Monday, January 25, 2010

A book movie that deserves accolades: (1984) The Razor's Edge

I’ve been thinking about how books and movies are two different species of art. Separate and equal. And how movies from books usually disappoint people who have read the books first. That’s because the movie has to leave out so much and the characters are never as we imagine them in our heads. And sometimes the story of the book is changed for dramatic reasons and our favorite parts go missing or altered beyond recognition. I love books for the way the beautifully assembled words speak to me, connect me to something larger and deeper of the human world, and how I know myself more through reading about the lives of others. I love movies for the way the images get under my skin and speak directly to my heart, and how the actors make me understand more about humanity and myself, sometimes with little more than the look in their eyes.

In addition to thinking about book movies, like the last one I talked about—What Dreams May Come—staring Robin Williams, I am thinking about comedians in movies. Most of us have come to think of Robin Williams as a funny man, not as a great actor. And yet, in the right dramatic roles, he is great. It’s said that to be able to make people laugh, one must have a deep understanding of pain and tragedy. Perhaps that helps explain why Williams is as spectacular as he is in movies like What Dreams May Come, The Final Cut, and One Hour Photo. And perhaps that’s why Bill Murray, another funny man, is capable of the Oscar-worthy performance he gives us in The Razor’s Edge (1984, directed by John Byrum).

This film version of The Razor’s Edge is based on the 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. There are many changes to the plot, missing characters and scenes in the film version, however it does stay true to the spirit of the book. There was another film done of this story in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney which gives greater emphasis to the female characters. The 1984 version keeps the original focus of the book on it’s main character Larry Darrell.

This is one of the all-time greatest films I have ever seen. This is due largely to the excellent screenplay co-written by director Byrum and Murray (terrific dialogue), and to Murray’s brilliant performance.

From this point on, there will be substantial spoilers.

Larry Darrell is played with exquisite charm, humor and subtlety by Bill Murray. Larry is a man that has known a privileged upper class life in middle America. He and his friend Gray upon graduating from college volunteer to be ambulance drivers even before the U.S. enters WWI. Larry is devastated by what he sees during his time on the battlefield and he can no longer resume the life he once had. He begins on a quest to discover the meaning of life, first at the bottom of a martini glass, then in Paris through books, and finally at a mountain top temple in Tibet.

The film opens on an idyllic fourth of July picnic. Larry and Gary are in uniform, ready to leave for Paris the next day. Larry’s friend Sophie gives him a volume of her poems to take with him. There is a hint that the two were more than friends at one time, though now Sophie is pregnant and married to someone else. Larry tells his fiancé, Isabel, she should really marry Gary who had a million dollars. Sophie responds, “I don’t want a million bucks, I just want you…and half a million.”

Next, we are in France on the battlefield where Larry and Gary meet their commander, Piedmont (played wonderfully by Bill Murray’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray) and two ivy-league truly upper class. ambulance drivers. The scenes with war casualties are horrific as you might expect. When the ivy league drivers are killed, Piedmont immediately says of them that they were liars and he hates liars, “They will not be missed.” It is obvious this is his way of dealing with, maybe even denying the loss.
This scene is followed up with a shot of Larry scrunched in a bunker lighting a lighter to look at a picture of Isabel. He appears more numb than sad thanks to Murray’s brilliant acting.

Later Piedmont himself is killed, thereby saving Larry’s life, and Larry makes a similar speech saying, “He was a slob…Starving children could fill their bellies on the food that ended up on his clothes and beard…I never understood gluttony but I hate it…He will not be missed.” The timbre of Murray’s voice, his facial expressions, make this one of the most powerful and moving scenes in the film. I have read but do not know if it is true that the speech Murray gives about Piedmont is part of the memorial he wrote for departed friend John Belushi.

From the death the movie cuts back to an idyllic scene in America with Gary lounging in the grass wearing a white dinner jacket pinned with a metal. It’s obviously back to the high society good life, but Larry is nowhere to be seen. Later we see Larry has been drinking excessively. He tells Isabel he isn’t the man she wants to marry, not “the old Mr. Sunshine.” He says he needs “to think and I don’t have much experience in that field. Isabel is very unhappy but decides to wait for Larry while he goes to Paris to think. Her Uncle Elliot tells her this is a very good move for a man about to be married and he will put Larry in touch with the right aristocratic friends.

Larry lives a very simple existence in Paris, working as a fish packer and reading books. When he’s been there too long, Isabel goes to Paris to find him. She stops by Uncle Elliot’s Paris house and is enamored with all the treasures therein. She says, I never dreamed anyone could live like this.” Larry shows up with an organ grinder and monkey, then whisks Isabel away to show her his life in Paris. Larry tells her, “I got a second chance at life and I am not going to waste it on a big house and a new car every year.” Isabel cannot agree to such a life and the engagement is broken. However Isabel goes back to Larry’s flat and spends the night, seemingly willing to try things his way. But when she wakes the next morning to a gigantic cockroach in her bed, rats in the hall and disgusting shared plumbing, she flees.

Larry goes to Uncle Elliot’s house to find her only to learn that she has gone back to America. Angry, Larry kicks and busts up an ottoman. When the butler comes to see what the ruckus is, Uncle Elliot says, “I appear to have been crashing about without my spectacles.” We see in that one moment the kind, compassionate soul Uncle Elliot truly is despite being a snob.

