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THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1946, 1984)


PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Meaning of life, Hindu philosophy

CHARACTERS: Larry (Tyrone Power 1946/Bill Murray 1984), Isabel (Larry’s first fiancée), Gray (Isabel’s husband), Sophie (Larry’s second fiancée), Bob (Sophie’s former husband), Elliot (Isabel’s uncle), Somerset Maugham (narrator)

OTHER FILMS BY EDMUND GOULDING (1946 DIRECTOR): Grand Hotel (1932), Dark Victory (1939), Of Human Bondage (1946)

OTHER FILMS BY JOHN BYRUM (1984 DIRECTOR): Heart Beat (1980), Duets (2000)

SYNOPSIS: Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1944) was adapted for film in 1946 and 1984. Both films follow the quest of a young man named Larry to find life’s meaning. On the fringe of Chicago’s social elite, Larry serves in a WWI ambulance crew and returns traumatized by his experience. He postpones his engagement to wealthy heiress Isabel, and travels to France to resolve his issues. Still discontent a year later, he cancels his marriage plans, travels to India and learns Hinduism from a guru. He returns to France and some years later becomes ensnared in a love triangle with Isabel and Sophie, an old friend from Chicago. Isabel foils Larry’s and Sophie’s marriage plans, ultimately resulting in Sophie’s death. The 1946 film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including best picture.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. The 1946 film begins after Larry returns from WWI, and only once or twice is there a passing reference to Larry’s war experience. Did the 1984 film’s emphasis on Larry’s war experience make him appear too shell shocked, thereby devaluing his quest for meaning?

2. The title of the movie comes from a passage in the Hindu Kath Upanishad: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.” The point is that, although we are all in reality one with the ultimate, it is quite a difficult and painful task for us to discover the ultimate within ourselves. Does anything in the film suggest that Larry experienced union with God?

3. Did the movie confuse achieving enlightenment with simply being good?

4. One reviewer stated that the 1984 movie had enough plots for four movies. Did the love triangle plot trivialize the quest for meaning plot?

5. There are a lot of staircases in the movie, including the final scene to the 1984 movie. What’s the significance?

6. Maugham scholar Anthony Curtis writes, “We cannot help but wonder if Larry is homosexual. In 1962, toward the end of his life, Maugham publicly confessed his homosexuality, but he never put an admittedly homosexual character into his fiction.” Does the movie preserve any sexual ambiguity that may or may not have existed in Larry’s character in the original novel? If so, does this impact on our interpretation of his quest for meaning?

7. Maugham wrote a screenplay of the novel, which the producers never actually used. In the opening of the script he wrote “Please note that this is, on the whole, a comedy, and should be played lightly by everyone except in the definitely serious passages.” Did Bill Murray set the right comedic tone? That is, was he either too deadpan or too over the top?

REVIEWS

I find The Razor's Edge to have many relevant philosophical topics, especially in the genre of existentialism. This movie is rich with content and is an easy watch at the same time. The successful mixture of entertainment and thought provoking content is a feat in which most philosophically oriented films fail miserably. I feel that a person could be ignorant of some of the philosophical themes in the movie and could still enjoy watching this film. In exploring some themes in the movie, I find that the anguish of freedom was central to the life of Larry. No decision came easy to Larry throughout the movie, and each decision which he was forced to make was followed by negative consequences. This is exemplified by his choice to abandon a married life with Isabel where he would have a vast amount of material wealth, but yet he would be acting contrary to his belief that material wealth would not lead him to happiness. Also, choosing the contrary, as he did, led Larry away from the woman whom he loved. In addition to the comment concerning the mere inclusion of this philosophical topic, the film does an superb job of illustrating the anguish of freedom. As another existential theme, the film uses tragic tone and seems to emphasize the inability of Larry to achieve a contented or happy life. I find that the perfect example of this is his relationship with Sophie after his long bout with the meaning of life. Larry, along with the audience, assume that Larry has found his contented place in life when he and Sophie fall mutually in love. Soon, Larry and the audience find out that this version of happiness is an illusion when Sophie decides that she is not worthy of Larry's love and dies not long after. And, again, the film does a masterful job of conveying this theme to the viewer. -- Sleepy Town

I enjoyed Larry’s quest through life and his search for meaning. It was encouraging to see his character give up everything and sacrifice so much in order to find a better understanding of life. Everyone wants to know what this life is all about, but when most realize the sacrifices they will have to make and the hardships they will have to endure in order to obtain that (especially when nothing is guaranteed) they feel it is better to stay in their air conditioned homes and just watch others do it on TV. Larry gave up the ideal life he had been planning on having for so long and went outside his comfort zone to obtain something much more important than a quaint home, gracious wife, and sufficient job. When he returned home, he was much wiser and had experienced so much. He still experiences trails in the midst of a love triangle with his previous fiancée and other friends from his past. As suggested in the questions, I feel that this may have trivialized the plot for the movie. He experiences so much enlightenment from traveling the world and after all that, he comes home to find his ex fiancée married to an old friend, so he settles for another childhood friend who is now a drug addicted French prostitute. Even though this was necessary for the traumatic ending, it still felt a little out of place after seeing Larry spend time in Tibet learning from a lama at a monastery. Regardless, the film was very entertaining for that small town philosophy student out there searching for the meaning of life. -- Back from the Dead

“The Razor’s Edge” is a movie set in the early twentieth century that effectively portrays a man in his search for meaning in life. In the movie, Larry (the main character) plans to marry Isabel (his fiancée) after he returns from the war. Larry serves as and ambulance crewman in World War I, and comes back in a state of semi-shock, resigning his days to drinking and lounging around. He tells Isabel that he plans to postpone the marriage, because he is not happy with his life as it is. He goes to Paris for a year, where he finds some happiness in areas most people would not see it. Working small time jobs and reading countless books. He decides going back to his former life in the states would be impossible at this point, because he feels that life would no longer be fulfilling. As far as philosophical messages and metaphors from the movie go, one of the clearest was the use of staircases, as we discussed in class. Staircases were used and seen in the movie as sort of an allegory for ascending to a higher lever of thinking, consciousness, and/or awareness. One of the most memorable uses of this allegory is with Larry and Sophie climbing staircases together. It’s very easy for Larry to do, because he is enlightened and a good person. Conversely, it is very hard for Sophie because she had become a bad person, or maybe she was just out of shape (just kidding). -- Cardinal Sinner


 
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