Movie Magic

The Search for Transcendence in a Celluloid World

Magazine Issue
March/April 2010
Movie Magic

On the handful of channels that constituted the still-primitive medium that was television in the 1950s and early ’60s—before talk shows metastasized into the omnipresence they now enjoy; before today’s near-infinite library of old sitcoms had had the time to accumulate and be available for near-infinite rebroadcast; before cable, videocassettes, DVDs, TiVo, and the Internet made the entire history of audiovisual “content” as accessible as a box of Kleenex—late-night programming usually consisted of nothing more than old movies.

After the 11 o’clock news, Channel 2 in New York, for example, would run The Late Show, followed by The Late Late Show, and then, depending on running times, maybe a Late Late Late Show, and (while I may be making this up) even a Late Late Late Late Show. Television in those days treated movies with an indifference that crossed the border into contempt. They were brutally edited—at times to comply with broadcast “standards,” at others, purely randomly—and were interrupted every 10 or 15 minutes by a barrage of commercials, many of which were repeated again and again throughout the night.

Then, one day, news that a breakthrough in television programming, a “major television event,” was on its way.

We were told that every other month or so, in the Saturday night/Sunday morning time slot ordinarily filled by The Late Show, the F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company would proudly present something very special: The Schaefer Award Theater. While the content, like The Late Show’s, would be, yet again, old movies, the novelty of the Award Theater would be that each film, noteworthy for one reason or another (maybe even broadcast for the first time) not only would “be shown in its entirety,” but also would be forced to suffer only five “commercial interruptions”—each, it turned out, a somewhat lavishly produced, unusually-long, two-minute spot for Schaefer Beer and the illustrious company that produced it. And those “only five” commercial interruptions would be timed to occur at logical breakpoints, so that, in contrast to the awkwardly disruptive cutaways that occurred on The Late Show and its progeny, narrative flow would be preserved. And, miraculously, at the end of each one-commercial-only break, we’d be returned to the film at the very point where we’d left it. No hard-sell ads. No long delays. No missing segments. The worshipful solemnity with which all this was promoted wasn’t lost on this particular 10-year-old, sucker for hyperbole that he was.

I was especially eager to see the first presentation, the screwball comedy It Happened One Night, if only because in the entire 32-year history of the Oscars, as the Academy Award chart I was addicted to pouring over in the World Almanac had informed me, this was the only movie ever to have captured Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, and Best Director. I was also intrigued by the prospect of being able to watch my mother watch the man she’d made no secret of her affections for: Clark Gable. Having heard her go on and on about how all the girls used to go crazy for him, I might perhaps learn something about her occasionally-hinted-at romantic side and, by extension, gain a brief glimpse into the mysterious realm of female desire. (At the same time, the candid way in which she described her crush made me somewhat uncomfortable. “So where does Daddy fit into all that?” I never asked.)

Seduced by the double allure of Gable and the Award Theater premiere, my parents and I did something unusual: we stayed up together, laughing at this then-25-year-old movie as if it were brand new. At one famous moment, the mechanics of the plot force runaway heiress Claudette Colbert and newspaper reporter Gable to share a room, each on the other side of a makeshift clothesline that the Gable character calls the “Walls of Jericho.” When Gable insouciantly proceeds to demonstrate to the horrified Colbert the stages by which a man undresses, my mother gushed. “See, what I told you? When he took off his shirt, oh, all the girls went crazy.”

Despite how bowled over I’d been by all the hoopla that had accompanied the first Award Theater and even as the quality of its presentations remained first-rate (with an emphasis on crowd-pleasers like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Philadelphia Story), over time, the novelty wore off. Like a drinker who’d had one too many Schaefers, I soon had too many Schaefer Award Theaters under my belt; I’d passed from giddy intoxication into numbness.

Then, a surprise.