Larry ends up saving the life of a coworker in a mine. When he goes to that man’s house for a drink, he discovers a kindred spirit. The friend asks him if he’s read Upanishad. The quote that opens Maugham’s novel is from Upanishad, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." But the friend says Larry won’t find answers in a book. The friend has traveled to India and Larry gets the notion to do the same. Once in India, Larry meets his landlord Raaz (played marvelously by Saeed Jaffrey) who is a spiritual man. He equates washing dishes to prayer. Raaz tells Larry “if work has no intention, it’s not work at all.” Raaz takes Larry on a journey to a Tibetan temple high in the mountains. Larry stays there for a while till the holy master tells him to go to a hut higher up with his books. As Larry is in the exposed hut freezing, he realizes he will need to burn his books to keep warm. Later when Larry is leaving the temple to go back to Paris, he asks the master if it’s true that it’s easy to be a holy man on a mountain top. The master’s answer is a paraphrase of the Upanishad quote, “The path to salvation is narrow and difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.”

When Larry is in Paris, he runs into Uncle Elliot and discovers Isabel has married Gary and is living there with their two children. Larry rekindles the friendship and helps Gary using hypnosis and mindful techniques he learned while in India. Later they run into Sophie who had become a prostitute, alcoholic and drug addict. Larry helps her get sober then proposes to her. The two seem happy until Isabel learns of the impending marriage and does what she can to prevent it. It ends horribly with Sophie’s return to her old ways, followed by her murder. Larry says he is not that interested in finding her killer. In his mind, Isabel is responsible. And yet, he does not scream or act violently. In the midst of this, Uncle Elliot is dying and Isabel is grief stricken. Larry tells Isabel he realized he had “another debt to pay for the privilege of being alive…I thought Sophie was my reward for trying to live a good life. Uh-uh. There is no pay-off. Not now.”

I read that Bill Murray wanted very badly to make this film and that he agreed to make Ghostbusters as a way to help finance The Razor’s Edge. When the movie came out it was a box office flop. I cannot imagine why. This is one of the most powerful, moving and memorable films I have ever seen. Not only did Murray deserve a best actor nomination and Oscar (he received neither--that year it went to Duvall for Tender Mercies), but the film itself should be considered a classic. It’s on par with such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Casablanca. And even if you did not like either of those films, see this one. Even if you loved the book and don’t want to spoil it by seeing the movie, see this one. Murray’s performance alone makes it worth your while.


  1. Great pick Lana.

    I love both the book and the movie, and one doesn't take away from the other at all. I like that both are focused on Larry's character although in the book Elliot (and the author) is a much bigger presence.
    None of the war scenes were in the book either, and I think those really worked in the movie. It's clearly the same story but Bill Murray did a good job making it his own without losing the spirit (even enhancing it)
    I'd agree that Bill Murray is amazing in this movie. It's work he should be very proud of. But as much as I love the movie, I can see why audiences disliked it. It doesn't give any easy answers. I'm sure the celebration of Larry over Isabel wasn't easy for many to digest. It could easily be seen as against having a secure life and owning nice things (it's really not but if you were sensitive about your lifestyle you could see it as an attack perhaps) Maybe a little too metaphysical. But honestly I wish everyone loved this movie, it's so beautiful and important. And Larry should give even something to at least consider.

  2. Brent, I am surprised more folks didn't love this movie too. I think we like to imagine ourselves as more spiritual and less materialistic than we are, so why not get on board with the movie? I mean plenty got on board with Brando in On the Waterfront. I guess as a culture we prefer Cinderella stories. But there are no fairy godmothers and castles are drafty and damp. Don't you wish we could get over it?

  3. i do think we should get over it. I don't really buy Cinderella stories but it's the American dream you know. That's one area where i think people reading the book would feel less threatend as Maugham uses himself as the focal point of the story, so we can admire Larry just like he does without feeling "accused." Having Larry as the lead makes it tough to like the movie unless you can find it in you to approve of Larry's path. The thing that bother's me though is that Larry doesn't judge anybody else. He remains great friends with Gray, and clearly cares a great deal for Elliot. I think it's the idea that someone could decide to dismiss convention entirely to follow their own belief that is perhaps upsetting, probably most to those who see the trap but don't want to recognize it. I love that Bill Murray invested so much of himself in this movie and it shows in the performance. I just wish it hadn't ended up being such a painful experience, but then again that's also part of what the movie's about. It continues to find an audience too!

  4. Once again, you've picked a real dark horse of a movie, and a winner at that. I'm not surprised it didn't do better at the box office. Murray had not at that time (to my knowledge) done a totally dramatic role on film, let alone one as delicate to portray properly as Larry Darrell. I agree he does a spellbinding job (I think the fact that he did indeed labor so hard to get this film made comes through in his performance; intense but without even a hint of melodrama.)

  5. I've been a fan of this book for a couple of decades. I'm a huge fan of this movie as well (as my long suffering girlfriend will attest having been made to sit through it more than once). In truth, this is not Bill Murray's best work as an actor. There are too many times in the movie that his Puckish smirk seems out of place, and for the average Joe or Jane that never read the book and went along thinking they would see more of Murray's comic genius, the smirks don't match the content of the scene. It's confusing. What does come through is that these two bohemians did a great job on the screenplay, and it is a tribute to how smart and sensitive Murray really is. I loved it, warts and all, and any continuity problems with the film I had the pleasure of fixing with my knowledge of the book. Others have quoted the "razor's edge" maxim here, and I would just say that it is also often written "Go big or go home"; that's what Bill Murray did here and I applaud him.

  6. Excellent, positive review, Lana. My fav novel and I love this movie version of it. I've watched it countless times. Murray clearly loved the novel.

  7. Raaz tells Larry “if work has no intention, it’s not work at all.”
    The quote is "because If work has no intention, it's not work at all, it's an empty motion. " Which is why washing dishes with intention is a spiritual experience.
    It's interesting how you quoted it.