When Todd over at Forgotten Films asked me to participate in the “1984-a-thon,” my first reaction was: “there were good movies made in 1984?” Then I went through the long, long list of films released that year and was pleasantly surprised at the number of excellent films included therein. The 1984-a-thon also meant that I finally got around to watching a film that has been on my queue for too long:
The Razor’s Edge
Back before he joined up with Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch and went through a dramatic career resurgence, Bill Murray was known first and foremost as a comedian. Armed with that wry, knowing sense of humor and slapstick that most of us associate with his persona, he appeared in a handful of comedic roles and made a name for himself in films like Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and, of course, Ghostbusters. But Murray always considered himself more than just a funny guy (not that that’s anything to sneeze at) and so took on his very first dramatic role in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.
The Razor’s Edge was directed by John Byrum from a script written in collaboration with Murray, and bears only a nodding resemblance to the 1946 film with Tyrone Power in the lead. Murray is Larry Darrell, a young man from a small town in Illinois who joins the ambulance corps during World War I, leaving behind his fiancée Isabel (Catherine Hicks). The horrors of war take their toll, opening his eyes to the moral bankruptcy and complacency of the life he left behind. When Larry returns to his hometown he’s unsatisfied with the safe and business-like life offered by post-World War I America and heads to France to “find himself” through hard work and intellectual introspection. Isabel is horrified by the way he chooses to live and leaves him for his erstwhile best friend Gray (James Keach). Larry finally falls for Sophie (Theresa Russell), the girl who always loved him but who remained divided from him by circumstance. The rest of the film meanders through France, Britain, and India as Larry searches for meaning in a life and world that has ceased to make sense to him.
John Byrum only directed a few films in his career; The Razor’s Edge was the third, and unfortunately bears the hallmarks of an inexperienced filmmaker. Most critics of 1984 focused on Murray’s performance as the major problem with the film, but things go much deeper than that. The film has a wandering, episodic structure, as characters move in and out of each other’s lives, yet the audience remains almost aloof from the characters. Larry is the central figure, but the characters who surround him and inform on his existence are so sketchily drawn that they almost become non-entities, figures there for Larry to bounce off of rather than characters in their own right. Murray’s wry, comedic sensibility might be partially to blame here – like the film, he seems aloof from the very beginning.
As Larry moves on to find himself in a Buddhist monastery, the film takes on an Orientalist theme. This is hardly surprising in an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel, or in a film of this period – in fact, the DVD version of The Razor’s Edge includes trailers for Seven Years in Tibet and Gandhi. The idea of a Westerner turning to Buddhism to find the meaning of his life is hardly unique, but the film fails to examine the underlying problems of that portion of the plot. In general The Razor’s Edge is a story about introspection and enlightenment that refuses to examine itself, its superficiality at odds with the growth of its central character.
This superficiality has more to do with the script and direction than anything else. The script and performance styles have a weirdly anachronistic feeling to them; more than once I felt as though I was watching actors from 1984 pretending to be people from 1920. Both Catherine Hicks’s Isabel and Theresa Russell’s Sophie are contemporary characters dropped into another world, their voices, attitudes, and dialogue more in keeping with the America of 1984 than of 1920. Sophie is supposed to be Larry’s “true love,” but Russell’s performance – which should have been affecting – instead comes off as almost callous and unbelievable in her behavior. She’s a Valley girl dropped into the Midwest of the early 20th Century. It was difficult to feel any sort of sympathy for Sophie or for Isabel, both of whom are intended to be damaged and complex characters but lose their complexity in the script.
The major exception to this anachronistic tendency is Denholm Elliott, playing “Uncle” Templeton. Templeton is a dandy, a “man-about-town” still trying to live in the society prior to World War I. He is part of a less confusing world, ill-equipped for the changes wrought by the war and its aftermath, and as such feels like a man out of time. Unable to cope with the new society, Templeton tries to retreat to his memories of the past in his opulent Parisian home, stalwartly maintaining his savoir faire in the face of a society he cannot understand. Elliott plays him with a pathos missing from most of the other performances – Templeton is both pathetic and lovable, and you want him to find a place in the gone world. It seems odd that the character most out of touch with his time period should come off as the most believable.
Then there is Murray. While far from pitch-perfect, his performance as Larry has been unfairly maligned. Certainly Larry carries around some of Murray’s trademark sarcasm, but there is an underlying sensitivity and intelligence to the character that hints at the actor’s later ability to walk the line between humor and melancholy. The war does not transform Larry so completely that he fails to retain his fundamental personality – the character keeps a continuity often missing from these tales of transformative experience and the search for meaning. You believe that he can change as he does. Murray is fun to watch in almost any incarnation, but here he proves that he does have a strong dramatic sensibility that does not have to be at odds with his more obvious style of comedy.
The Razor’s Edge is not a bad film, but it squanders the opportunity to be a great one. It hints at a depth and introspection it never quite achieves, burying some excellent ideas (and performances) beneath romantic renderings of a bygone era. The female characters fail to spark, and there is at least one scene where a pivotal moment fails to achieve its emotional aim. At the same time, watching a younger Murray in a rare dramatic role provides a glimpse of the mature actor beneath the immature facade. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to capitalize on that until much later.
The Razor’s Edge actually owes its existence to Ghostbusters. When The Razor’s Edge had difficulty obtaining backing after Murray’s casting, Dan Aykroyd came to the rescue: he convinced Murray to appear in Ghostbusters in exchange for Columbia Pictures greenlighting The Razor’s Edge. Whether or not that was a good exchange must be subject for debate, but it’s likely Murray would never have done Ghostbusters if it had not been for The Razor’s Edge. That in itself might be reason enough to give this film a chance.