Original Versus Remake: The Razor's Edge

The Razor's Edge has been made twice. Find out which one is better. 

While the debate over the validity of a remake over an original adaptation of a story or film remains ongoing, it’s worth noting that a single story retold several times over can make for an interesting perspective on the material.  Whether it’s based on the timeframe with which the film was made or which direction the material was taken, the same story told differently can make for a unique and enriching experience when the original and remake are regarded side by side.  The Movie Sleuth takes a good look at the story of Larry Darrell in W. Somerset Maugham’s seminal novel about a World War I veteran who grows disillusioned with the superficiality of materialistic society after years of trudging through knee-deep death and destruction.While the original and remake more or less follow the same trajectory set by Maugham’s novel, it’s important to point out the differences between the two adaptations and how they affect the overall outcome of the story.

The Razor’s Edge (1946 – directed by Edmund Goulding) 6/10

The first adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s (who cameos in the original by the way) spiritually challenging and enriching tale stars the irrepressible heartthrob of the 1940s, Tyrone Power.  Much to the chagrin of his fiancée and potential father in law Elliott (Clifton Webb), the stoic, emotionally and morally conflicted hero begins the film having returned home from the war a changed man.  Unique to the original film is the treatment of Larry Darrell in that he still wants to love his fiancée Isabel (Gene Tierney) as he embarks on his private, personal journey he’s not sure where it begins or ends.  While having seen all of Heaven and Hell the Earth has to offer, Tyrone’s Larry takes his quest very seriously but also doesn’t want to lose the ones who have taken him into their social circle in the process. 

"Awwwww.....look at the pretty painting."
It’s worth noting producer Darryl F. Zanuck wanted Tyrone in the film so badly, he delayed the casting process even as production of the film’s sets began until Tyrone returned from military service in World War II, giving this Larry Darrell a bit more authentic weight than another actor might have.  Tyrone’s performance as Larry makes for a strong, charismatic character who sincerely cares about Isabel and her family that simply cannot be derailed from his journey.  Between this Oscar nominated adaptation and the soon to feature Bill Murray remake, Tyrone’s Larry is a lot nicer and more personable than Murray’s far colder fish.  Also key to casting is Gene Tierney as Isabel, who is still a materialistic character but not to the point of being unlikeable as with the remake.  Zanuck originally wanted his friend Maureen O’Hara to play the role but after rumors of her casting at his behest broke out, he promptly fired her and went with Tierney. 

In the original film, Elliott is a far more significant character than the remake, as the melodramatics of 1946 play up his almost cartoonish snootiness and air of superiority everywhere he goes.  Isabel might be fed up with her fiancée’s meanderings but is still quick to defend him the moment Elliott trashes him behind his back.  After Larry returns from his meeting with the Dalia Lama, with Himalayas clearly created on film set instead of scouting out actual locations, his personality is as bright and cheerful as ever even if he has a greater connection with God than before.  Enter the film’s one Academy Award winner, Anne Baxter (Nefretiri from Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments), as the troubled and tragic figure Sophie, who realistically portrays in the brief screen time she has a good woman who falls into a dark path of drugs and alcohol.  For its era, a glamourous actress playing a sloppy drunk wasn’t always what people wanted to see but Baxter pulled off the job marvelously.  The only problem here is that Sophie’s character is glossed over in the original, as we don’t get to see Larry rehabilitating and grooming her back into sophistication, where the remake allows us to see her transformation in action.  For being far longer in running time than the remake, it’s surprising just how many important factors were left out of this version.

While dated somewhat by its visual approach of medium shots and leaving us only with the aftermath instead of showing the characters transformation in the moment, this is a pretty good adaptation of an otherwise uncommercial story of sin and redemption.  The film was a critical favorite and garnered four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.  Still considered a modern classic, The Razor’s Edge remained untouched for decades since its release until Bill Murray got wind of the story.

The Razor’s Edge (1984 – directed by John Byrum) 7/10

In 1984, at the height of Bill Murray’s career with Ghostbusters breaking box office records, the deadpan comic took on his first dramatic role, one the majority rejected but lived on within the hearts and minds of all who managed to see it.  Co-written by Murray and director John Byrum, the remake is a sweeping, poignant drama about achieving spiritual enlightenment through the realization of hopeless optimism: that notion of living out life’s joys in the face of unrelenting hardship.  Filled with lush, epic vistas of the Himalayas and wonderful costumes of the period, David Lean would be most envious of what unspools here.  Among the more memorable scenes involves Murray alone at a frozen mountaintop reading a novel by a campfire.  As firewood runs dry, he gradually begins to tear pages out of the book to keep the flames ignited, not the least bit upset about losing quiet reading material.  Mutually affecting is Jack Nitzsche’s bittersweet score, replete with his trademark glass harp cues heard in The Exorcist and Cruising.  Despite public (at the time) difficulty of accepting Murray in a serious role, he’s perfect in the film as the enlightened, stoic hero. 

