Bill Murray Finds Enlightenment: The Razor’s Edge Within The City Of Light

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“The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth.”

“Well, you know when people are no good at anything else they become writers.”

― W. Somerset Maugham / The Razor’s Edge

Back in 1983, director John Byrum sent a script, that was having trouble selling at any studio, to his friend who happened to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time.  Bill Murray read the script in one night and telephoned Byrum early in the morning with the words, “Hi, this is Larry Darrell.”

Columbia Pictures now had the backing of a major star with Byrum’s script, on the express consent that Murray would do their summer comedy film going by the title of Ghostbusters.  Murray was aching to do something out of the mainstream and more in tune with his dark sensibilities.  “The Razor’s Edge” afforded a range never before attempted and a trip to his beloved City Of Light for several months.  In the preceding months, Murray hammered out a revised script with Byrum and was ready to take on the role he felt he was born to play.

When the completed film was released in October of 1984 (I was one of the few who attended), it tanked at the box office so drastically that it sent Bill Murray into a self imposed exile to Paris, much like his beloved character Larry Darrell, to think through his life.  Audiences were not ready for a serious Bill Murray and were confused as to why he chose this route.  To Murray, this made sense as a career trajectory and much more satisfying as an actor.  It wouldn’t be until many years later, and thanks to directors such as Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Jim Jarmusch that Murray would come into his own as a serious actor.

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“The Razor’s Edge” is an anomaly in his career and a very interesting one.  On the whole, the film certainly has its faults.  For starters, the overbearing music score by the usually reliable Jack Nitzsche hammers home every emotional moment to an excruciating degree.  The injection of Murray’s goofy humor seems very out of place in certain scenes.  John Byrum’s earnest direction certainly needed some polish in certain wooden-like intimate scenes between characters.  For all its faults, the film’s standouts lie on the other side with the gorgeous photography by Peter Hannan, the exquisite production design by Philip Harrison, and lastly the acting; Saeed Jaffrey (always a joy to watch), Denholm Elliot, Theresa Russell (so sexy and daring), and of course, Bill Murray.  Murray takes the role and makes it his own.  It is sad to think many people missed or disliked his performance purely based on perceptions of past films.  His droll delivery intermixed with that cold seriousness lends the character Larry Darrell as a real damaged soul.  It is remarkable that Murray pulled it off in the midst of his super-stardom as a comedic actor and a credit to his talent.

The original novel, by  W. Somerset Maugham, has long been a favorite of mine.  The essence of yearning, striving, questioning for what this life means was (and still is) very attractive to me.  Like Murray, I can claim to be Larry Darrell.  Life does not make very much sense, so I read a lot and question everything.  I may not have made it to Paris, but give me time.  Bill Murray took to heart Larry Darrell’s predicament and identified with it so completely that he stayed away from Hollywood for a few years in The City Of Light.  Unlike Darrell though, Murray could afford it without any worries.

On one occasion of my rereading Maugham’s novel, I decided to flesh out some stories during Larry Darrell’s exile in Paris that I felt the novel kept hidden.  It was fun and a great exercise in fleshing out a situation with one of my beloved characters.  I’ve taken one of those exercises and placed it below for anyone’s reading amusement or disgusted outrage at the amateurish attempt.  You be the judge.

Paris. 1923.
Larry Darrell remembered that he left the novel he was reading back at his squalid tiny apartment off Rue de Rivoli-Le Marais. He loved that tiny space. He had acquired so many books these days that they lined the walls covering the exposed chipped paint that badly needed a fresh coat. Need to talk to the landlord about that, thought Larry.
The avenue he chose to walk tonight was a different route to his favorite eatery. Larry liked to change things up, enter the unknown. He was never a man of habit,
or so he fancied himself to be. Yet, Larry was a seeker. Someone who searched for answers to questions he has yet to think of. Life, love, existence, and the pursuit of his next glass of wine.
Damn, I won’t have anything to read at dinner tonight, Larry rumbled inside. The alley was dark with running water and he stumbled across the broken pavement stones, cursing at his clumsiness. Larry wiped his brow and fished in his pockets for that Mekka he bummed off that university professor yesterday. An interesting conversation, the bespectacled professor claimed the novel as a dead art form with nothing more to be said after Joyce’s odyssey through Dublin. Larry clasped his prize from his pocket and struck a match on the brick side, lighting the alleyway momentarily in a fiery red haze.
With a smoke halo across Larry’s crown, his eyes looked up at the stars as if searching for a God that did not exist. He let out a heavy sigh. It has been a tough year since The City Of Lights captured his attention and it has since disappointed him time and time again. The food was fine, when he had enough to actually pay. The libraries and dusty book shops were better. He spent hours perusing novels, histories, philosophical diatribes, and the occasional newspaper. There was something that bothered Larry. Something that followed him these days. That bitter taste in his mouth was from the loneliness he felt. It was getting harder with each day. All the books in all the world still had no answers to quell this empty space he seemed to live in. So, Larry kept reading. Life had meaning, he waxed, but in layers. Each one of those layers opened to another more complex one, like some onion he saw prepared at Le Procope.
The cigarette was tossed into a pool of brackish water down from the cannery. Larry eyed the cozy lit restaurant ahead and put his hands in his trouser pockets. I have enough for some wine and some cheese, he noted. Damn. Wish I had remembered that book, Larry thought. He hated to eat alone without something to read.
Walking up to the outdoor tables, Larry found his usual spot and sat down. Reflexively, he reached for his phantom book he had forgotten and cursed again out loud. “Are you alright, Monsieur?” Startled, Larry looked up at a face that shone with the stars above. It was a face of porcelain texture lovingly dotted with the finest of freckles. Those eyes, Larry thought, those gray piercing eyes can see right through me.
I am sorry to disturb you, Monsieur. Her voice was languid and pleasant to the ear. Larry stumbled upon some words to apologize himself. Please, he practically yelled, please join me? She looked upon him questionably, but made up her mind that he was harmless. Larry jumped up to offer her a chair. She smiled at his quaint gentlemanly ways as she sat down slowly, cautious still of what was transpiring. Larry smiled a big cheesy smile, until realized the mistake and offered her a drink. Guess I will skip the cheese tonight, he laughed inside.
The two sat in the outdoor corner with a gentle breeze ruffling the tablecloth in its wake. It was a gloriously still night, perfect for such an accidental chance meeting to take place. Larry introduced himself as the typical American expatriate bumming off the city. She listened to his story with an intensity. Her studied look made Larry nervous and when he was nervous, he tended to talk too much. Catching himself, he suddenly ended the explanation as to why he was in Paris. The air was quiet as she continued to study him. Larry felt as if he were an exhibit in the Musée d’Orsay. She took a long drink from her glass and licked her ruby lips.
Larry was mesmerized by this spectacle. He had no idea what to do or say to this vision. After what seemed like minutes, she set her glass down and appeared to begin speaking. Larry leaned in closer across the table. She whispered something he will never forget till his dying days. No woman he has ever met has ever matched her steely beauty and upfront behavior. Was this a dream, he wondered? It was that whisper, those softly said words, that took him forever from that empty space he was trapped in. And for that, he was eternally grateful to her, for those words were what he never found in any book after searching these many years.
That was when Larry Darrell truly opened his eyes and his heart towards a new path.

-Misha / 2014

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“The Razor’s Edge” 1984 2hrs 8min (direction John Byrum, screenplay John Byrum and Bill Murray)

 

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