WILD IN THE COUNTRY
***/**** Image A- Sound B+
starring Elvis Presley, Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld, Millie Perkins
screenplay by Clifford Odets, based on the novel by J.R. Salamanca
directed by Philip Dunne
THE RAZOR'S EDGE
***/**** Image B- Sound B-
starring Bill Murray, Theresa Russell, Catherine Hicks, Denholm Elliot
screenplay by John Byrum & Bill Murray, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham
directed by John Byrum
by Bill Chambers It occurs to me that many of the most ungainly movies about love--and in the end, most movies are (about love, that is)--have gotten it right for their very awkwardness as cinematic constructs. This week, in the August funk that used to correspond with the encroaching schoolyear but is now some vague collegiate-nostalgia trip, I shook the salt of Wild in the Country, The Razor's Edge, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful (the latter two to be covered in a separate piece) on my reopened wounds and came away impressed not by the art of these films, but by their emotional complexity. What you see in all four of these pictures that you perhaps don't often enough is that money tends to govern attraction.
First and foremost, it must be said that these films have their share of problems. Wild in the Country's is a screenplay by playwright Clifford Odets (on whom the Coen Brothers based Barton Fink) that, while hung on intriguing structural hooks, contains dialogue so pretentious as to be impenetrable. Sure, a line such as "You can't peddle me like some no-account belly wash!" is deliciously florid, the kind of thing Tennessee Williams might've written with his brain half-sizzling in Hannibal Lecter's fondue, but it comes across as contempt for CinemaScope melodrama--which the New York sensation Odets probably had after selling out to Hollywood. Elvis Presley stars in one of his last straight-faced roles as Glenn Tyler, a "backwoods delinquent" sentenced to work at uncle Rolfe's (William Mims) liquor store and sessions with a therapist after being accused of stealing his father's truck.
Sharing his uncle's apartment with his dish of a cousin Noreen (Tuesday Weld), a dirt-poor single mom, Glenn tries to keep her from seducing him while carrying on a relationship with wholesome Betty Lee (Millie Perkins). Of all the possible scenarios, Glenn falls for his shrink (Hope Lange), Mrs. Speery, a widow who encourages his forays into short-story writing--the only woman, we infer, to offer him unconditional support since his dear, departed mother. Class plays a somewhat subtle role in Wild in the Country; the film's production design, steeped in Americana, runs with an admittedly ludicrous poultry motif: the Haves decorate their houses and offices with rooster sculptures while the Have-Nots are from places where real roosters run, yes, wild in the country. Noreen, Betty Lee, and Mrs. Speery constitute a social ladder, with Glenn trapped at the bottom alongside Noreen (disregarding the fact that she's his cousin, he feels it would be regressive to marry her), not Betty Lee material according to her strict father ("Go back to your folks in the wallow. You're all a lot of pigs"), and caught up in a second incestual tangle with Mrs. Speery, a woman waited on by a housekeeper.
The basic arc of their relationship is Glenn telling her that he wanted to get a degree and financially keep his mother and Mrs. Speery pulling strings to get Glenn into a graduate writing course. (Not incidentally, Glenn sounds like his alter ego talking about Gladys Presley when he remembers Mother Tyler's hardships. If that's not what convinced Elvis to play the role, it may be why he's affecting in it.) But in his galumphing way, he insists on more, and the trail of broken hearts Glenn leaves in the wake of his decision to pursue the good doctor (always chauvinistically referred to as a "Mrs.") romantically leads to, yawn, court scenes and suicide attempts. Yet the final scene is shockingly unkempt, with one of the three women looking out at Glenn's future through a train-station window, cruelly forsaken by life. Another of the girls vanishes from the picture on a note of apology for loving Glenn. That the picture doesn't yield to convention in the final minutes--where it counts--won me over.
Given its notoriety, I fully expected to dislike Bill Murray's vanity project The Razor's Edge, but the pundits had it wrong. (The film grossed $7M on the heels of the $200M+-grossing Ghostbusters, the other Murray vehicle from 1984.) To be honest, I was never much for the dry text of W. Somerset Maugham--a frequent satirist, but not so(?) in this case--upon which the movie is based; the humour that Murray brings to it as both an actor and a screenwriter, anachronistic though it often is, is just what the script doctor ordered. (The common misconception is that because the story is inherently dramatic, Murray would and does play opposite his strengths, but the part of Larry Darrell was molded to fit Murray and not the other way around.) But even if Murray doesn't clash with Maugham, the film is not immune to a phenomenon unique to the films of "Saturday Night Live" veterans: On occasion, Murray's co-stars wind up his audience, serving no purpose in the frame other than to gawk at his shtick.
