Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Terry and Gene at the BFI… The Razor's Edge (1946)

Terence Stamp took off his shoes as he sat down to be interviewed about his choice of film for the BFI Screen Epiphanies series, “how many of you bastards have already seen the film?” he asked in a perfectly reasonable tone.

Not many of us had and, in fairness, not many of us would have if it hadn’t been on his recommendation.

Terence Stamp
Mr Stamp was compelling company as he talked through his early film experience from seeing Gary Cooper in Beau Guest to East of Eden. He was refreshingly frank about the impact The Razor’s Edge had on him with vivid memories of his first three viewings: too confused as a child to even frame questions for the uncle who took him, wanting to be Tyrone Power and just wanting Gene Tierney as a teen and then starting his appreciation of the acting talent, especially the mellifluous tones of Herbert Marshall, in his early years at stage school.

He has always maintained a connection with this film over his career and the searching, spiritual core of the story reflects his own journey, particularly after 1969 when, as he says, the business “gave up” on him and the “Cockney spiv” from Plaistow came back stronger and deeper almost a decade later.

He could have talked all night for most of the audience, but before the subject of the conversation could be over-looked (and the Donner cut of Superman 2 delayed…) we had to roll the film.

Get it?
The Razor’s Edge didn’t disappoint. Based on Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel, it felt like a precursor of the more novelistic style of fifties film, drawing some fine performances from its cast and examining the possibilities of  a life founded on spiritual rather than monetarist value.  Maugham wasn’t the first to look to Indian philosophy – and Stamp isn’t sure he quite “got it” – but he was certainly ahead of the long curve from Kerouac to Harrison.

So was film rather more about nuanced emotion than the linear narrative I’d (lazily as always) expected… it’s not “deliberate” or specific and leaves a lot of room for interpretation by audience and performers alike.

Gene Tierney
Into this zone of uncertainty, slinks Gene Tierney in most emphatic fashion as socialite Isabel Bradley. Hers is a striking performance not merely for the glamour that so entranced young Terence but also for her intensity. Stamp highlighted a moment when arriving at the top of a flight of stairs in her evening gown finery she fixes Larry (Tyrone Power) with a look so full of un-ambiguous intent you know he’s lost if she wants him to be.

Then there’s the moment when Isabel turns and reveals the precise nature of her life and love to Somerset Maugham (Marshall): she has married a man she likes but she’ll only ever love Larry. Such directness is possibly symptomatic of a post war film – life had to lived quickly and to the point – but Tierney slaps you right in the face with it: a more delicate Joan Crawford, but every bit as fierce. She will do what she must even at a cost and as her life goes on she loses her way more to pragmatism.

Fritz Kortner and Tyrone Power
Tyrone Power is also striking as Larry Darrell, a man traumatised by the sacrifice of a comrade in the dying moments of the Great War. He feels like he’s walking in another man’s shoes… a man who simply gave up his own existence so that his pal could carry on. Power carries the towering guilt within and only gives glimpses of the grief that drives him on to find a path worthy of this second chance.

He turns down the chance to join friends as a stock-broker and instead aims to “loaf” until he has found himself. At first Isabelle indulges him, prepared to wait for this process to pass but, finding him in Paris a year later he is still only beginning his journey and material concerns make her break off their engagement.

The great Clifton Webb
Larry goes off to work in a French mine where a fellow worker, Kosti (Fritz Kortner - Lulu’s sugar daddy in Pandora’s Box) tells him of his experiences in India – he didn’t gain enlightenment but grew in self-reliance in his struggle to evade God’s grace.

This is an interesting aspect of the film;  it’s spiritual but it doesn’t seem to be to be aligned to any specific religion just the need to find grace and “goodness”.

As Larry heads off to find a guru, things begin to turn dark at home as his childhood friend, Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter) loses both husband and child in a car crash. This begins a downward spiral that sees her addicted to most known vices – Baxter acts her socks off and you can understand how she won the best supporting Oscar.

Anne Baxter acts her way to an Oscar
All of the characters seem lost, even Isabelle’s wealthy uncle Elliott Templeton (the great Clifton Webb) who is a likeable snob finding validation in his position in society, even adopting noble English airs to distance himself still further.

Through this all drifts the author, gently involving himself as part of the plot but only once revealing his feelings as he tells Isabelle how much he appreciates her beauty. He seems wise but then “writers” always have the benefit of hindsight, a smart performance from Herbert Marshall.

Herbert Marshall appraises Gene Tierney
Fortunes turn and all parties end up in Paris after Isabelle’s husband Gray (John Payne) loses all in the stock market crash and they end up lodging with Uncle Elliott.

Larry returns and uses his new-found spiritual awareness to help cure Gray of his post-crash depression. He tries to save Sophie from her death-dive into destitution and it is here that Isabelle’s morality is put to the test…

It's a journey...
The Razor’s Edge is a fascinating film that doesn’t preach or make obvious judgements. Nor does it conform to narrative expectations…well, not mine anyway. I can see why Terence Stamp continues to want his friends to watch it and why he sat through the whole film again with us before beating a hasty retreat as the end credits rolled…

The BFI had secured an excellent print which was a joy to view on the big screen. DVDs are available in all the old familiar places...

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