The Razor’s Edge (1984)


Introduction

The Razor’s Edge is a 1984 American drama film starring Bill Murray. The film is an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge.

Theresa Russell, Catherine Hicks, Denholm Elliott, Brian Doyle-Murray, and James Keach also star in the film. John Byrum directed the film, which was co-written by Murray and Byrum.

Outline

In Illinois in 1917, just before the United States joins World War I, a fair has been planned to raise money to support Gray Maturin and Larry Darrell, who are joining the war in Europe as ambulance drivers. Larry looks forward to returning home to marry his longtime sweetheart Isabel. Larry shares a final night with Isabel watching the fireworks along with Gray, their close friend Sophie, and her husband Bob.

At the front, commanding officer Piedmont schools his new men on the harsh reality of war. For example, he has both of them armed, because in spite of it being an ambulance unit and America’s neutrality, the enemy can and will kill those helping the Allies. He also destroys the headlights and windows of a fellow ambulance truck because the lights will signal enemies to their unit. Larry adapts quickly, shooting the headlights and windows of his own truck.

Larry witnesses the deaths of soldiers and fellow ambulance drivers, and is in constant danger. By the time America is deeply in the war, Larry’s unit is down to a few men. During an unexpected encounter with German soldiers, Piedmont is fatally stabbed trying to block a German soldier from shooting a wounded Larry. The war ends not long after, and when Gray and he return to America, Larry suffers survivor’s guilt and realises that his life has changed. His plans to join Gray in working for Gray’s father as a stockbroker will not make him happy, so he puts off his engagement to Isabel and travels to Paris in an effort to find meaning in his life. Isabel’s uncle, Elliott Templeton, assures her that some time in Paris will help clear Larry’s mind and take away any jitters he has about marriage.

Instead of following Elliott’s suggestions of staying at first-class hotels and wining and dining with the aristocracy, Larry lives a simple life, reading philosophy books in a cheap hotel. He finds work, first as a fish packer, then as a coal miner. After saving the life of a co-worker by pushing him out of the way of an out-of-control mine car, he has a conversation about books with the elder miner. The miner discusses a Russian magician’s book, lends a copy of the Upanishads, and suggests that Larry travel to India to gain a different perspective.

In India, Larry joins a Buddhist monastery. As an exercise, he hikes to the top of a snow-covered mountain and meditates alone. After running out of firewood, he starts to burn books that he brought along. He finds his sense of inner peace. A monk lets him know that his journey is not over, that “the path to salvation is narrow and as difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.”

Returning to Paris, Larry first re-encounters Elliott, who lets him know that many things have changed, notably that Isabel has married Gray. (She had ended her relationship with Larry after a disastrous reunion in Paris not long after he first arrived.) They have had two children. Gray and Isabel were forced to move to Elliot’s house in Paris after the Great Depression bankrupted Gray’s livelihood. His spirit was also shattered when his father committed suicide after the crash. Larry learns that, while he was gone, Sophie lost both Bob and her child in a car accident and turned to alcohol, opium, and prostitution.

Larry immediately attempts to reform Sophie, and after a period of time, they become engaged. Isabel insists that she will buy Sophie a wedding dress as a gift. During their conversation, Isabel admits she still loves Larry and condemns Sophie, labelling her a burden on Larry. She is interrupted by a phone call and leaves Sophie alone with a bottle of liquor.

Larry searches for Sophie and finds her at an opium den with her former pimp. After a confrontation, Larry is left bleeding in the street with a black eye, while Sophie stays in the establishment. The next morning, Larry is awakened by two men at the door and brought to the morgue to identify Sophie’s body. Her throat had been slashed by a razor. Larry then goes to Elliott’s house to try to figure out what went wrong the previous day. Elliott has had a stroke and has been given his last rites. Larry confronts Isabel about what happened and forces her to admit her role in driving Sophie back to the bottle. She tells Larry what she did is no different from Larry ruining their relationship by running off to find the meaning of his “goddammed life”, but she admits that she still loves him and did not want anyone (including Sophie) to hurt him the way she, Isabel, had been hurt when Larry left her for the war.

Before Larry can respond, they are interrupted by the final moments of Elliott’s life. Larry does a good deed for Elliott by convincing him that the Parisian aristocrats have not forgotten about him. (He had been waiting for an invitation to a costume party thrown by a French princess.) After Elliott dies, Larry comforts the grief-stricken Isabel. He admits that his journey was about trying to lead a good life that would make him worthy of Piedmont’s sacrifice. Isabel and he part on reasonable terms, and he says his goodbyes to her and to Gray. He states his intention to depart for home, which prompts the question “Where is home?” He replies, “America”.

Cast

  • Bill Murray as Larry Darrell.
  • Theresa Russell as Sophie MacDonald.
  • Catherine Hicks as Isabel Bradley.
  • Denholm Elliott as Elliott Templeton.
  • James Keach as Gray Maturin.
  • Peter Vaughan as Mackenzie.
  • Brian Doyle-Murray as Piedmont.
  • Faith Brook as Louisa Bradley.
  • Saeed Jaffrey as Raaz.
  • Richard Oldfield as Doug Van Allen.
  • André Maranne as Joseph, the Butler.
  • Bruce Boa as Maturin.

