The effort to shift from one style to another is one that any artist has a struggle with. It is a conflict because often that person is known and accepted one way. Audience members and avid fans have grown accustomed to a certain perception on screen or on stage that connects to their individual lives. To move away from that standard formula is akin for betrayal to some, and an innocent mistake to another. Of course, there are times in the entertainment industry when taking a risk pays off. The artist is personally enhanced by discovering and utilizing layers to his or her personality. At the same time, whether there is approval or not, a person can take a hit in their career in which they may never recover.
Bill Murray is an actor known for his comedic roles. Carl Spackler in Caddyshack (1980) and Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993) are famous examples of humorous Murray performances. He also was a part of Saturday Night live for three seasons (1977-1980). He was building a reputation and an appreciation for intelligent, dry wit in his delivery. People had grown to expect many laughs from Bill and were not disappointed as his career went on. He played a cynical clown robbing a bank in Quick Change (1987) and a wild, neurotic mental health patient in What About Bob? (1991). All of these were and remain undisputed box office hits. As the years went on, more films in the vein of comedy appeared and various audience members (old and young alike) were captivated by the results. It seemed as if Bill Murray had solidified himself a permanent slot as a modern comedic genius.
However, the conflict under the surface was that Bill Murray wanted to expand his rhythm. Early in his career he made a bold effort to take a dramatic turn. It was the genre of drama that Murray wanted his heart and resources to be a part of. This was not so much a personal change as it was a personal identification with the subject matter. Bill wanted to remake a film version of the popular literature novel by W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge. This was written in 1944 and originally appeared on the screen (in 1946) with Tyrone Power as the lead character. The story contained a tale about life following adventures and experiences in World War I. The lead hero, Larry Darrell, had returned to the financially fulfilling decade of the 1920’s with memories of loss in battle. Darrell had witnessed the death of an ambulance driver and it forever changed his view about life. He was living with scars and could never fully relate to those around him. The first film was a hit and gave Anne Baxter the Best Supporting Actress award. She had played a romantic role opposite Power.
Murray was enthralled by the poignant manner and writing style of the book. He felt he could identify with the search for meaning that Darrell was undergoing following his devastating war service. He also felt it would be his chance to shift from his growing acclaim in comedy and participate in more serious pictures. The hope was that he would achieve success with it and therefore have the opportunity and range to go between both worlds of cinema. Most around him recall how adamant he was about transforming this movie into a big event.
The only dilemma was that studio executives were hesitant to the cause. Murray was fresh from success with the zany appearances in Stripes (1981) and Where The Buffalo Roam (1980) and wanted to push more along those lines in theme. At the same time, a new film project was entering the scene. This was a film called Ghostbusters and it was composed by fellow Saturday Night Live acolyte, Dan Akroyd. The plot would be dealing with funny ghost hunters taking on eerie paranormal encounters taking place in New York City. His first choice for the lead that would ultimately go to Bill Murray was John Belushi. Actor John Candy was considered for the character later to be cast by Rick Moranis. Director Ivan Reitman was presented with the idea by Akroyd but was concerned because the budget seemed too big to handle.
Murray and Akroyd were close friends and discussed the ongoing project of Ghostbusters. Belushi shocked the world when he died in 1982 from a drug overdose. This turn of events left the character of Dr. Peter Venkman wide open. Bill was listening to the idea and the offer, but his heart at the time was in The Razor’s Edge. The only trouble was he was having significant obstacles in convincing Columbia Studios to finance and release it. Akroyd saw an opportunity for both friends to get what they want and made a clever suggestion. He told Murray to tell the studio people that he would lend his services in Ghostbusters in exchange for them for releasing his film the same year. The idea turned out to be successful and Columbia agreed right away. 1984 was the time and Bill Murray would have an appearance in two movies to hit the theaters: Ghostbusters and The Razor’s Edge.
The studio would release Ghostbusters first, even though The Razor’s Edge was filmed first. Whether planned or not, this would have a critical effect on the outcome to the public. The first one soared to the top of the charts and created the biggest hit of that year; the second one failed to score an impact at the box office and lost money.
Knowing that his dream concept was a non-pleaser to viewers was devastating for Bill Murray. He could not believe that his grand vision for his first dramatic film would show up so poor and unsuccessful. The success of Ghostbusters meant that he was capable of sticking around, but only for the subject of comedy. Disillusioned and discontent, Murray withdrew from the red carpet and retreated to the comfort of family life. His second son, Luke, was born at the time. He decided to study philosophy and history at Sorbonne (the University of Paris). The irony of that move and decision is that the character of Larry Darrell himself went to France in order to search for his personal meaning away from the glamorous draw of the Jazz Age.
