|"C'mon, Eddie, do your Rico impression! Please?"|
The folks at MGM clearly realized screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s witty dialogue would be as important to the success of The Prize as it was to Lehman’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for North by Northwest (1959), so they lavished The Prize with plenty of smart, snappy lines in addition to the time-honored glossy MGM production values. They also cast The Prize with many actors who’d worked with Hitchcock before and/or after they became part of the Prize package, like Paul Newman (more about his Hitchcock experience shortly); Marnie’s Diane Baker; The Birds’ Karl Swenson, along with veteran character actor John Qualen, as bickering room service personnel at the Grand Hotel; and frequent Hitchcock supporting player Leo G. Carroll as the Nobel committee’s outwardly calm but inwardly worried head honcho, Count Bertil Jacobsson. Virginia Christine of Folgers Coffee commercial fame briefly appears in The Golden Crown nightclub scene with Baker and friends and a wine chaser. (Fun fact: Ms. Christine was married to Fritz Feld of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and so many other comedies from 1940 to his death in 1993.) Fans of the classic private eye series 77 Sunset Strip (*snap snap*) may recognize Jacqueline Beer as another sexy secretary type, Monique, the mistress of Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Claude Marceau (Gérard Oury, renowned as a writer/actor/director in his native France). One of the more entertaining Nobel winner vignettes is a piquant running gag in which Newman as Andrew Craig, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, agrees to help fellow Nobel-prize winner Dr. Denise Marceau (Micheline Presle) pretend they’re having an affair to make her hubby and fellow Nobel-prize winner Claude jealous, culminating in an almost-naked Newman winding up in Denise’s suite with her slow-burning spouse—but I’m getting ahead of myself. The Prize is that kind of movie—very busy (mostly in a good way)!
Between The Prize and Charade, 1963 was a great year for playfully glamorous Hitchcockian thrillers! Director of Photography William Daniels, who also did the honors for TV’s I Love Lucy and the Oscar-winning The Naked City, got to have fun with trick photography. Great driving symphonic score by Jerry Goldsmith, too, augmented here and there by musical riffs from Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest score and another musical riff I swear I’ve heard on Star Trek! Is it just me? Incidentally, I liked the way the filmmakers got past the language issues of the international cast of characters, as decreed by major domo Mrs. Ahlquist (Edith Evanson): “During Nobel Week, nothing but English is to be spoken, even when you quarrel…Now don’t let me hear another word about this, especially in Swedish!”
Paul Newman plays our charmingly sardonic hero, the hard-drinking, womanizing, and of course, Nobel-winning author Andrew Craig, honored for his novel The Perfect State. Indeed, according to the media montage in the film’s opening credits, Andrew is the youngest author to be thus honored since Rudyard Kipling. (Would that make fictional Andrew Craig the Nobel Prize equivalent of real-life youngest Best Actor Oscar-winner Adrien Brody? But I digress….) Andrew is just interested in the money — and maybe also Inger Lisa Andersson (Elke Sommer), the cool, beautiful blonde Foreign Office attaché assigned to keep his scamp tendencies in line. We can feel the chemistry beginning, but Inger Lisa isn’t going to make it easy for him:
Andrew: “How much do you know (about me)?”
Inger Lisa: “Your lack of regard for the Nobel Prize; your threat to turn it down; your decision to come to Stockholm only because fifty-thousand dollars…how did you put it in Time Magazine?”
Andrew: “‘Ain’t hay?’…Yes, I think you have caught the outer man, Miss Andersson. But bear in mind that nine-tenths of the iceberg is generally hidden from view.”
Inger Lisa: “In your case, it happens to be ice cubes.”
|For Andrew, having Inger Lisa on his side is sheer delight!|
When our irreverent hero gets around to schmoozing with his fellow Nobel Prize winners, he meets Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson, another Team Bartilucci favorite), the Nobel Prize winner in Physics. Dr. Stratman is a native German who reluctantly cooperated with the Nazis only to keep his family safe. The endearing Stratman gently chides Andrew in a warm, fatherly way about his flippant, mercenary approach to his Nobel honor. Andrew and Dr. Stratman agree to get together over a bottle of schnapps the next day. But what a difference a day makes: when they cross paths again at the Nobel press conference, Dr. S. acts as though he’s meeting Andrew for the first time! Little does Andrew know that after they said their goodbyes the night before, Eastern Bloc spies kidnapped the real Dr. Stratman to drag him back behind the Iron Curtain, replacing him with his lookalike brother (Robinson pulls double duty here; wonder if MGM paid him twice?), who plans to use the Nobel ceremony to denounce the West before Dr. Stratman “defects.” What’s worse, his lovely niece Emily Stratman (Baker) is playing ball with the bad guys. But Emily’s mercurial behavior is puzzling; is she really a modern-day Mata Hari, or do the bad guys have a hold over her, or what? It’s interesting to watch Emily’s expressions throughout the film, with her sweet face and shifty eyes always at odds with each other; it intrigues and amuses me (granted, I’m easy to please).
