glasses in rapid succession and then heading for an opium den, she was doomed anyway. We all know how people make an extra effort to please the person they are soon to marry, but then revert to their old ways within months of the nuptials. Isabel was only making manifest before the wedding what was bound to happen after it.
Anyway, Maugham and Larry make arrangements for Sophie’s funeral, after which Maugham tells Larry that Elliott has had a relapse. Elliott has not gotten on well with Princess Novemali, an American widow who parleyed her fortune for a title by marrying a Roman prince, and who is now a major socialite in France. It seems that Elliott helped spread some rumor about Princess Novemali and her chauffeur, which happened to be true. She is throwing a party to which she has invited everyone of note on the Riviera, except Elliott. It is going to be the greatest party of the season, and Elliott, though he is on his death bed, yet is devastated that he has not been invited, a deliberate insult, which brings him to tears. It is the culmination of many such insults, as those who once ate his food and drank his liquor no longer have use for him. He says he wishes he had never left America.
The priest that gives Elliott the last rites says, correctly, that he was a good man whose faults were on the surface. Larry, being good friends with Novemali’s secretary, manages to obtain an invitation card and fills it out himself, making it look as though Elliott has been invited to the party after all. His vanity satisfied, Elliott dies a happy man, after instructing Maugham to send his regrets about not being able to attend. He leaves his fortune to Isabel, which will allow Gray to get his company out of receivership.
Let us review the deeds of Larry’s life since his return from India. First, he performed that trick of hypnosis that cured Gray’s headache. But that means that any psychiatrist skilled in the art of hypnosis might easily have done the same. Second, taking pity on the woman that was his best friend from childhood, Larry helps her with her alcoholism and decides to marry her. Marriage is indeed an undertaking not to be entered into lightly, but it is not beyond the pale that you or I in the same situation might do the same for a woman who has been our best friend since childhood. Finally, given how easily Larry was able to obtain an invitation card and forge it to make a dying man happy, I dare say that most people would not hesitate to do the like as well.
In other words, Larry does not perform miracles, does not become the spiritual leader of a great religious movement, and does not dedicate his life to ministering to the suffering of mankind. In fact, there is no reason to think that Larry would not have done precisely the same things had he gone to work for Gray selling bonds instead of going to India, save for the fact that he might not have learned that hypnosis trick. Of course, as Larry reminds us in his final scene with Isabel, recalling what he told her at the beginning of the movie, the really great change in his life came when another man gave up his life saving him, and we never saw what he was like before the war. In any event, Maugham sums up what is special about Larry, saying to Isabel, “My dear, Larry has found what we all want and very few of us ever get. I don’t think anyone can fail to be better and nobler, kinder, for knowing him. You see, my dear, goodness is, after all, the greatest force in the world. And he’s got it.”
Just before the final scene with Larry, she tells Maugham that she intends to see Larry as much as she wants when they all get back to America, saying, “All my life, I’ve done the things other people have wanted me to do. From now on, I intend to do the things I want to do.” However, it is too late, and in her final scene with Larry, she realizes she has lost him forever, especially when she realizes that he knows that she was responsible for getting Sophie to start drinking again, which ultimately led to Sophie’s death. This scene was not in the novel, where it is only Maugham, not Larry, who knows the truth about what Isabel did to Sophie. It is just one of the ways in which the movie is more effective and satisfying than the novel.
In that last scene with Isabel, Larry tells her of his intention to work in a factory or a garage, because while working with his hands, his mind is free and yet he is accomplishing something. He says he may eventually buy a taxicab, where he can meet lots of people. Once again, the point is that manual labor is the only occupation suitable for someone of a spiritual nature. In the last scene, we see Larry working on a tramp steamer on his way back to America, thus combining the ennobling nature of physical work with the spiritual metaphor of the sea.
This version of The Razor’s Edge is about as good as one could want, but it was remade in 1984 anyway. Some people do not like old movies, especially when they are in black and white, so that may have been the thinking behind the production of this second version. I noted that in the 1946 version, we never saw what Larry was like before the war, so we could not compare the way he was before someone gave up his life to save his with the way he became afterwards. But people don’t change that much, and so we figure that Larry was always a nice guy, and only his desire to find the meaning of life is new. The 1984 version, however, begins as Larry, played by Bill Murray, is about to become an ambulance driver in Europe before America enters the war, but these scenes are not played to good effect.
Instead, the scene in which Larry’s life is saved is perplexing. Larry says of the man who died saving his life, “He was a slob. Did you ever see him eat? Starving children could fill their bellies on the food that ended up in his beard and on his clothes. Dogs would gather to watch him eat. I’ve never understood gluttony, but I hate it. I hated that about you. He enjoyed disgusting people, being disgusting, the thrill of offending people and making them uncomfortable. It was despicable. You will not be missed.” Clearly, Murray is being ironic when he says this, but is irony the appropriate attitude for a man that is about to embark on an existential quest to understand the meaning of it all?
Actually, in a way, that irony matches the look on Bill Murray’s face, not only as he portrays Larry both before and after the war, but also matches the look that Murray has on his face in every movie he has ever been in. Murray’s persona, fully expressed in his face, is that of a man who never takes anything seriously, but has an amused attitude about everything. He simply is not credible as Larry Darrell.
Another difference between the two versions is that Maugham is not a character in the 1984 version and thus provides no narration. Because, as mentioned above, Larry never does anything miraculous or spectacular, but rather simply does what any good-hearted fellow might do, we needed Maugham’s commentary to tell us that Larry’s spiritual nature was such as to inspire others to be better human beings. Without Maugham to guide our appreciation of this aspect of Larry’s personality, we are left pretty much on our own to see what is special about Larry, which given Bill Murray’s face, makes that just about impossible.
Murray cared a lot about this movie and was disappointed when it flopped. Little did he realize that the spiritual movie that he was perfectly suited for was a comedy, Groundhog Day (1993), which is every bit as much a classic now as the 1946 version of The Razor’s Edge.