Forgotten Films: The Razor’s Edge (1984)

razors_edgeApropos 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?

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16 Responses to “Forgotten Films: The Razor’s Edge (1984)”

  1. i have a little tale about my first of two ‘the razors edge’ viewing experiences:

    i went to see the movie in my teens with my very best girlfriend ever; we were huge murray fans and a couple of hard cases, we went in not knowing what to expect (neither of us had read the novel on which the film was based) and very oddly, the old cinema in which we saw it played it as a double freature with murray’s ‘where the buffalo roam’, released some years ealier, a movie both my friend and i already adored.

    so we go to this double feature (and we were, how shall i say it delicately, we be trippin’) and laughed ourselves stupid as usual through ‘buffalo’, then proceeded to do the same through ‘the razor’s edge’ (well, to be honest, alternating between being gobsmacked and laughing like idiots, as neither of us could even look at bill murray without laughing). the fact the movie wasn’t meant to be a comedy apparently escaped us both. on the way out of the theatre, i distincly remember my mate and i looking at eachother and saying something to hte effect of ‘that was fucking weird!’.

    and then, an irate little man came up to us as we entered the lobby and proceeded to shake his fist at us with a flaming red face while telling us off for ruining the movie for him. there we were, towering over this little weenie while he berated us, like a coupble of basketball players looming over a pissed-off ref, all the while compleltely mystified by his reaction and gigling at him, which of course pissed him off even further. he stormed up to the ticket booth and demanded his money back, pointing at us as the reason for his malcontent, at which time we took the opportunity to run away as fast as possible.

    i’ve seen ‘razor’s edge’ once since and have come to realise it is, in fact, not a comedy ;-)

  2. well, i managed to post that comment above without proofreading it (i think i pressed ‘enter’ by accident?) so apologies for all the typos

  3. in my own defence, i type very fast so i rely heavily on proofreading after i’ve blazed a stream-of-consciousness trail. it actually could have been a lot worse, believe it or not

  4. jkeeling Says:

    I dig this movie. After reading your review I realized that having only seen Razor’s Edge twice I need to see it again. I’ll look for the book as well.

  5. christian Says:

    Leah, I would’ve lit into you and your friend too;] But I’m assuming that was the general response by confused audiences. Columbia sold it as well as could be expected. Just nobody expected a Bill Murray drama. One problem is that Larry Darrell is the fount of sincerity while Murray was famous for his absolute non-sincerity.

    John: Read the book.

  6. jkeeling Says:

    slightly off topic … but your mention of ‘beat’, and my wiki review of Maugham’s book, reminded me of the below upcoming film. I’m am trying (and failing) to not be a complete cynic about the making of this book into a movie:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0337692/

  7. christian Says:

    Ugh.

  8. christian, i know, we were complete retards and deserved the tongue-lashing, your ‘razor’s edge’ forgotten films clip just brought it all back to me, one of the more bizarro movie-going experiences of my life (and the first and last time i’ve ever been told off for ruining someone’s movie, blasphemy in my book, for shame)

    • christian Says:

      Leah, I’m sure you’ve more than made up for your sinematic blaspheme…Curious as to your views on the film now.

      • well, i haven’t seen the movie for a very long time (this has inspired me to seek it out for a refresher viewing) but from what i remember ‘razor’s edge’ is a lovely, bittersweet story, beautifully filmed, and theresa russell’s perf stands out in my memory. (somehow it’s not surprising that a sweeping, rather sad film about finding the deeper meaning in life beyond the material starring bill murray didn’t catch on with the mall crowd, a pity because it sounds like the project was a real labour of love for murray, i wonder if it put him off tyring to further stretch his thespian wings)

  9. So there is no title on that link and I said to myself as I clicked it.
    “Please don’t be On the road, please don’t be On The road.”
    I haven’t even looked yet, but the tab at the top spells out the doom.

  10. christian Says:

    Doom.

  11. […] so he could score with his female friend turned me off. How strange that he only made this to get THE RAZOR’S EDGE produced the same year. I did love the glossy New York look of the production, and the supporting cast was wonderful, […]

  12. Loved the movie and the book. Promoted incorrectly and doomed it to failure. Nothing worse than advertising what the audience is not going to like.

  13. to me the Razor’s Edge was a pivotal moment in my own search for enlightenment. I think Bill Murray was great in it. I admit to being a Murray fan, but this was beyond much of his other work. I must have seen the movie 20 times

    For those who haven’t read the book though, search it out and read it. Maugham’s best work in my mind. Certainly I’ve read the book 4 or more times.

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