Meanwhile, Andrew grudgingly reveals his dirty little secret at the press conference: acclaimed though they are, Andrew’s literary novels haven’t been selling well — but the “private-eyewash” detective novels he writes under a pseudonym are selling like fresh hot pancakes with lingonberries! (Hey, Andrew, if you don’t want the pulp fiction gig, I’ll gladly take it, and so would any number of writers I know!) Skeptical interviewers ask Andrew for an example of his ability to find story material in whatever situation is at hand. Naturally, Andrew improvises a storyline about a Nobel prize winner — who just happens to be a lookalike imposter. You can almost hear the alarm bells going off for Emily and the counterfeit Stratman. Before you can say, “George Kaplan,” Emily, Off-Brand Stratman, and a couple of sinister fedora-wearing jaspers in trench coats are doing their damndest to screw up whatever shreds of credibility Andrew has left (ah, the time-honored “Hide the Corpse” gambit never gets old). Failing that, they’re happy to make Andrew a dead man who’ll tell no tales!
Winning the Nobel Prize turns life upside-down for author Andrew Craig (Paul Newman) when neo-Nazi thugs in Swedes’ clothing decide he’s a man who knows too much!
Our award-winning amateur sleuth thinks he’s finally catching a break in the case at the Nobel banquet. Andrew overhears the wife of fellow Nobel honoree Dr. John Garrett (Kevin McCarthy, yet another Team Bartilucci fave) as she mentions seeing a patient at the local sanitarium who looked like Stratman. This leads to more double-crossing Mata Hari antics from Emily, and the movie’s highlight: Andrew is chased at night from the sanitarium to a nudist conference, in a sequence that winks broadly at North by Northwest’s classic auction scene. According to the IMDb, an uncredited young Britt Ekland is in that nudist seminar as well. With so many attractive blondes in the audience, it was hard to tell one from the other. I wonder what Hitchcock would have said? (Perhaps, to quote The Producers, “Ah-woo-wah, ah-woo-ah-wah!”)
Ironically, Newman is more successful as a Hitchcockian hero in The Prize than he was in Hitchcock’s own Torn Curtain (1966), which had its moments, to be sure (like that great farmhouse scene; you’ll never look at your gas oven quite the same way again). But with its action-packed script, great dialogue, and appealing cast, The Prize is simply more fun than Torn Curtain. If you’re somehow listening in the hereafter, Sir Alfred, no offense intended; we still love you and your movies!
|These hairbreadth escapes are getting Andrew's goat!|
Not only does Newman let his funny flag fly, but he has delightful chemistry with the irresistible Elke Sommer, she of the eminently kissable lips, in one of her earliest big-screen roles. Sommer won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer, and the sultry yet ultimately sweet Diane Baker was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Director Mark Robson had worked with Lehman and Newman earlier in From the Terrace (1960), so I’m not surprised that they worked together so well on The Prize.
|Our hero's foe gets the point at Stockholm's Orpheus Fountain|
As I mentioned earlier, the other Nobel honorees’ little subplots weave in and out of Andrew’s Hitchcockian hell. In addition to the jealousy charade that Andrew and Denise Marceau pull on Claude Marceau, the Nobel Prize for Medicine gets split as well, since the recipients all came by their findings independently; Dr. Garrett is hell-bent on proving that Italian doc Carlo Farelli (Sergio Fantoni from Luchino Visconti’s Senso) cribbed his research. Farelli brings his aging mother (Grazia Narciso, who guest-starred on Peter Gunn and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among others) to Stockholm with him, though she seems to be there primarily as a sight gag. Sometimes all these mini-plots result in what Joe Bob Briggs would describe as “the plot getting in the way of the story” but they’re well-acted and entertaining overall.
|Elke Sommer wins Golden Globe over nominee Diane Baker.|
Does that mean blondes really do have more fun?
|The Grand Hotel has everything, including half-naked Paul Newman!|