Classic Film Guide

The Razor's Edge (1946)

A man’s search for the meaning of life is captured in this Darryl F. Zanuck production, directed by Edmund Goulding, and screenwriter Lamar Trotti’s (Wilson (1944)) interpretation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel. The film was nominated for Best Picture (and B&W Art Direction-Interior Decoration) by the Academy and won Anne Baxter an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category; Clifton Webb (Laura (1944)) was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, and Lucile Watson play key roles as does Herbert Marshall, who plays (and narrates the story as) novelist Maugham.

Larry Darrell (Power) returns from World War I wondering why he survived when a comrade of his, who was struck down just before its end, did not. This seemingly random occurrence causes him to question life. Raised without a religious or spiritual foundation, he asks “what’s the point?” and considers loafing but instead decides to begin a quest for meaning. His upper class fiancée Isabel Bradley (Tierney), whose physical if not emotional attraction to Larry is obvious, is initially tolerant of his search despite her socialite uncle Elliott Templeton’s (Webb) misgivings; a snob, his attempts to manipulate ‘common’ Larry out of his niece’s life fail. Isabel’s mother (Elliott’s sister) Louisa (Watson) has long since given up trying to control her strong-willed daughter. But after giving Larry a year, which he spends in Paris, and deciding to abandon an attempt to trap him (the old fashioned way, with pregnancy), Isabel returns to her Midwestern roots and marries the multi-millionaire scion – Gray Maturin (Payne) – that her family had always preferred to Larry. Maugham’s character, an acquaintance of Templeton’s, observes the goings-on and often offers merely an expression – raised eyebrows or a “knowing look” – to exhibit his opinion; he words are usually neutrally tempered.

Baxter plays Sophie, a childhood friend of Larry’s – and Isabel’s, despite their class differences – that marries Bob MacDonald (Frank Latimore). Her simple yet happy life is dramatically changed when her husband and their child are killed in an automobile accident. Years later, after the stock market crash that wipes out Gray and Isabel, who've come to live with Elliott in Paris, and Larry returns from the Himalayas where a Holy Man (Cecil Humphreys) and the setting helps him to find the spirituality he’d been seeking, they find a despondent and drunken Sophie in a bar in the lower class district of the city. Evidently she’d salved the hurt of her losses with alcohol and prostitution. Larry attempts to save Sophie, leading her to sobriety, and they become engaged to be married. But a jealous and incensed Isabel conspires to bring about Sophie’s demise. When Larry later confronts Isabel about her actions, his inherent “goodness”, coupled with his selfless gesture (which features a scene with Elsa Lanchester) to a dying Elliott, leaves her (and indeed the audience, through Maugham) to contemplate his chosen path.

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