Life in Hollywood went on but Bill Murray was away for a while. The only appearance he made on film was a cameo performance in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) as a wild dental patient first portrayed by Jack Nicholson (in the Roger Corman adaptation, 1960). He would finally return to the screen with the lead in the comedic Christmas hit, Scrooged (1988). This movie was presented with the idea that Murray was continuing his hit style and voice as Venkman by dealing with more ghosts.
The Razor’s Edge took one year and a half to film. It was shot in many locations in France and Switzerland. The pivotal moments where Larry Darrell comes in contact with the spirituality of the eastern culture actually takes place on location in India.
The director of the film was John Byrum. He would later go on to direct Duets (2000), which starred Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow. The principal producer was Rob Cohen, who would be behind the same wheel three years later with The Witches of Eastwick (starring Jack Nicholson as the Devil) and The Running Man (an Arnold Schwarzenegger piece based around a Stephen King short story). Murray would compose the screenplay mostly by himself, but had a hand in assistance from Byrum. Jack Nitzsche, a film composer who already had acclaim in work with rock producer Phil Spector, would take on the task of creating the film score. The end result was a touching, gripping and highly emotional presentation that evoked the heartache and loneliness that the film story would follow.
The cast of the film featured some surprising and effective giants. Brian Doyle-Murray, the older brother to Bill, would take on the brief role of Piedmont, the character whose death sets Larry Darrell off on his inner quest. Denholm Elliott, a famous and likeable British actor who later became linked with the Indiana Jones series, plays the kind but superficial Elliott Templeton. Templeton was the wealthy uncle to Isabel Bradley, the social climbing girl that Darrell was originally engaged to marry. Catherine Hicks, who would later play a lead character in the horror film called Child’s Play (1988), was Isabel and played her with depth and with vanity. James Keach, the younger brother of actor Stacy Keach, would play the future husband of Isabel, Gray Maturin. Gray and Larry were longtime friends and manage to remain aligned when the new marriage takes place. Model and actress, Theresa Russell, would achieve a memorable performance as the weak but loving new relationship of Larry, a prostitute named Sophie. Sophie was portrayed in a smash-hit performance by Anne Baxter in the original adaptation.
The plot of The Razor’s Edge is grim from the opening sequence and remains somber through the end. Larry was serving in World War I when a fellow soldier, Piedmont, is killed by an explosion. The deceased troop was not liked by most but Darrell felt touched in how his comrade gave his own life to protect his team. In a eulogy speech after the event, Bill Murray draws from his own farewell speech to John Belushi. The words are as haunting as they are biting. At the same time, they are tender and mournful because they surround the idea of appreciating life with a flaw in its character.
Back home in Chicago, Larry Darrell is a popular man rising up in the successful social structure. The life of status is one that appeals directly to the heart and mind of his beloved fiancée, Isabel. She is unnerved by how the war has made her man distant from her. His quiet time and growing lack of communication bothers her. Her uncle, Elliott, is encouraging of the upcoming nuptials and assures his niece that Larry is a guaranteed catch.
Larry soon makes a surprising choice to turn down the lucrative job in the stock market that Templeton offers. Instead he takes some time off from the pressure of marriage and career by going to Paris. Isabel is appalled that her future husband is walking away from the onset of marriage to pursue decisions that he himself is not fully sure about. She goes to visit him in Paris and is taken aback by his pleasant manner and good mood. Upon reuniting, the two are drawn into sex. Afterwards, the difficulty begins. It turns out that he has a new job after all: packing fish. He also loves being around the blue collar folk and prefers not to step into the turf of the social elite. Isabel reminds her fiancée that he promised to wed her and she upheld her end of the bargain by waiting for him to get his troubles out of his system. Larry declares that he will marry Isabel right now and start a life with her in France, but it will not be anything like the wealthy existence she had planned. In his eyes, chasing the money is what will bring them unhappiness in their relationship. Isabel believes they are special and chosen people who deserve to have their place in the realm of wealth that her uncle has created. Larry is insistent on his choices and a devastated Isabel returns his ring and breaks off the engagement. Not displaying feelings of hurt, Larry responds to the gesture by telling his love to keep the ring and be reminded that there is one out there who does love her.
Larry stays at Paris and is at ease studying poetry and relaxing. Elliott eventually moves there to keep a close eye on him. He believes that his past was a sign that steered him into the real things that matter in life. He does not look at life anymore through the scope of social class. He is determined to get attached to one’s true character and spirit inside.