I learned about one particular Saturday’s upcoming Award Theater not by way of repeated on-air promos, but via an unexpected messenger: a full-page ad in The New York Times. Wow. Never saw that before. Forever on the lookout for clues that might reveal the world’s hidden hierarchies, I was stunned. This movie must be incredibly important to have its arrival announced so glamorously. But excited as I was, I was also confused. Above the familiar oak-leaf-cluster Schaefer Award Theater seal, there was Tyrone Power, half-turned away from the viewer, standing on a mountaintop, looking off into the distance. The oddity of the image (where was the girl?), the ambiguity of the brief text (about a man’s “quest for truth”), and the fact that despite my precocious knowledge of cinema history, I’d never heard of The Razor’s Edge (“based on the acclaimed novel by W. Somerset Maugham”), combined to strike a previously unstruck chord in me. I found myself anticipating this Saturday’s Award Theater with a fervor even greater than what I’d felt anticipating the first.

Turned out, I watched it alone. Nobody else in the family bothered to stay up. They, too, had never heard of it and, apparently, Tyrone Power lacked the drawing power for my mother that Clark Gable possessed. Chin resting on my hands, I lay on the living room’s dark burgundy, floral-patterned carpet just two feet from the giant 21-inch screen of our Zenith combination TV/Hi-Fi/Multi-Band-Radio “entertainment center.” Two feet so I might feel that much more a part of the story, ready to be swept away by the mysterious movie I was about to see; two feet so I could also hear it: I’d lowered the volume, not so much out of respect for my sleeping parents, but to minimize the chances of their waking up and cruelly—senselessly—ordering me to bed before the movie and its five commercial interruptions had run their course.

It was phenomenal.

The Razor’s Edge is about a veteran, Larry Darrell, who, coming back home to Chicago after serving in World War I, finds himself inexplicably dissatisfied with the prospect of resuming the life carved out for him before the war upended it. The bond market and marriage to Isabel (Gene Tierney) his beautiful, rich (and, as we quickly see but he doesn’t, spoiled) girlfriend just don’t add up to a life he can see himself ready to jump back into. No one can quite understand Larry’s problem, but then neither can Larry. He needs to go find himself—whatever that meant. (I guessed it had something to do with the question I was perpetually being asked, the one I could never answer—”What are you going to be when you grow up?”—only Larry was asking it of himself.)

To get this nameless need out of his system, he has this crazy idea to go back to Paris for some months. Isabel, besotted with Larry yet confident of her allure, agrees to wait for his silly experiment to play itself out, certain that when it does, she and he will, as originally planned, live happily ever after. To the jaundiced eye of her ever-cynical and super-snobbish Uncle Elliott (Clifton Webb), Isabel is making a big mistake.

Of course, Uncle Elliott is right. To Isabel’s everlasting dismay, Larry never does take the conventional path. Although he returns from time to time to assist those in need, he’s embarked on a permanent journey, always seeking something ineffable and undefined—as a laborer in the coal mines of France, in pursuit of wisdom in India, and, at film’s end, as a seaman on a merchant ship. Unlike every other movie I’d ever seen, instead of going off with the girl, the male lead goes off alone.

The movie’s flaws are legion.

Presumably about a man’s spiritual quest for meaning, we rarely see Larry actually engaged in that effort, and the vaporous scenes that try to depict it are barely intelligible, as confused and inarticulate as Larry is upon his return home from the war. As the story unfolds and years go by, we see scene after scene in which he runs into the people he left behind, almost as if he’s never been away. (Their slings and arrows, in contrast to his, have been plentiful, but Larry eases their sting through the wisdom he’s acquired off-screen. And, seemingly untouched by the passage of time, he manages to remain as fashionably dressed and clean-cut as when he first left Chicago.)

