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The Prize

by Glenn Erickson Jan 12, 2019

Already eclipsed by James Bond and sexier European films, Paul Newman does his best to energize this derivative but lively spy-chase thriller set during Nobel season, in a Stockholm populated by the glamorous Elke Sommer, Diane Baker, Micheline Presle and Jacqueline Beer. Toss several Hitchcock pictures into a blender, and what comes out is reasonably engaging… and more than a little dated.


The Prize
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1963 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 134 min. / Street Date January 15, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson, Elke Sommer, Diane Baker, Micheline Presle, Gérard Oury, Sergio Fantoni, Kevin McCarthy, Leo G. Carroll, Sacha Pitoëff, Jacqueline Beer, John Wengraf, Don Dubbin, Virginia Christine, Rudolph Anders, Martine Bartlett, Karl Swenson, John Qualen, John Banner, Teru Shimada, Albert Carrier, Jerry Dunphy, Britt Ekland, Gergory Gaye, Anna Lee, Gregg Palmer, Gene Roth, Ivan Triesault.
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Film Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Ernest Lehman from the novel by Irving Wallace
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Directed by
Mark Robson

 

In 2001 some editors got the job of assembling an Oscar montage lauding the achievements of screenwriter Ernest Lehman, whose Hollywood credits were nothing short of incredible — at first glance. The problem was finding original solo work: with the exception of a few gems like North by Northwest, almost all of Lehman’s screenplays adapted existing novels and plays by famous talents. The montage ended up favoring a scene from Sabrina, which cinephiles more strongly associate with its playwright Samuel Taylor and especially its director & co-screenwriter Billy Wilder. Lehman’s Oscar reads, ‘In appreciation of a body of varied and enduring work.’

Sandwiched between Lehman’s lucrative reshuffling of West Side Story and The Sound of Music is his 1963 The Prize — yet another screenplay ‘adapted from another medium.’ MGM promoted it as a world-class thriller in the Hitchcock mode. The Stockholm-set spy-kidnapping tale features one big star for the marquee, Paul Newman. He’s backed by a decent supporting cast with a sprinkling of continental names.

With JFK not yet gone to Dallas and James Bond barely arrived, 1963 Hollywood was at a disadvantage when trying to emulate the sexy and sophisticated pictures coming from Europe — the prohibition-era Production Code severely limited adult themes and content. The Prize promises racy thrills but can only deliver weak verbal humor and ersatz sexy situations, as when the charismatic Paul Newman visits a gathering of nudists, to cue the Swedish equivalent of French ‘oo la la’ jokes.

 

Lehman did freely adapt Irving Wallace’s supermarket best-seller, dropping characters and cleaning up the bed-hopping subplots. He also revisits suspenseful moments from his earlier Hitchcock-Cary Grant classic, sometimes a little too closely. His show adds up to acceptable light entertainment, even if it falls short in terms of wit, style and smarts.

Author Andrew Craig (Paul Newman) shows up in Stockholm late to accept a Nobel prize for literature. He’s already embarrassed the Nobel committee by saying he’s only cooperating with the ceremony for the money, as none of his books has sold well. Andrew’s newly-assigned VIP guide Inger Lisa Andersson (Elke Sommer) must work overtime to keep Craig’s drunken womanizing out of the news. Ceremonial executive Count Bertil Jacobssen (Leo G. Carroll) has problems with other prizewinners too. American medical researcher Dr. John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy) is convinced that Carlo Farelli (Sergio Fantoni), the Italian doctor with whom he shares his prize, is a fraud. Married physics winners Drs. Denise and Claude Marceau (Micheline Presle & Gérard Oury) are separated and only pretending to be a couple. Denise is determined to get Claude back, but he has brought his mistress Monique Souvir (Jacqueline Beer) with him.

