Unfortunately, “The Razor’s Edge” (1946) Is Deadly Dull

Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power
The Razor's Edge (1946)

The Razor’s Edge might have been a different film.

Legendary producer Darryl Zanuck served in both World Wars.  He enlisted as a teenager in the U.S. Army and saw European action in World War I.  By the time the second World War rolled around, Zanuck was an Oscar winning producer who could’ve gotten out of his service or at least stayed stateside, but he insisted on documenting the fighting in active war zones and making patriotic films.

When he returned, he bought the rights to W. Somerset Maugham’s penultimate novel and intended to make a prestige film about man’s search for meaning.

Zanuck originally hired George Cukor to direct, but he and Cukor disagreed on the direction of the main character.  Progress stalled, which was fine with Zanuck—he was waiting for Tyrone Power, who’d enlisted in the Marines, to return home from the war to play the leading role.

When Power came home, Cukor and Zanuck had parted ways and Cukor was engaged in another project.

Cukor—who wanted Maugham to write the screenplay—would’ve made a different film.

We’ll never know if it would’ve been a better one.

Tyrone Power plays Larry Darrell, a man with existential questions after a fellow soldier sacrifices his life to save his in World War I.  Larry wants to marry his sweetheart Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), but though she loves him dearly, she wants reassurances that he will commit to adult responsibilities like an office job and having children.

He prefers to loaf—his term—around.  Eager not to lose him, Isabel agrees to delay their wedding while he travels alone to Paris to find himself.  When they reunite after a year, they’re as in love as ever but at an impasse—he wants her to live as a questing pauper with him, and she wants a husband who wears a tie to work and earns a salary high enough to buy her fine dresses and a nanny for their eventual children.

He’s content to go on as they are, but Isabel gives him an ultimatum—settle down or lose her forever.

Larry travels to India to learn from a guru, and Isabel marries a rich man.

As the film progresses—scene after never-ending scene—we watch the years unfold as Larry marches toward enlightenment while studying with mystics and doing manual labor to make enough money to survive.

Meanwhile, Isabel and those preoccupied with worldly concerns are dashed against the rocks of fate.  Isabel and her husband lose their fortune in the stock market crash of ’29, and cast their friend Sophie (Anne Baxter) out of their inner circle when she becomes an alcoholic after her husband and baby are killed in a car wreck.

Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter

Look—intellectually, I get it.

Larry is essentially walking the path to sainthood—he heals the sick, cares for those less fortunate, and might as well have taken vows of poverty and chastity.

The problem is that sainthood is deadly dull.

The only time the film is remotely interesting is when a jealous Isabel bears her fangs after Larry announces he is marrying Sophie.  Even then, she has no real reason for jealousy—Larry is merely marrying Sophie to save her from her alcoholism.  As anyone who’s ever known an actual alcoholic can predict, his efforts are unsuccessful.

Gene Tierney as Isabell in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Gene Tierney

It’s true that Anne Baxter had a lovely Oscar-winning performance for supporting actress, and that the film garnered 3 other nominations including best picture.

It’s true that 1946 was filled with important films that grappled the trauma of coming home from war—The Best Years of Our Lives won the Oscar for best picture that year.

It’s true we should care about the plight of such people.

But for me, The Razor’s Edge doesn’t pierce the skin.

The Razor's Edge (1946) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Sources

  1. TCM Website: https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/87754/the-razors-edge#notes
  2. Darryl Zanuck Bio: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.fil.067

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947): The Most Beautiful Woman in the World Falls in Love With a Ghost

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison embrace in the Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) opening

In the golden age of Hollywood, film casting was often a game of musical chairs. 

The makers of Daisy Kenyon (1947) originally thought to cash in on the success of Laura (1944) by reuniting director Otto Preminger with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney.

Twentieth Century Fox Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was impressed with Joan Crawford’s career revival in Mildred Pierce (1945), and thought he could engineer a similar comeback for Norma Shearer in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Though she hadn’t worked since 1942, Zanuck wrote in a memo that “Norma Shearer has one great picture left in her yet.”

But when the music stopped, Crawford had been cast as Daisy, Gene Tierney had shuffled over to play Mrs. Muir, and Norma Shearer was left without a chair.

I think Zanuck was right about Shearer, but if she had one last great film in her, we never got to see it.  She never worked in Hollywood again.

Instead of playing opposite the 45-year-old Shearer, 39-year-old Rex Harrison was paired with the 27-year-old Gene Tierney.  Zanuck was not overly disappointed to cast Tierney, whom he called “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

And he certainly couldn’t have objected to the result.  The film was nominated for an Oscar for black and white cinematography and currently sits at number 73 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest Love Stories.

Set during the last gasp of the Victorian era, Tierney plays a widow with a young daughter.  She wishes to live on her own terms, out from under the stifling thumbs of her deceased husband’s mother and sister.  She has a small pension which allows her to leave London and rent a surprisingly large and beautiful seaside house in Dorset.

She soon discovers why the rent is within her price range—the house is haunted by the former owner Captain Daniel Gregg, a rough and tumble sea captain who committed suicide and chases away anyone who wishes to live in his house.

