Forgotten Films: The Razor’s Edge (1984)
Apropos of Memorial Day, I was thinking about Bill Murray’s dramatic debut in THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the film that bred GHOSTBUSTERS. Published in 1944, Somerset Maugham’s influential THE RAZOR’S EDGE was perhaps the first “beat” novel in the sense that Larry Darrell stood as the archetypal post world war generation American seeking transcendence outside of prescribed consumer society. After harsh battle experiences, Darrell goes on a global quest to find out the meaning of life as the novel jumps between Maugham’s first person recollections with Darrell and his friends, families and lovers. It’s one of my favorite books that I revisit every few years; Maugham was a witty, perceptive writer and his distance from Darrell’s mystic epiphanies keeps it out of Herman Hesse territory.
Bill Murray was also obviously a fan, so him and John Byrum, the director who initiated the project, persuaded Columbia Pictures to finance their screenplay of THE RAZOR’S EDGE (it had been filmed once before in 1946) after Murray agreed to make GHOSTBUSTERS, which was released to the inevitable pile of acclaim and money. Murray was now at the peak of his film success, and he had high, nervous expectations for his thespic aspirations in a 70mm epic. Here’s how Columbia marketed the film:
The trailer oversells the romance but also showcases the vast scope of the story, made manifest by Jack Nitzsche’s grand, beautiful score, the film’s greatest esthetic asset. Regardless, when the film was released in the summer of 1984, the critics were not kind and audiences stayed away in droves, not expecting or wanting to see wacky Bill Murray wax existential spiritualism. This conflict resides in Murray’s performance, and there are times when he plays it too anachronistic (you almost expect him to noogey Catherine Hicks), almost as if he’s afraid to commit to the character. And for all his stoic grace, Maugham’s Larry Darrell was not a funny man prone to zingers. But the adaptation is fairly loose (tho some moments are captured verbatim) even to the extant of creating a whole World War One battle sequence so Murray can mourn his dead captain (Brian Doyle Murray) in a veiled tribute to John Belushi. You have to give Murray props for ambition. And it would take more than a decade before he reinvented himself as an actor in RUSHMORE.
More successful are the supporting cast, particularly Theresa Russell as Darrell’s fallen woman, Sophie. Russell nails the character’s wanton apathy and she deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Denholm Elliot is also good as the bitchy antique dealer and Ultimate Snob, Elliot Templeton. The cinematography by Peter Hannan is lush and widescreen as befits the subject, and director Byrum has a stately eye for the period geography. I think the last shot is perfect. At least the film attempts to say something about the tension between spirit and civilization — a surefire recipe for box-office disaster in the middle of Reagan’s Nike and Cocaine era.
THE RAZOR’S EDGE failure certainly disspirited Bill Murray, who moved to France and left the industry for four years. It’s a shame the film didn’t receive more positive attention, as it’s well worth watching, and there are enough things that work to make it a flawed, fascinating effort. Jack Nitzsche’s magnificent soundtrack for one. The bare bones DVD certainly needs a do-over. And when do we get to see this in 70mm 6-track again?