The Razor's Edge opens with Darrell abandoning two well-off childhood sweethearts--one his fiancée, Isabel (Catherine Hicks), the other the already-married Sophie (Theresa Russell)--for an American outpost in Germany during WWI. Serving under the self-centered Piedmont (Murray frère Brian Doyle-Murray), he learns to let go of his materialism, and then feels indebted to his superior when a German soldier invades their trench, killing Piedmont. (This sequence, altered and expanded from a similar passage in the novel, is acted, scored, and shot to near perfection, with Murray delivering a cathartic, allegedly-impromptu eulogy for his real-life brother when all's said and done.) Darrell's an outcast upon his return to high society for wanting nothing but a chance to reflect on the meaning of life (or lack thereof); shipped off to Paris for a little R&R in style by Isabel's wealthy uncle Elliot (Denholm Elliot), Larry rejects the special treatment, choosing to ride in steerage on the way to Paris and, once there, residing in seedy hotels rather than at Elliot's opulent countryhouse.
The picture illustrates the tug-of-war that exists between a rich person's and a poor person's notion of education--books versus experience, in other words. Knowledge versus wisdom. Surrounded in his cockroach-infested Paris digs by a vast personal library, Larry still appears lost, and Isabel, who's waiting for her life with him to start, is far from sympathetic. (She dumps him not because he is poor, but because he acts it.) Larry has his suspicions confirmed when he goes to work in a coal mine, where an old-timer tells him to read the Upanishads, warning that he won't actually get anything out of it unless he also journeys to India.
The same offbeat sensibility that landed Murray the lead extends to the casting of Hicks and Russell, neither of whom is known for being a powerhouse actress. Hicks's vacuity, for instance, is precisely what sells the character, especially when Larry pretends to wring her neck but says, in all sincerity, "Isabel: You. Just. Don't. Get It." Sultry, intelligent, vulnerable Russell, meanwhile, was born to play the Madonna/whore archetype, and she's particularly adept at portraying the transitional divide, a tightrope she walked throughout Bob Rafelson's Black Widow and does so here in a moment that's no less harrowing for throwing a rigged dart into the eye of the Catholic church. (Although Larry's is a quest for God, He is hardly mentioned by name except in this negative context--which smacks not so much of a simplification of Maugham's existential musings as of the Eighties' disavowal of organized religion.)
I've read reviews that say The Razor's Edge lacks momentum. Indeed, while Maugham's prose lends itself to the potential scale of cinema (like the novel, the movie has epic, international scope), it's a bit sluggish for the medium. (John Byrum's direction lacks the kind of invention that would disguise this.) But then, I would level the same criticism at Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes remake, a film that would benefit from a scratch of The Razor's Edge's insight. Don't write that book report to it, just enjoy its eccentricities--they'll resonate. And if you're really feeling adventurous, pair it up with Wild in the Country for a curiously complementary double-bill.
Wild in the Country and The Razor's Edge arrive on DVD in spartan editions from Fox and Columbia TriStar, respectively. Twenty-three years older than The Razor's Edge, Wild in the Country's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer nevertheless suffers from fewer age defects. Hues can have a sickly quality but contrast and overall clarity are exceptional, putting this remaster in league with Fox's better Marilyn Monroe DVD restorations. The Dolby Surround soundtrack achieves a lovely timbre in the absence of any showy separation effects. (Trailers for Wild in the Country and Fox's other Elvis pictures Flaming Star and Love Me Tender round out the disc.) The Razor's Edge arrives on DVD in its first-ever letterboxed transfer (in 2.40 anamorphic widescreen), but the studio has denied the film a ruthless digital scrubbing for now--dirt and weak black levels mar the image. The Dolby 4.0 surround mix sounds plain and sometimes brittle. Trailers for The Razor's Edge, Seven Years in Tibet, and Gandhi cap the disc. Originally published: August 18, 2002.
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