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison in the Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Tierney, Harrison

But Lucy Muir and her daughter (played by nine-year-old Natalie Wood in her third credited role, filmed just before she would forever charm the world in Miracle on 34th Street) were made of sterner stuff than their predecessors and refused to be put off by howling winds and flickering candles.

Natalie Wood and Gene Tierney in the Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Natalie Wood, Gene Tierney

Soon Captain Daniel shows himself to Lucy, and is eventually won over when she is not put off by his surly exterior.  They begin a tentative friendship, and when Lucy’s money runs out, Daniel comes up with a crazy idea to prevent her from having to leave the house.

He will dictate the story of his life, which Lucy will write and sell as a sensational adventure novel.  Making a lifelong living off the sale of a single novel is more unlikely than falling in love with a ghost, but Lucy does both over the course of the film.

But loving a ghost you can never touch is not easy, and Lucy attracts an ardent—and all too human—suitor she meets in London while selling the book.  George Saunders is delicious as Miles Fairley, a cad with all the charm of a used car salesman who nonetheless capture’s Lucy’s attention.

He is flesh and blood, after all.

Gene Tierney and George Saunders in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Gene Tierney and George Saunders

With a twist ending that surely inspired The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), the film finds a satisfying conclusion to the world’s most impossible romance.

In 1968, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was rebooted as a television show that ran for two seasons, though it was more comedic and less romantic than the film.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir goes down like a cup of hot tea on a cold night, a charming love story that asks only that its audience suspend disbelief and allow itself to fall under the spell of fantastical ghosts and romance.

Settle in and enjoy.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

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Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Tainted Love and Daddy Issues

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945) opening banner

“What’s wrong with Ellen?” her husband Dick, perhaps with a little buyer’s remorse, asks his mother-in-law.

“There’s nothing wrong with Ellen.  It’s just that she loves too much.”

Too much indeed.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Let’s rewind an hour or so, to the start of Leave Her to Heaven, when the opening scene’s picturesque technicolor setting on a lake is juxtaposed with Alfred Newman’s ominous opening score.

Something very bad has happened to Dick Harland.

The film then takes us to the first meeting between Dick Harland and Ellen Berent.  On a train to New Mexico, Dick finds himself staring at the beautiful woman sitting across from him and reading his new book.

Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

When she notices, she stares right back.  The intensity and length of the stare is uncomfortable to both Dick and the audience.  Eventually, she breaks the stare and transforms into a charming and attractive woman, explaining that she was staring because Dick looks so much like her father.

It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is off with this woman.

By coincidence they are vacationing together in the same home, and he discovers that she is with her mother and adopted sister Ruth to spread her father’s ashes.

The warning signs continue flashing—it’s clear Ellen was unnaturally attached to her father.  She alone spreads the ashes with a possessiveness that should make Dick’s blood run cold.  Ruth mentions that her their mother adopted her because she was so lonely, despite having a husband and daugher.  Ellen stays out all night in the desert after spreading her father’s ashes and her family is unconcerned.  Her presence stifles the air in the room.

And she has her sights set on Dick.

If only he’d taken a second look at Ruth, who is not quite as pretty as Ellen but clearly the better choice.

But he doesn’t look, and he’s married to Ellen before he knows what hit him.

Though outwardly happy, Ellen has a sinister aura we can’t quite put our finger on.  She comes on strong, then backs away.  Though she grew up wealthy, she insists they hire no cook or maid because she wants to be the only one to take care of her new husband.

In another woman, it might be romantic.  With Ellen, it feels like a gathering storm.

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

She’s not calculating in the traditional sense.  Not at first, anyway. She hasn’t married him for his money (she clearly has more), doesn’t want him to commit a murder for her, or rob a bank, or any of the other dirty deeds that femme fatales of the 1940s lure their patsies into doing.

She isn’t a street-wise, cold-hearted dame.

She’s insane.  Truly, madly, deeply insane.

Why did she marry Dick?

Because he looked like her father.

Why doesn’t she want anyone else around?

Because she wants Dick all to herself.

Whoever said jealousy was a green-eyed monster had obviously met Ellen Berent Harland.

Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

She’s jealous of Dick’s friends, of his work, and most of all, of his sweet-natured, disabled younger brother Danny.

In the film’s signature scene, Ellen is out in a boat on a lake following Danny while he swims.  He’s overtaken by a cramp and Ellen realizes this is her opportunity to eliminate her main rival for Dick’s affection.  Donned in a fabulous white coat, dark sunglasses, and blood-red lipstick (the impact maximized by glorious technicolor), Ellen calmly watches Danny drown, not moving an inch when he cries out again and again for her help.

Eat your heart out, Phyllis Dietrichson.

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Gene Tierney sinks her teeth into the role, infusing Ellen with a malevolence that grows ever more malignant.  Murdering Danny unleashes a reign of terror that destroys her marriage, her sister Ruth, husband Dick, and ultimately, herself.

Her revenge against her husband for an imagined affair with her sister is pure madness.

And genius.