Production

Development

According to an interview with director John Byrum published on August 8, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, he had wanted to film an adaptation of Maugham’s book in the early 1980s. The director brought a copy of the book to his friend Margaret “Mickey” Kelley, who was in the hospital after giving birth. Byrum remembers getting a call the next day at 4:00 am, “and it was Mickey’s husband, Bill [Murray]. He said, ‘This is Larry, Larry Darrell.'”

Byrum and Murray drove across America while writing the screenplay. What they had written did not resemble the previous film version. Murray included a farewell speech to his recently deceased friend John Belushi in the script; this appears as Larry Darrell’s farewell speech to Piedmont, a fellow ambulance driver in World War I.

While Murray was attached to the project, Byrum had trouble finding a studio to finance it. At one stage, 20th Century Fox planned to make it. Murray wanted to play the part because “it was a different kind of character, calmer, more self-aware.”

Dan Aykroyd suggested that Murray could appear in Ghostbusters for Columbia Pictures in exchange for the studio’s approving to make The Razor’s Edge. Murray agreed and a deal was made with Columbia.

Filming

For the next year and a half, cast and crew shot on location in France, Switzerland, and India with a $12 million budget. The Indian locations were primarily in the Indian Himalayas. After the last day of principal photography, Murray left to make Ghostbusters.

Producer Cohen said, “It’s a timeless story about someone looking for values in this world. It’s about a transition. Well, who can make a more extreme transition, somebody like Bill Hurt, who looks pensive to begin with, and will wind up simply a little more spiritual than he was in the first place, or a Bill Murray, who can begin as the class clown, go to war, come back, and having had traumatic experiences, start to question?”

Murray and Russell later worked together again in the 1998 film Wild Things.

Reception

The film was a commercial failure, grossing a little more than $6 million, half of its $12 million production budget.

Trivia

  • This marked Murray’s first starring role in a dramatic film, though he did inject some of his dry wit into the script.
  • The book’s epigraph is dramatised as advice from the Katha Upanishad: “The path to salvation is narrow and as difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.”
  • The Razor’s Edge, a 1946 film adaptation with Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney.
  • While he was thinking of making a film adaptation of The Razor’s Edge, John Byrum gave a copy of the novel to his friend, Bill Murray.
    • Byrum got a phone call the next morning at 4 o’clock from Murray saying, “This is Larry. Larry Darrell.”
  • Byrum and Murray wrote the screenplay over the course of 18 months while driving around the United States.
  • Columbia executives wanted the film to take place in modern times, but Murray insisted that the film stay true to the novel, and be a period piece.
    • In a 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Murray admitted “I was wrong, and they were right.”
  • Larry’s eulogy for Piedmont was inspired by the death of Murray’s good friend, John Belushi.
  • Bill Murray made a deal with Columbia Pictures that he would appear in Ghostbusters (1984) only if they financed this movie.
    • Originally, no studio was interested in making the film until Dan Aykroyd suggested the deal to Murray.
    • On the final day of shooting, Murray flew to New York City to start filming Ghostbusters.
  • While filming in India, the entire crew became sick with food poisoning from eating chicken.
    • John Byrum lost 25 pounds and directed much of the film with an IV in his arm.
  • Scenes that were deleted from the final cut include:
    • Larry and a Red Cross nurse in an ambulance, drinking beer from a stolen barrel.
    • Larry reads a book in a seedy Paris café and sees a lesbian couple having a fistfight.
    • Larry and Gray go out drinking in Paris and talk about Isabel on the night before they are sent to the battlefield.
    • Larry tells Isabel about his quest as they stroll through a cathedral.
    • An alternative ending in which Larry is working in a factory and leads his fellow workers in a rendition of “Frère Jacques”.
  • Sir John Gielgud was considered for the role of Elliott Templeton.
  • John Goodman auditioned.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • John Byrum.
  • Producer(s):
    • Harry Benn … producer.
    • Rob Cohen … executive producer.
    • Jason Laskay … associate producer.
    • Robert P. Marcucci … producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • W. Somerset Maugham … (novel).
    • John Byrum … (screenplay).
    • Bill Murray … (screenplay).
  • Music:
    • Jack Nitzsche.
  • Cinematography:
    • Peter Hannan.
  • Editor(s):
    • Peter Boyle.
  • Production:
    • Columbia Pictures.
    • Colgems Productions Ltd.
    • Marcucci-Cohen-Benn Production.
  • Distributor(s):
    • Columbia Pictures (1984) (USA) (theatrical).
    • Columbia-EMI-Warner (1984) (UK) (theatrical).
    • Warner-Columbia Film (1985) (Sweden) (theatrical).
    • Columbia-Warner Filmes de Portugal (1985) (Portugal) (theatrical).
    • LK-TEL (1985) (Argentina) (VHS).
    • RCA/Columbia Pictures Video (1986) (Japan) (VHS).
    • Columbia TriStar Home Video (1995) (USA) (VHS).
    • Columbia TriStar Home Video (2004) (USA) (DVD).
    • Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (2005) (Germany) (DVD).
    • SPE Films India (1985) (India) (theatrical) (as Columbia Films of India).
    • LK-TEL Vídeo (Brazil) (video).
    • RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video (video).
  • Release Date: 19 October 1984 (US).
  • Running Time: 128 minutes.
  • Rating: 15.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.