This being Hollywood, the movie focuses on how Isabel, having eventually settled for marriage to a conventional and aptly named Gray (John Payne), nonetheless schemes to win Larry back. Isabel’s crafty machinations are absurdly transparent to the audience (even to a 10-year-old), but not to Larry. As Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall), who narrates the film, opines for Isabel’s (and our) benefit, Larry has a very rare quality, an inherent “goodness.” But that uncynical nobility of his leaves him, at times, glaringly blind to human weakness and cruelty. After he selflessly marries the alcoholic Sophie (Oscar-winner Anne Baxter) in an attempt to rehabilitate her, he deposits her one afternoon into Isabel’s untrustworthy care—with disastrous results. And while Tyrone Power may look great (no Gable, though; ask my Mom), his acting isn’t; he’s stiff and laboriously earnest. Gene Tierney, as beautiful as Power is handsome, plays her role as if she’s on a catwalk in a fashion show. (Oleg Cassini designed the costumes.) And Alfred Newman’s lushly romantic score is utterly at odds with the film’s advertised theme—a man’s search for meaning.

Did I care?

Not for a second.

No matter how silly it all seemed, I was enchanted—almost instantly, in fact. In the opening scene, arriving at an outdoor party at Uncle Elliott’s country club, Larry enters the frame in the distance. As he walks straight toward the camera, scanning the crowd for Isabel, the party sounds that have been filling the soundtrack suddenly go mute, dramatically heightening the effect of Maugham’s voiceover narration. “This is the young man of whom I write,” he informs us, as if we’re reading a book. Then, in a voice reflecting his own bemusement, Maugham mysteriously continues: while this young man may ultimately leave no trace of his “sojourn on this earth,” yet, because of the “way of life that he has chosen,” he may one day be recognized as having been a “most remarkable creature.”


By the time Maugham was done introducing Larry, speaking directly to the audience, to us—to me—I was in a trance, one from which I wouldn’t awaken for many decades.

I keenly remember my fogginess whenever a scene clumsily attempted to deal with Larry’s strange search for something “spiritual,” a premise for a movie unlike any other I’d ever seen. I knew something important was being discussed, but I simply couldn’t understand it. My confusion was not unlike that which confronted me whenever during a Western, for example, a love scene inevitably intruded. As hero began to kiss love interest, I’d zone out, as if the screen had just gone totally blank. Some part of me knew that one day I’d understand what was going on between that man and that woman (though I’m not sure I ever have). Until that day might come, however, I couldn’t care less: a love scene was nothing more than a puzzling sort of downtime, something to be endured until a movie’s real action resumed. But while the quest scenes in The Razor’s Edge were just as disorienting and unintelligible, they didn’t feel like downtime. I didn’t zone out from lack of interest. Quite the reverse. I was fascinated—by Larry’s dogged pursuit of whatever it was he was pursuing, by the pomposity with which it was talked about; fascinated even by my very own confusion. Head on hands, a foot-and-a-half now from the hypnotic glow, I couldn’t keep my eyes away from the TV. I didn’t know what the hell was going on and hoped one day I might.

Eleven years ago, at 49, sick of my job as a lawyer and how I felt doing it, I quit. “Retired.” By the time a year or two had passed and I’d traveled to a good many places around the world, I awoke to discover, to my amazement, that without any planning or design on my part, my main activity in life—in a way, my mission, as presumptuous as that may sound—had become that of pro bono coach-shrink-advisor-rabbi-editor-career counselor-what-have-you to whoever walked through my metaphorical door. My new vocation—my nickname: Brother Theresa—wasn’t entirely surprising: I’d been an attorney for most of my adult life and my mother’s therapist from even before I could talk. What did come as something of a shock, though, was the variety of ages, occupations, and problems presented by my “clients.”

A year or two into my new career, I had an epiphany at a strange location: a used-book stall at a street fair. As I scanned a row of musty paperbacks, one title cried out—The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham—and my knees literally buckled. I’d seen the movie a few times over the intervening decades with little effect—some mild nostalgia for the night I first saw it and a knowing yet fond condescension toward its clunkiness—but the waves of shock now running through my limbs made me realize that some secret I’d long kept from myself was at last surfacing:

On that long-ago Saturday night, as I lay there watching some movie from 1946 that I’d never heard of, without my being aware of it, I was being given the playbook for my life. Somehow I’d absorbed the movie’s subtext: “Go off and seek—and keep seeking—something that you can’t name that will help you make sense of the world.” One way or another, I’d been obeying that message as if it had been a hypnotic command. All those years of lawyering had been nothing but a lengthy detour until the day would come when I, Larry Darrell the Second, would finally drop out and assume my true identity: professional loafer and freelance Good Samaritan. All that had been laid out for me by a movie I’d seen when I was 10 years old.

