Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Prize (1963)

The Prize (Mark Robson, 1963) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had a huge hit in 1959 with Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest. A collaboration between Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (after an abandoned attempt to make anything interesting of The Wreck of the Mary Deare) it was a  summation and expansion of many of Hitchcock's "greatest hits" cataloging many of the themes and fears throughout the director's career with the added element of a crazed paranoia produced by unknown forces involved in an elaborate plot that the hapless "man alone" protagonist stumbles into quite by accident.

M-G-M wasn't too concerned with all that "substance" stuff; all they knew was they had a hit with North By Northwest. They also had a property—Irving Wallace's 1962 best-selling pot-boiler, "The Prize," about the intrigues behind the awarding of the various Nobel Prizes in Stockholm. To adapt it, they asked Lehman and the results, although very different in details, are remarkably similar to North By Northwest. Director Mark Robson had none of Hitchcock's wit or panache, but he could stage things well, move things along briskly and occasionally do things with a certain amount of humor. But, the screenplay retains the same basic plot structure—a roguish ne'er-do-well (in this case, Paul Newman) begins to suspect that an elaborate conspiracy is going on, and even though he sees things that beggar the imagination, no one believes him and think he's either drunk or delusional.  

Andrew Craig (Paul Newman) is not having a very good time in Sweden
Newman plays Andrew Craig, an American novelist (hence there's a propensity for people to think he's overly imaginative) who's been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Trouble is, he's an American with a bit of an attitude, a weakness for drink and women, and the innate feeling that he's a bit of a fraud as he hasn't written anything worthwhile for some time (and thus considers his award a bit of a fraud, too). All this ingratiates him no end with the Nobel committee (led by Leo G. Carroll) and the crumpet of an attaché assigned to keep him in line (Elke Sommer...really?). Not that the other recipients are any more stable: the French couple (Gérard Oury and Micheline Presle) winning for chemistry are a husband-wife team accompanied by his secretary-mistress (Jacqueline Beer); the two doctors winning for medicine (Sergio Fantoni, Kevin McCarthy) are feuding over duplicated research, and the recipient for physics, Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson)—accompanied by his niece Emily (Diane Baker)—is acting strangely.
Okay, you're dancing with Elke Sommer, but Edward G. Robinson is distracting you.
No wonder everybody thinks he's odd.

Not that anyone but Craig notices. Craig met Stratman the first night in Stockholm at a chance encounter, but after the second night, Stratman doesn't recognize him. And the more he protests that something is "off," the less he's believed. Pretty soon, he's being attacked by an odd-looking knife-wielding assassin (Sacha Pitoëff) on the Katarina elevator and sent falling into the Slussen lock, is led to an apartment where he finds a dead body (but when he returns with the police, there's no sign of it and the man's "wife" says he's merely out), is nearly run over by a truck on a narrow bridge, then has his clothes stolen after ducking into a nudist's convention to avoid being killed, and must sneak back into his Plaza Suite hotel wrapped in a towel.

And no one takes him seriously?
Turns out he's right all along (of course). Stratman has been kidnapped by Soviet agents and replaced with a double, unbeknownst to everyone but Emily. The doppelganger will then denounce the West at the ceremonies and stage a faux-defection. And only a depressed, debauched, and desperate laureate stands between it and scandal (and he's too busy causing scandals in the meantime).  
Newman seems like he's having a fine time playing it, even if he's not the deftest touch at comedy (in other words, he's no Cary Grant), Sommer looks winsomely perturbed throughout and Robinson, old pro that he is, plays his parts with a heavy weight that makes the stakes seem more important for his commitment. Lehman does his best trying to find Swedish touchstones to lend color and comedy, but he's at his most successful using the hotel's staff as his greek chorus, commenting and double-taking at the shenanigans going on. It's a fun time, but there are no basic creepy set-pieces (like N by N-W's meeting in a vast expanse of day-lit prairie, rather than a dark alley) that can raise the tension just for the contrariness of the concept  Diverting, yes, but a little off-direction (compass-wise).

Newman would go on to make his own movie with Alfred Hitchcock—Torn Curtain in 1966—in which he plays a theoretical mathematician who defects to the Soviet Union.

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