THE SOMERSET MOCK
The Razor’s Edge is Maugham pondering the imponderable and, you guessed it, it’s imponderable. The “anti-hero” Larry, indifferent to everything, seeks the higher power of salvation through the Eastern gospel of nonattachment, and so successful is his transformation and his severance of materialism he brags about returning to the States as either a garage mechanic or a taxi driver. Yeah, sure, especially coming from one of the great social snobs in American lit. (Isn’t Somerset really mocking James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises?) With an unaccountable sale of over 1.3 million copies during the 40s, the movie The Razor’s Edge has the kind of “conviction” the 50s crowd ate up with The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit—i.e., totally convictionless. You stare at them in total disbelief. And Tyrone Power, handsome and gleaming with greasy hair as Larry, is about as passive as you’d dare get: watching and listening to him you wonder if he and Michael Rennie aren’t secret twins. Though Maugham modeled Larry after Christopher Isherwood and British intellectual Gerald Heard and a Long Island ex-sailor-spiritualist named Guy Hague, Power’s underutilized talent wasn’t his sexual ambiguity—still cheered by foofs—but his rare mountebank, as in Nightmare Alley. Anne Baxter won an Oscar for her suicidal boozing but it’s Clifton Webb who steals the show. Reportedly based on Henry “Chips” Channon, a one-time member of Parliament, and a social climber named Jerry Zipkin, Webb’s Templeton is probably closer to the private Maugham than Herbert Marshall’s conceit as the author.
NO COMIC RELIEF: Bill Murray can’t decide in what direction to take Maugham’s “meaning of life” potboiler. This 1984 version, which Murray co-adapted, is certainly more fully pictorialized than Tyrone Power’s go; we’re given establishment slams—uppercrust snob partygoers, WWI inhumanities—which lay the groundwork for the ridiculous trek to India, and the doomed relationship between Murray’s Larry and Theresa Russell’s soused Sophie is clearer, if not a tad too romantic. (It almost works, which it never did in the original movie.) Watching Murray, who’s looking better than he ever has on screen, you think, Oh yes, here is where he’ll start his wise-ass stuff, or there, or he’ll turn this scene into SNL camp, or that one. But mostly his face is so screamingly inexpressive, especially while contemplating the “higher power” during the India sequence, you find yourself begging for him to start cutting up. Just how long can Murray get away with this crazy reverence to apathy? For sure it’s burrowed into the novel—perhaps so deeply there’s no way to do the material except surrender to it. But if you’re insane enough to take a crack at what Diana Trilling called a “non-dimensional universe which is all that is left when the deep emotions have been disavowed,” then be equally daring and turn the muck into comic relief. Murray would eventually admit this movie role was his biggest career mistake.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.