The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard. – Katha-Upanishad
W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge was published in 1944 during WWII and six years after Maugham had visited an ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. Maugham had gone on a spiritual pilgrimage in search of a guru known as Sri Ramana Maharishi or Great Seer. Perhaps he was overcome with anxiety, no one knows for sure, but Maugham passed out prior to his meeting with the guru and when Maugham came to and saw the Maharishi hovering over him he lost the power of speech. The Maharishi assured him that silence was its own speech.
In sort of whisper-down-the-lane fashion, by the time this incident had circulated to the provinces the Maharishi was credited with transporting Maugham into the realm of the infinite and returning him, although Maugham subsequently stated he had no such recollection. However, this experience did inform some of Maugham’s writing, The Razor’s Edge being the most well known.
The 1946 film version of the novel The Razor’s Edge was written by Lamar Trotti and Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by Edmund Goulding,it strives to remain faithful to its source. The story is, primarily, one privileged man’s hippie journey to self-discovery. Once committed to that path, Larry Darrell (portrayed by the delectable Tyrone Power) becomes, to the Establishment, the most dangerous commodity on Earth –- an enlightened white guy. For this reason and more, Larry Darrell needs an interlocutor and in the film, that interlocutor is none other than W. Somerset Maugham himself, a true modern Brahmin, or at least this is how he is presented in the film.
In the Hindu religion a Brahmin is a caste or hereditary class from which such professions as priests, teachers, and keepers of sacred texts issue. Brahmins are the intermediaries between the devotees and their object of devotion. They also, ideally, possess the eight virtues: compassion, patience, lack of envy, purification, tranquility, auspicious disposition, generosity and lack of greed. This film may well be the reason I thought the actor Herbert Marshall was the writer W.Somerset Maugham, and why I believed, without ever meeting him, that Somerset Maugham embodied all of the eight virtues.
This may well be the first time a living author was portrayed as himself in a film adaptation of a novel he’d written. This is so trippy on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. As in The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham is presented as dapper, eloquent, well-off and well educated. In the hands of Herbert Marshall, he is a man who is even a bit fey.
As the film opens rich people are partying down al fresco in the sprawling garden of upper crust matron Mrs. Louisa Bailey (Lucile Watson), and her brother Elliot Templeton (Clifton Webb). It is post WWI (“the war to end all wars”) and before the stock market crash so God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world –- at first glance.
There has been some hub-bub about a last minute dinner guest. It seems Templeton has invited an outsider to the soiree. His sister, Mrs. Bailey is skeptical. Templeton attempts to assuage things: “He’s an English author. He’s quite all right in fact he’s really quite famous. So, pretend that you’ve heard of him, even if you haven’t.”
Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall) arrives all debonair and magnetic charm, at once irresistible and impenetrable. He is introduced to the ill-fated Sophie Nelson childhood friend of the protagonist, Larry Darrell. Anne Baxter won both the 1947 Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Sophie.
Sophie does not like Elliot Templeton. You can’t blame her. He turns being a snob into a full-time vicious enterprise, and would probably find having sex with a man or a woman equally sordid. But Maugham doesn’t see Elliot that way: “People laugh at him behind his back, but they eat his food and drink his wine.”
When Larry Darrell finally arrives at the party and is introduced to Maugham by Sophie, Maugham voices-over the proceedings with narration: “This is the young man of whom I write…yet, it may be the way of life he’s chosen for himself may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow-man.”
And thus begins Maugham’s role as Brahmin, as he drifts in an out of the film and its inhabitant’s lives gently, like a soft baritone breeze. He is a phantom uncle to Larry Darrell, appearing almost out of nowhere. To the good he is good and to the not so good he is an annoyance. In fact, the effect Maugham has on certain characters can be used as a moral barometer indicating their true intentions.
Isabel (Gene Tierney), the fiercely beautiful, self-centered and insipid niece of Templeton, fiancée of Larry Darrell, does not like Somerset Maugham: “That was Somerset Maugham on the telephone. He always gives me the queerest feeling. As if he were leading other people’s lives for them. I daresay that comes from being a novelist.”And when Isabel says, “I daresay, that comes from being a novelist,” it is not meant as a compliment. Novelist and actors were déclassé to high society at that time, and may still be, for all I know.
When Isabel utters the line: “As if he were leading other people’s lives for them,” just about sends the film into the realm of science fiction for me. It’s like the conundrum of the space-time continuum and Kyle Reese’s existence in The Terminator. Isabel is one of Maugham’s characters – his creation if you will – and she is reading him, while he appears alongside her in a movie adapted from a novel he wrote in which he also appears. Whew!
What he taught was very simple. He taught that we are all greater than we know and that wisdom is the means to freedom. He taught that it is not essential to salvation to retire from the world, but only to renounce the self. He taught that work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and that duties are opportunities afforded to man to sink his separate self and become one with the universal self.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
Maugham suggests that in the end, everyone in The Razor’s Edge got what they wanted: “Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position . . . Sophie death and Larry happiness.” And what did Maugham get? Well, in March 1945, Maugham sold the film rights to The Razor’s Edge to 20th Century Fox for $50,000 (about $659,584.26 in 2015 dollars) plus net profits on the back end of 20%. In addition, if the film did not commence shooting by February 2, 1946, Maugham’s contract specified he was to be paid an additional $50,000. Now, that’s what I call transcendental.