I stared at the illustration on the cover of the book as if I might possibly find some clues there. Did seeing The Razor’s Edge “cause” my life? Did it plant a seed where nothing else was? Certainly, just the circumstances under which I’d seen it—the special, once-in-a-lifetime-like aura of that night—would have made the experience extraordinary. But the rush of feeling that coursed through me as I stood at the book stall leafing through the pages of the novel suggested that it was more than that: something unbelievably powerful had happened to me almost a half-century earlier, which, until that moment, had remained buried, hidden in plain sight.

Up until The Razor’s Edge, movies had performed a twofold function for me. First, they were entertainment, pure and simple—a mode of escape, a source of excitement and delight. Then, beneath their entertaining surfaces, movies doubled as schools (especially on nonschool nights). Starring role models whose choices taught what consequences flowed from what actions, movies were primers on morals and behavior, parables of how to live, how to be a “man”—how to stand up for something, withstand threats, be graceful, loving, decent, tough, strong, fearless, funny. The godlike stars—John Wayne and Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and, yes, even Tyrone Power—were guides, teachers, yet the characters they played remained as flawed as any mortal. The travails they underwent not only amused, they educated me.

But this little-known Grade-B movie with Tyrone Power had unexpectedly introduced a dimension both richer and deeper: ­­cosmic mystery. Most movies presented a character undergoing some crisis that, by film’s end, was resolved: the villain defeated, the woman won; The Razor’s Edge presented something new, an open-ended paradox. It told me there is no resolution, no happy ending, to being alive. Our unending challenge is to pursue an end that’s always unattainable. Seeing that open-endedness depicted on screen for the first time was nothing short of thrilling.

So, Larry Darrell’s search for something spiritually meaningful wasn’t all that the movie had instilled in me. No, the very experience of watching the movie had itself initiated, I realized, a second lifelong search—for other movies that might duplicate its magic. It inspired me to go down a path seeking something special, not only in life, but also in the movies. Life, as I’d seen it played out by Tyrone Power, was far more complicated than I’d thought. It had far more complexity to it than even the glamour and adventure and grace and humor the movies generally pictured it as having. And suddenly, the movies, too, were filled with new possibility. With my 10-year-old mouth opened wide, watching Larry’s search for something ineffable in life, I was simultaneously embarking on a lifelong search for something ineffable in the movies.

Paperback in hand, I paused.

Had the movie really done all that? Is that what really happened?

I shook my head and corrected myself. No, The Razor’s Edge hadn’t initiated a quest, it had validated one. It validated me, a part of me I hadn’t known was there, a part already yearning, hoping, that there really was more out there to be bowled over by. The 10-year-old kid on the carpet expectantly staring up at the TV was, I understood, astonishingly enough, already Larry Darrell.

And so, for decades now, I’d been returning to the cinematic well, over and over and over, longing for another sip of the elixir I’d first tasted back then, looking for an answer to a question I couldn’t articulate, something that would shake up and completely alter my sense of the world. Something that would not only entertain me, but change me. I wanted another totally unexpected cinematic transformation, another hit of transcendence. Another moment when life’s mysteries and secrets are captured on film, laid bare, made visible, yet still remain mysterious.

Ever since, I’ve kept going back to the movies, as if on a treadmill I can’t jump off, looking for the kind of chest-opening, mind- and spirit-expanding high I got that night. And the movies keep coming, an endless, too-often soul-deadening cascade, like the waves of commercials that flooded the airwaves during those distant nights I spent movie-watching as a kid. The longer the search continues, the less frequently the magic recurs. Out of habit and hope, I persist. And every so often—not often enough, but sometimes still—I’m mesmerized.

Fred Wistow

Fred Wistow is a former contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and lives in New York City.