Tierney was often underrated as an actress as critics focused on her beauty, but she gave a performance worthy of an Academy Award in Leave Her to Heaven, and indeed, she was nominated.  But it was a year of stiff competition and she ultimately lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, an Academy decision I endorse.

Leave Her to Heaven is not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor is it one of my personal favorites.  There is no doubt, however, that as Robert Osborne said while introducing it on Turner Classic Movies, it is, “One of those movies that, once seen, is almost impossible to forget.”

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

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Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Laura (1944): Seduced by a Corpse

Laura (1944) opening banner

Off the top, a three-part disclaimer:  

  1. You should watch Laura.  It’s only the seventeenth (out of sixty-eight) films I’ve given the designation of Timeless.
  2. If you think you might ever watch it, don’t read this review.  It’s impossible to write about Laura without spoiling it, and it’s got a killer twist.  Go watch it, and come back when you’re finished.  I’ll wait.
  3. If you’ve already seen it or you know you’ll never watch it, proceed.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


I don’t consider myself a film critic.  To be a good film critic, you need a dispassionate air.  You examine a film objectively, and situate it in its time and place in the history of film.

I do some of this, of course.  But I don’t write objectively.  I let my personal opinion color everything.  I play favorites and gloss over the faults of my idols.  

The films I truly despise?  The ones that bore me to tears?  I don’t write about them at all.

I’m a fan, first, last, and always, and not much different from the kid I was at ten years old watching these black and white films with my mom on Turner Classic Movies.

Three films in particular hooked me and launched a lifelong love affair with classic cinema.  Watching them as an adult, I wonder exactly what fascinated me, why I wanted to watch Bette Davis in black and white more than Saturday morning cartoons. Three quarters of the story went over my head, I’d never heard of a director, and I didn’t know anything about the lives of the stars.  

The first film was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  I danced around the house singing the Baby Jane Hudson song while my mom and dad roared with laughter.  Second was To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  I saw what Bacall saw in Bogie’s craggy lived-in face.

The third?

Laura.

The film is a textbook example of classic film noir.  There are a lot of different definitions of noir, but as we’re fans and not critics here, suffice it to say that film noir refers to both a cinematic style influenced by the Germans and a cynical tone influenced by an American audience disillusioned by World War II.  There’s often a hardboiled detective ripped straight from the pages of a 1940s mystery novel and a femme fatale—a woman who slinks across the screen like a black widow spider, using her sexuality to lure in and destroy the men she sees only as marks.

Laura has both.  Or does it? 

The film opens as a standard whodunnit—Detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews, investigating the murder of Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt.  Someone blew the beautiful young woman’s head off with a shotgun.

McPherson has a collection of suspects—fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), who needs her money and may have learned she was considering calling off the wedding; Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), the older woman who loves Shelby but cannot compete with Laura for his affection; and Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the powerful older man who took Laura under his wing and scares away any man who desires her.

All speak of Laura in glowing terms, but we get the most from Lydecker.  By his accounting, he took an interest in the young aspiring career woman and opened doors for her.  He taught her how to dress, introduced her to the right people, and cultivated a beautiful swan from—if not an ugly duckling, at least an inexperienced one.

As is typical of many film noirs, the plot is so bonkers that it should ruin the film but doesn’t.  McPherson allows Lydecker and Shelby to tag along as he searches Laura’s apartment and questions witnesses.

McPherson also spends an inordinate amount of time in Laura’s apartment, seemingly without any reason but a desire to paw through her things and stare at the large painting of her hanging over her fireplace.

It’s clear poor McPherson has fallen under the spell of a dead woman, and about halfway through the film he gets drunk and falls asleep beneath Laura’s portrait.

[…dangerous spoilers ahead…this is your final warning…turn back now…]

Dana Andrews sits at the base of Laura's portrait in Laura (1944)

He awakens to find the dead woman standing in the doorway, obviously mistaking him for an intruder and threatening to call the police.

Laura’s got an unconvincing story about staying in a remote cabin with a broken radio and having no idea that she’d been presumed murdered.  The body wearing her dressing gown with her face blown off is identified as Diane Redfern, a woman having an affair with Laura’s fiancé.

Suddenly, she goes from victim to prime suspect, but that doesn’t stop the sparks flying between Laura and Detective McPherson.

At one point McPherson makes a show of arresting her in front of a roomful of people.  He takes her to the station and interrogates her under bright lights.  Angry, humiliated, and confused by her feelings for him, Laura lashes out.  But it’s an elaborate ruse by McPherson to smoke out the real killer.  Laura convinces him of her innocence, and McPherson rightly begins to worry for her safety.

In the end, there is only one person who could’ve tried to kill Laura.  Shelby doesn’t have the stomach for it, and Ann Treadwell wouldn’t go to the trouble.  It’s Lydecker, the older man who has everything but the thing he wants most.  Realizing Laura would never desire him sexually, he decides that if he can’t have her, no one will.

McPherson saves her before Lydecker can finish the job he started, and detective and mistaken murder victim presumably ride off into the sunset together.

It really shouldn’t work.

But it really, really does.

Laura (1944) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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Dana Andrews interrogates Gene Tierney in Laura (1944)