Thursday 24 December 2009

The Prize (1963)

Director: Mark Robson
Stars: Paul Newman and Edward G Robinson
Wearing its influences on its sleeves from moment one, this Mark Robson thriller is obviously indebted to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, not that there were many thrillers made anywhere near 1963 that weren't. This one makes it even more obvious than usual by combining three of Hitch's perennials in the very first scene: Leo G Carroll, bad rear projection and a national institution. Carroll is Count Bertil Jacobsson and he's in the back of a cab that through the magic of rear projection is obviously not in the city it's supposed to be in, that city being Stockholm because he's the man who delivers the list of Nobel prize winners for the year to the public.

This year's crop are an intriguing bunch, all of whom have their own back stories and all of whom are perfectly capable of spoiling Jacobsson's day. Joint winners for medicine are the Italian Dr Carlo Farelli and the American John Garrett, the latter of which is eagerly gathering evidence against the former for allegedly stealing his work. Winning for chemistry are the French husband and wife team of Drs Denise and Claude Marceau, who work in the scientific field of reproduction but have ironically failed to put their knowledge to practical use, Claude being far happier with his 'secretary' Monique Souvir, who he brought along for the ride, pun honestly not intended.

We're particularly invited to focus on the winners for physics and literature, not least because they're played by the stars of the film. Edward G Robinson is Dr Stratman, a new prizewinner for his research into solar energy, and as you might expect for the elder Eddie G he's apparently beyond reproach, but he's also a German who works in the United States and his old fatherland wants him back, desperately. When asking him almost nicely to renounce the Nobel Prize and defect proves to be woefully insufficient they take a far more serious step instead, to kidnap him and substitute a double in his place. In this they're ably assisted by his niece Emily who he is apparently meeting for the first time as an adult.

Only professional drunkard Andrew Craig, an American writer being honoured for his novels, notices the switch. Partly this is due to circumstances, namely that he met Stratman accidentally the day before and found him a friendly patriotic man who was more than happy to pose for pictures, yet a day later Stratman doesn't recognise him, is rather cooler to his adopted country and refuses to even think of being photographed. Partly it's also due to the fact that he's been struggling through a six year serious writing drought, earning a living by churning out pulp detective stories under a pseudonym. Now he can't help but see the sinister and the mysterious in everything and he demonstrates a fine talent for quirkiness by throwing out the truth as a fiction during a press conference.
The Prize was directed by Mark Robson, who began his career making horror movies for Val Lewton but quickly progressed up to the mainstream. In the fifties he made The Harder They Fall, Peyton Place and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, as well as The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which I was recently impressed by. He was less busy in the sixties, but still made films as varied as Von Ryan's Express, Valley of the Dolls and this picture. He seemed to be capable in any genre or with any tone but he certainly relied on the Hitchcock textbook here. It's perhaps a little lighter than most of Hitch's thrillers and the score doesn't sound like anything Bernard Herrmann ever wrote, the editing isn't as sharp and it's a fair amount slower than you might expect from the master but otherwise it rings very true, slyly confident in its cleverness.

Most obviously there's a cool and capable, not to mention lovely, young blonde, in the able hands of Elke Sommer, a mere year before A Shot in the Dark. It ends at national monuments, both a minor physical one and a more important ceremonial one, the annual Nobel awards ceremony. Daranyi, the dark henchman of the piece, is very reminiscent of a number of Hitchcock henchman, Sacha Pitoëff even looking a little like Martin Landau in North By Northwest a mere four years earlier, and the comparisons with that film in particular are plentiful. The screenplay comes courtesy of the writer of that film, Ernest Lehman, adapting an Irving Wallace novel, and it's very much the same sort of story.

Andrew Craig is obviously onto a matter of serious importance but the carefully contrived circumstances make it less and less easy for anyone to believe him as the film runs on. Knowing this, Paul Newman plays Craig with a wry sense of humour, very much in the sort of way that Cary Grant played Roger Thornhill in North By Northwest. Both are regular folks who get caught up in international intrigue against their will, and find themselves able to rise to the occasion and outwit trained, experienced and organised agents. Newman is a little more believable as an amateur than Grant is but he also overdoes it a little on occasion, which is rather surprising, albeit a little less surprising than seeing him ask Edward G Robinson not to spank him.

The little stories are not ignored, but the lesser cast don't have a huge amount to do. Leo G Carroll, who made six films for Hitch, North By Northwest being the last, is the grounding of the film. Kevin McCarthy is emphatic as Dr Garrett, Sergio Fantoni nothing but his foil as Dr Farelli. Micheline Presle and Gérard Oury interact more with Newman than they do each other as the Marceaus, though perhaps that's the point. Diane Baker has a little depth as Emily, Dr Stratman's niece, though she doesn't get enough screen time. Her screen uncle gets more of course, given that it's a double role for Edward G Robinson, and if there's anything better than Eddie G it's two of him. I'd happily have seen a lot more of the Stratmans.

And that leaves Elke Sommer, reminding me of Jean Harlow here as Inger Lisa Andersson, who you know just has to melt that icy exterior for Paul Newman, definitely the star of the show and obviously having a blast in the process. This is one of his more obscure films and while it's surely not up to the level of The Hustler or The Sting, it's certainly worthwhile. Not having seen it for quite some years, I wonder how much of this film he brought to another one he made three years later called Torn Curtain, another thriller centring around an American scientist's apparent defection to the east, but this time actually made by Alfred Hitchcock himself. I also wonder what Hitch would have done with The Prize.

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