While Inger labors to keep the ceremony scandal-free, the unpredictable Andrew flirts with beautiful young Emily Stratman (Diane Baker). Her father, the Nobel winner Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson) is being pressured to defect to the Soviet Union by an old contact from the Eastern Bloc, Hans Eckhardt (John Wengraf). Andrew soon encounters a strange mystery. He and Dr. Stratman briefly meet, and exchange pleasantries. But the next morning the elder scientist doesn’t recognize Andrew and asks to be introduced again. Stratman also looks a little taller and is much less jovial in character. Nobody believes Craig when he claims that the ‘new’ Stratman is an imposter.

 

The Prize is a variation on the Hitchcock spy chase formula that re-uses numerous ideas from old films by the Master of Suspense, as well as other classics. Professor Stratman disappears like the sweet old lady of The Lady Vanishes, and Andrew is soon dodging assassins, stumbling over a body that mysteriously goes missing, and boarding a ship by leaping onto its cargo net. More than a few ideas are repurposed straight from Ernest Lehman’s North by Northwest. A pleasant older woman contradicts Andrew’s absent corpse story. Caught in a hall of nudists, he escapes from killers by rudely disrupting a lecture, so that he can be ‘rescued’ by the Stockholm police.

The dying confession of German actor harks all the way back to the original spy chase classic The 39 Steps. The famous conclusion of Saboteur at the Statue of Liberty is mirrored when another spy falls from a great height and is impaled on a convenient spiky statue (Spellbound?). Compared to the unforgettable experience of watching Norman Lloyd plunge to his death, the corresponding special effect in The Prize is cartoonishly unconvincing. If we really want to stretch things, a sequence in which Andrew and others escape from the hold of a ship by hiding in cars being unloaded, is vaguely reminiscent of a gag that Lehman and Hitchcock couldn’t fit into North By Northwest, in which Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill was to visit a Detroit auto assembly production line.

Paul Newman plays his part in full-on ‘cute’ mode, applying maximum charm to Andrew Craig’s oversexed posturing. As Newman’s appeal is considerable, he even gets away with pulling a bit of an English accent once or twice, for no particular reason. Newman’s cutesy moments focus on his comic reactions to various provocative statements by the three women that find him irresistible. Andrew Craig receives several improper invitations, but somehow never ends up in bed with any of them. The script is stuck in Doris Day Land, that general-audience limbo where sex come-ons are all smoke and no pillows. Although the teasing Diane Baker and Micheline Presle eagerly talk the talk, their offers aren’t really serious. The dated sex farce humor hits its peak when Andrew accosts Ms. Marceau at her door wearing only a towel (although her reaction is actually pretty good).

Few of Andrew Craig’s dubious foreplay bon mots hit the mark: “Watching you walk up and down that aisle tonight, I feel as though I’ve known your legs all my life.” Some of the quips about liberated Scandinavia are almost as offensive as the infantile laugh lines in the execrable Bob Hope movie I’ll Take Sweden (1965), that suggest that all Swedes are amoral sex fiends. Perhaps Elke Sommer comes off best because her ultra-cool Inger remains above it all. Patiently relaxed on the subject of sex, she refuses to rise to Andrew’s bait. From today’s viewpoint, Inger seems to be the adult in the room, indulging an immature adolescent who doesn’t realize that she’s genuinely willing to ‘walk the walk’ with the right man in the right circumstances. In perhaps the film’s best scene, Andrew and Inger just stop talking for a few moments of enthusiastic kissing. Their chemistry hits a pleasing note of celebrity-grade lust.

 

Back to the evidence of screenwriting ‘appropriation.’ Andrew’s smart-ass answers to the international press when quizzed about his literary prowess are a good variation on the book club meeting in The Third Man, only not as funny. Andrew makes light of his drinking habits and debauchery. He also insults the Nobel Prize, a put-on attitude that makes the officials, his fellow awardees and the Swedish Polismyndigheten discount his batty claims that a Cold War kidnapping is underway.

