Maybe it’s not possible to make a good movie from a mediocre book, particularly one as rooted in its time (1940s America, and Europe as they imagined it back then) as Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge. 20th Century Fox put more than a million dollars into the picture, and it had a stellar cast. But the story is so melodramatic, it’s impossible to take it seriously, and it just drags on and on.
Tyrone Power plays the intense, war-scarred searcher, Larry Darrell. He can’t seem to settle down with the lovely Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), even when his rival for Isabel’s affections, the millionaire Gray Maturin, offers him a high-paying job. Instead he heads off to Paris to find himself, living in a run-down hotel and doing menial jobs while consorting with authentic French people.
Power and Tierney are wonderful to look at, and then you have the delightful Clifton Webb as Isabel’s uncle Elliot, a variant on the character he played opposite Tierney in “Laura,” along with Anne Baxter as a nice midwestern girl gone bad — really bad (our last view of her is as a concubine to a dissolute sheik in an opium den) and John Payne (of “Miracle on 34th Street”) as the millionaire. There’s even a cameo appearance by Elsa Lanchester, who plays the Scottish secretary to some social-climbing American “princess.”
No, it’s not the cast. It’s the story. The cheesy sequence with the Indian holy man, who sends Larry to the top of the Himalayas to find enlightenment, was so bad it was almost good. Almost.
The creepy parts of this picture are not what you’d expect. Yes, the murderer does sneak out of the kitchen at the end of the film, waving a gun at the heroine. But by the time he does this, we’ve seen him do worse. The way Clifton Webb’s character fawns over Laura, keeping tabs on her, chasing away all rivals, trying to get inside her head, to change her feelings: that’s scary!
Then there’s Dana Andrews’ character, the detective assigned to investigate Laura’s alleged murder. He ends up falling in love with her. If you can call it love. He goes through her drawers, practically sniffs her lingerie, hangs around in her apartment reading her diary and drinking her scotch. Laura calls him on it when she returns, then lets him haul her into the police station and interrogate her. Next thing you know, she’s in love with him. That’s scary too!
Guess who comes off as the most affable of all Laura’s suitors? Vincent Price.
I’m not kidding. As the spoiled southern gentleman who was engaged to Laura before her alleged murder, he’s charming and has no illusions about himself. Suspecting that Laura killed the woman he was fooling around with in her apartment, he’s ready to sacrifice himself to keep her out of prison. Or, he’d like to be the sort of man who would do that, but maybe he’s not quite up to it? Or maybe Laura isn’t worth the sacrifice since it’s clear she doesn’t really love him.
The best noir shows people at their worst, and “Laura” gets to that place by the end. The story leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Too much honesty, yet it’s not quite enough to make you like these characters. All the performances are brilliant, pushing the boundaries of the genre but never over-the-top.
(28 January 2011)