"I ain't fraid of no ghost.....
Whoops, sorry Mr. Lama."
Matching, if not surpassing Murray, are Catherine Hicks as Murray’s frustrated fiancée Isabel who can’t seem to adapt to her husband’s seemingly selfish quest.  As always, Nicolas Roeg regular Theresa Russell as the vibrant woman who plunges into alcoholism as personal tragedy befalls her, is a force all her own.  To this day, it amazes me just how dense Russell’s ouvre is and how few people today know of her.  Considering her work on Roeg’s on Bad Timing, Track 29, Aria and Insignificance, Russell is a startlingly impassioned performer who doesn’t so much play her role as she attacks it with sharp fangs. 

As mentioned with the original, this Razor’s Edge is a little bit different in several areas.  First of all, Murray’s Larry Darrell is far more cold and distant than Tyrone’s concerned, caring and more likeable hero.  Murray at first is full of life and humor when we meet him prior to World War I, before the film takes us directly onto the battleground as death and destruction explodes all around him, hardening his soul.  When he returns, he’s made up his mind his going on this sojourn and everyone else can piss off if they don’t like it.  Also less likeable in this version is Isabel, an embittered, spoiled rich girl who simply doesn’t get it and will carp and whine snootily at the humdrum life Larry’s chosen over wealth.  Indiana Jones character actor Denholm Elliott is far kinder and contrary to the original finds himself defending Larry instead of Isabel.  Also previously mentioned, the remake shows Larry’s transformation and journey through the first World War and eventual actual Himalayas in full, allowing us to see how the world around Larry begins to change him from who he was.  For being shorter, this is a pretty significant addition that better explains why he’s the way he is.  Also left out of the original was the transformation of Sophie, who first reunites with Larry as a sloppy drunk before being lifted back on her feet, slowly but surely.  While Anne Baxter undeniably nailed it in the original, I wanted to see more of how she came in and out of her stupor. 
Although critics and audiences remain unkind to Murray’s efforts to dispel typecasting, it really is shameful this film did not receive more attention or respect it surely deserves.  That Murray’s turn from comic actor to shell shocked soldier wasn’t taken seriously says more in hindsight about the pop cultural mindset of the time than what Murray brought to the production.  With the recent passing of John Belushi fresh on the minds of Saturday Night Live stars, The Razor’s Edge became so personal to Murray he told Columbia Pictures he’d only appear in Ghostbusters if they financed the picture.  Much like The Mission with Robert De Niro, The Razor’s Edge is about a spirit of the material world who reaches a crossroad in his life and leaves it all behind in search of something greater than himself.  At a turning dramatic point in the film, the Dalia Lama informs Larry Darrell “The pathway to salvation is as narrow and as difficult to walk as a razor's edge”  By the time Darrell travels through all the high and low points of life itself, both he and we learn that these are words to live by.    

The Verdict

Although Tyrone Power is easier to take seriously in the role of a man in spiritual crisis desperately seeking the unattainable, The Movie Sleuth has to go with the Bill Murray remake as the superior of the two versions for several reasons.  Firstly, Murray’s less likeable and probably truer to the source of a man who has thrown off the shackles of materialistic life and nearly all he’s known from it.  Where Tyrone’s Larry cared deeply about the impact of his sojourn on Isabel, she no longer exists for Murray’s Larry once he’s come back.  Everything he’s come home to is petty now and only his point of view ultimately matters.  I do miss the goofy Elliott whose elitist outlook is almost comical and a strong counterpoint to Isabel’s defenses of Larry but also felt the role reversal in the remake went hand in hand with Larry’s distancing of himself from them.  Anne Baxter is great but so is Theresa Russell and seeing her come out of addiction only to go back again is all the more heartbreaking than just seeing the aftermath and only thus.  Most importantly of all is that in the remake, we actually see Larry’s journey with the Dalia Lama instead of simply hearing about it in the original, which only provided simulated locations instead of the real deal in lush widescreen.  While neither version tells the most commercially appealing or exciting tale for those eager to gobble up more CG rendered fistfights, The Razor’s Edge is an important drama aimed at reminding viewers that there’s more to life than petty material possessions.

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-Andrew Kotwicki