The petty academic spats around the respected Nobel Prize seem pretty dated as well. Leo G. Carroll’s refined Swedish Count bookends the picture with lofty voiceover bites about the glory and honor of the Nobel ceremony. His function seems lifted directly from MGM’s old Grand Hotel, specifically Lewis Stone’s ‘people come, people go’ speech. The other awardees provide predictably romantic and competitive sidebar subplots, and come in contact with the kidnapping story at key moments. Lame ‘silly Swede’ comic relief is provided by Karl Swenson and John Qualen, who at least bicker in real Swedish now and then.

The Prize probably played well to average 1963 audiences, that were accustomed to Cold War lecturing. America is described as ‘wonderful’ twice in the dialogue, whereas the representatives of the Communist opposition are transparently devious schemers and ideologues. Hitchcock would soon make two awkward Cold War thrillers in a row. With its uncomplicated storyline, The Prize is structured better than Hitchcock’s turgid Torn Curtain, which also stars Paul Newman. But the brilliant, much-lauded murder scene in Torn Curtain puts it way out in front.

 

Although she was soon to be over-used as a sloe-eyed Nordic-Teutonic dish, the German-born Elke Sommer made a fine start in Hollywood. In addition to The Prize, her aura was hyped by a (cut) nude scene in the same year’s The Victors. By playing straight (wo)man to Newman’s flood of provocative quips, the lovely Sommer makes the film’s best impression.

Diane Baker is stuck with the difficult role of a contrasting good-bad girl. Initial events cause Emily Stratman to behave like a veritable Mata Hari, followed by a period where she seems to be vicious Red agent, only for that impression to be overturned by yet another awkward revelation. Ms. Baker’s only recourse is to under-react at all times, and that just makes her look foolish. It’s not good when Elke Sommer acts one off the screen, just by remaining cool and smiling.

Hollywood studios course maintained European offices and frequently signed deals with foreign actors. Out of any ten that wound up cast in a popular American movie, maybe one caught on with the U.S. public. Romy Schneider was a shoo-in, but Alain Delon flopped. Other greats like Jean-Paul Belmondo didn’t bother to make an effort. The casting director of The Prize cherry-picked some good names and faces. Micheline Presle (American Guerilla in the Philippines, Donkey Skin) has a big following in Europe, for a career that had begun in the late 1930s. Gérard Oury had a small part in Anatole Litvak’s The Journey; he soon dropped acting to concentrate on writing. Sacha Pitoëff had been in Anastasia but was likely chosen because of his haunting face in Last Year at Marienbad. The Prize uses him as a creepy killer, like Reggie Nalder in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Sergio Fantoni (Hercules, Von Ryan’s Express) had a face familiar enough to be mistaken for a ‘Hollywood’ European, like John Wengraf or Rudolf Anders. The beautiful Jacqueline Beer was indeed French-sourced, but made all of her films in Hollywood.

 

The Prize is not helped much by its pedestrian direction and camerawork. Mark Robson’s credit is on a number of good entertainments, but he brings little style or verve to the fast-paced story. His camera always seems to be in the easy or obvious place, as opposed to a more expressive position. For most interiors the lighting stays high key, yielding a generic, atmosphere-challenged visual texture. The integration of Stockholm second unit work with Hollywood interiors is actually quite good from a production standpoint, but there’s little sense of being in Sweden.

The show is efficient enough, and Paul Newman’s work has always pleased his fans. We wouldn’t expect consistent Hitchcock-level excitement but it would have been nice to see at least an effort at a cinematic thrill or two. I once had the task of going through The Prize looking for scenes to shape into a home video montage. I couldn’t find a single visually arresting shot.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Prize is a good encoding of a picture that played seemingly forever in pan-scanned TV prints. The widescreen Panavision image looks much better on Blu-ray than it did on DVD, but shows signs that extreme color correction was needed to extract acceptable hues. The matching between shots is very good, and the many rear projection scenes also look attractive.

A big plus is the film’s original music score. Composer Jerry Goldsmith’s feature career was just getting into gear with music for Lonely are the Brave and The List of Adrian Messenger. The music here adds punch and mysterioso effects, in addition to underscoring the pomp and ceremony of the subject award. The disc’s one extra is a trailer.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The Prize
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 8, 2019
(5899priz)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.