“The path to enlightenment is as sharp and narrow as a razor’s edge.” This is what the Holy Man (played by Cecil Humphreys) says to World War I veteran Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) during his long transcendental journey to better understand the meaning of life. The 1946 film, which was adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, follows a traumatized veteran named Larry Darrell as he tries to find his place in the world. Larry is a hardworking man, but he is simply unable to return to a life of domesticity after losing his friend in the war. Though Larry is in love with a woman named Isabel (Gene Tierney), he’s not ready to settle down with her. He wants to postpone marriage so that he can find clarity and a purpose to his life. The devastation of war often changes a person’s perspective on life. Larry is not the same man after the war. We either can easily identify with Larry or we know someone who is like him.
Isabel is deeply in love with Larry and agrees to wait rather than try to put pressure on him to marry her. However, as time passes, she realizes he will never be able to give her the life that she wants. While Larry is content to live off a meager income so that he can continue on his path towards enlightenment, Isabel desires stability. Isabel actually wants wealth and social status, which is completely unimportant to Larry. She breaks the engagement and chooses to marry the social elite, Gray Maturin (John Payne), a decision she comes to regret later on in the film. Even though she has wealth, social status, and a beautiful family, her heart always belongs to Larry.
Meanwhile, Larry’s childhood friend, Sophie Nelson (Anne Baxter), enjoys a happy marriage until a car accident kills her husband and baby. The tragedy sends Sophie into a downward spiral and, when Larry finds her, she is practically in a perpetual state of intoxication. Larry decides to marry Sophie. However, it’s not because he is in love with her the same way as he was with Isabel. Larry feels that he can save Sophie, and eventually she does return to sobriety. Isabel is so hurt, she decides to prove to Larry that Sophie’s sobriety will only be temporary. Isabel’s actions create a ripple effect that goes beyond what she intended. Unfortunately, the disaster cannot be undone and ultimately she risks losing the one person who means the most to her.
The Razor’s Edge powerfully demonstrates the full spectrum of human nature. No character in this film is “all good” or “all bad.” They have flaws. They’re wounded, and they react from these wounds. Anne Baxter, who plays Sophie, is a master of conveying charm, vulnerability and depravity in a way that is relatable to the audience. In fact, Baxter won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this role. Gene Tierney, as in most of her films, is breathtaking and has a commanding presence. Even though Tyrone Power’s Larry Darrell is quite frankly just a really nice guy, the kind you rarely see these days, he’s still just as captivating as the other actors in this film. Sometimes really good people get lost in the shuffle because as humans, we’re drawn to the drama and chaos. However, Power is always charismatic, and his character’s pursuit of enlightenment is unusual, which in itself makes Larry interesting to the audience. His presence affects all the others.
Edmund Goulding directed and Darryl F. Zanuck produced the movie, which was distributed by 20th Century Fox. Alfred Newman, who composed music for many big films such as Camelot and The King and I, wrote the music for The Razor’s Edge. Unfortunately, while Maugham was a highly regarded novelist, his first draft of the screenplay was completely disregarded. Maugham was so upset that he never wrote for Hollywood again.
The Razor’s Edge is a very important film to watch because we can all learn something from Larry Darrell. To some degree, most people question their purpose or the meaning of life. Larry is fearless in how he lives his life. In this world some might call him unsuccessful or a loafer because he chooses spiritual pursuits over money. There is a lot of pressure to conform and to desire material wealth. However, as we learn from Isabel, all the money in the world may buy you convenience, but not happiness or love.