Hurt but determined to not stay down, Isabel hooks up with Gray and leads him into marriage. He was her childhood friend as well as Larry and it was obvious to many that his heart was with Isabel. In the height of the Jazz Age, Gray has managed to secure himself an important position through the stock market. Now Isabel believes that the high-class future she wanted for herself and her children will be secure. However, the 1929 Stock Market Crash occurs and the Great Depression is on the horizon. Gray loses the bulk of his fortune by the catastrophe. Larry, meanwhile, is safely secure from the world events and goes on with his journey. In a classic sequence of the film, the lost and intellectual former soldier visits India in hopes of gaining true spiritual enlightenment. What he learns is any type of goals he wants to achieve and understand for himself will not be easy to obtain. What Larry has to do is focus on alternative methods other than the traditional format to reach his plateau of wisdom and guidance.
Soon Larry realizes that he has to return to Paris and make peace with those around him. This is where the shift in his direction takes place. He meets up with a childhood acquaintance, Sophie, and manages to turn her away from the life of prostitution on the streets. She was once engaged to be married but her baby had died in a car accident and she never forgave herself. Both Larry and Sophie see a second chance of happiness in their lives as they spend romantic time together and fall in love.
Isabel has never gotten over Larry even though she had moved on and married Gray. In a turning point of The Razor’s Edge, Larry summons people together and announces his new engagement to Sophie. Isabel is floored and lashes out at Sophie when she explains that she will marry Larry in a simple dress. Elliott and Gray are on hand for the public spat and are put off by the words exchange. Isabel quickly covers by apologizing and offering to help out her friend get set up for the wedding arrangements.
Sophie and Isabel maintain a cordial relationship for a short period of time. Isabel turns the tables by calling out her friend and reminding her that she has always been an alcoholic. Sophie is shaken but assures Isabel that she loves Larry and is committed to making it work. Isabel suggests that Larry has lowered himself by settling into a marriage in which it will always be him having to play guardian and protector. Past memories are stirred and Sophie rushes out of the house to get drunk once more. She winds up in the company of a past client to drown her sorrows. Larry gets word that his fiancée is in trouble and finds her in the arms of another man. A hurt Larry begs Sophie to come home with him and away from this scene. A scornful Sophie sneers that she has always belonged here and doesn’t want to leave. Larry is drawn into a serious altercation when he physically goes after the man.
The end of the film involves a shocking and saddening turn of events: Sophie has been killed as an act of revenge for the confrontation Larry got involved in. He puts two and two together and realizes that it was Isabel who started this whole decline. He goes to see his former fiancée and asks politely that she come clean. Isabel admits through tears that she had exchanged nasty words with Sophie, but insists that her heart was in the right place. She releases a big emotional secret: she continues to love Larry and can never let go of their previous relationship. Larry is undaunted by these words and tells Isabel that things can never be the same as they once were.
Elliott is dying and passes away during this moment. Gray walks in and catches the couple in what appears to be an innocent yet compromising position. In what may be the most famous lines uttered by Billy Murray in the movie, Larry says that he has learned that there is no reward for a person striving to live life in a good way. He steps out of the house when Isabel asks if they have a future together. He bids farewell to Gray and says that he is going back to America because that is where his home is.
The Razor’s Edge will stand as a controversial film production because it failed to gain traction. Most fans of Bill Murray are either not aware of it or don’t care to look at it. Reviewers at the time felt it was off the mark and tried too hard to be sentimental. Instead of being philosophical, Larry Darrell comes off to most as too serious.
The dazzling filmmaking and evocative score present a classic tale of personal awareness. Murray was intelligent in his delivery as he was thoughtful in the authenticity of it. His goal was to bring Larry Darrell to life in a modern way that would retain good memories. In that respect, Bill Murray had succeeded. He presented a tragic tale that would call questions about existence and how individuals view themselves in comparison to life and death. Money and fame is viewed as an existential crisis more than a physical form. The hardships endured in bringing this film to life mirrors that dilemma.
I recommend this film because it is a chance to look at how Bill Murray started his dramatic career. He would go on to secure two hits in that genre: Rushmore (1998) and Lost in Translation (2003). No one had questioned his abilities at that point.
Movie: The Razor’s Edge
Director: John Byrum
Cast: Bill Murray, Denholm Elliott, Theresa Russell, Catherine Hicks, James Keach, Brian Doyle-Murray
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Running Time: 128 minutes
Brian’s Rating: 5-of-5 stars