The Razor’s Edge (1984): The Quest for Enlightenment

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“The Razor’s Edge,” this version at least, is one of my Grandfather’s favorite movies. I had the chance to watch it with him today and I must say I was impressed. It’s a powerful film that reminded me a lot of the book Remains of the Day and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both of which are favorites of mine. Suffice to say this became a favorite movie, I’ll get into the reason for this in the assessment of the film.

“The Razor’s Edge” is based off the novel of the same by W, Somerset Maughman’s book published in 1944 of the same name and the original 1946 film that came out of it. Which I’ll be reviewing at some point to contrast with this version and the book.

This version was directed by John Byrum, written by John Byrum and Bill Murray and produced by Rob Cohen.

The story involves a man named Larry (Bill Murray) from high society who is sent with his friend Gray (James Keach) who will be going abroad to Europe to serve as ambulance drivers on the front lines for France and England. He is looking forward to marrying his love Isabel (Catherine Hicks) but things change when he loses his mentor and friend Piedmont in the War from a bayonet from an enemy soldier, and returns lost. From here the story unfold as he seeks meaning behind all the needless loss and suffering he’s gone through and how his and his friend’s relationships play out.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography in this film is fantastic! Given how many places that Larry goes (America, France, India) it does a good job of capturing these places through his eyes…whether he’s distant and detached, or in the thick of it working.

How the War Changed Larry – Larry watches his friend die from a gunshot in the trenches after he’s been shot and he weeps as he insults him the way their commander insulted the rich guys from Harvard who were serving since he in fact did care for them and distancing was the only way to deal. Before this Larry is happy go lucky, he is connecting with the two women he loves (Sophie and Isabel) and is happy with the promise he gets from his position as a wealthy aristocrat. The war changes him when he sees how fleeting life can be and how purposeless death is.

Finding Enlightenment – It’s weird that this isn’t the end since most movies would have this as the end. The main character realizes it’s all about the purpose in actions, or using the meaning from books in the world to make a difference. Larry goes with a dishwasher in India to visit a Lama high up in a Temple. It is there he climbs the highest peak and realizes that words are meaningless without action and to live with purpose behind all he does. The thing is though, he has to actually do that in the world and enter back into the relationships in his life that caused him so much pain. Just because he realized that didn’t mean his suffering or work stopped. So many books and stories stop at this point, they never answer, what after? That’s one of the issues I have with Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha even though it is a favorite book. This story doesn’t end there. He has to keep living.

Everything Changes – Sophie loses her husband and son in a car crash, before Larry heads to India Isabel has a one night stand and leaves him when living in poverty is too much and she marries Gray, Gray is a stock broker who loses all his money in the Depression and his father commits suicide and they stay with Uncle Elliot in France, Sophie is also there and has become an addict and prostitute. Things change and continue to change throughout the film.

The Characters – I’ve already gone into some of the rich dynamic of the characters above. Suffice to say this is the best Bill Murray film I’ve ever watched, but the others do a great job too.

Uncle Elliot – Played by Denholm Elliot of “Indiana Jones” fame (the professor who got lost in his own museum). He owns this role as the high society man who wants to be a part of the big wigs but is always on the outside because of how odd he is. He always accepts Larry even when Larry destroys his things and lets characters make their own choices even if he disproves. For these reasons his death at the end means something as it reveals characters intentions and relationships are resolved.

Piedmont – This guy is gruff but good hearted and the actor Brian Doyle-Murray does a fantastic job! We see him try and teach the rich students who came over by destroying muddying their ambulance so it wouldn’t hinder them but only Larry gets it. He later shares their loss with Larry and after Larry is the one who truly feels the loss of Piedmont who had become his friend and mentor by this time and the reason he survived the War.

Sophie – Loses her husband and son, becomes a prostitute in France after losing everything and all support and is building a life with Larry when Isabel turns her fears on her and manipulates her into drinking again which brings back all her self hatred. Her story is a tragedy that shows how staying strong is being at the razor’s edge…which the Lama expresses to Larry. She also has things going against her from the beginning as Robby and her marry when she gets pregnant…which everyone looks down upon. Theresa Russell is great in this role.

Gray – Gray is the well meaning socialite who escapes the experiences of the War by embracing work and the role everyone wants him to play, which leads to him and Isabel getting married and having two kids. His friendship with Larry feels real though he never fully gets over losing his position of power which is why he and Isabel end up living with Uncle Elliot in France, it’s a shame that they never learn empathy from that. Regardless he has a great moment at the end where he tells Larry that Larry is one of his best friends and Larry tells him Isabel will explain all that’s been going on.

Larry – This is Bill Murray’s best role I’ve seen him in. He’s got comedy, drama, the quest for enlightenment and experiencing so much suffering. He co-wrote the Screenplay and put his character through Hell. You think things are going to work out with Sophie but after Isabel sabotages her and one of the pimps kill her we are left with a Larry that could be very desolate. Instead he accepts the suffering, like he did when he was in India and knows he’s got to go back to America. That’s he’s been away too long. Bill Murray owned this role and his actions of empathy…from telling the truth Isabel and Gray, to building a life with Sophie when she was in the lowest place and pretending the Princess sent a telegram to Uncle Elliot since it was all he wanted in the end.

Okay: Isabel – Catherine Hicks is a little over dramatic at times but she’s not a bad character. She’s written primarily as an adversary to Larry which is a shame though, we never get her point of view and her shaming and destroying of Sophie was unforgivable. For these reason I can’t put her in the pro. Not when all the other characters are fully fleshed out.

The Beginning – When we’re in Illinois in high society it’s really slow and you can’t help feeling detached. For this reason I can’t put it as a pro, since more could have been done to build and establish relationships here.

This is one of my favorite films and one I’d highly recommend. I can’t wait to see the first version and read the Novel. This film had a great cinematography, writing and cast and I can fully understand appreciate why it is one of my Grandfather’s favorite films. If you are looking for a film with complex characters and depth, this is the film for you.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10. Nearly perfect.

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