Norse by Norsewest

JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

If, indeed, imitation is the highest form of praise, I surmise that Alfred Hitchcock must have been in seventh heaven with the release of the 1963 thriller THE PRIZE, now on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.

The picture was based on a wildly successful bestseller by Irving Wallace, who previously (and scandalously) wowed ’em in print and on-screen with The Chapman Report.  MGM, seeing the endless possibilities, Hitch-ed their wagon to a star (Paul Newman), and re-channeling the droll suspense that made their North By Northwest such a hoot, went for a repeat performance (this blue plate special recipe went so far as to re-cast Leo G. Carroll in basically an offshoot of his NBW role – with a side order of Lewis Stone from Grand Hotel, including a variation of the latter’s final line).  Metro even got NBW‘s screenwriter, the wonderful Ernest Lehman (also of Sweet Smell of Success) to do the cinematic quill-and-ink honors.

But it’s the MGM legacy that melds the Master of Suspense stuff with their trademark lavish all-star presentations (from the aforementioned 1932 Garbo-Barrymore opus to the then-current The VIPs).  That the movie takes place at the (Stockholm) Grand Hotel isn’t a coincidence (there are multiple GH in-jokes scattered throughout).  While the Newman narrative thread carries the body of this espionage tale, the ancillary stories of other PRIZE folks help to weave a complete and tidy tapestry.  Here’s a brief recap, a scenario made-to-order for the Mad Men era.

Alcoholic, womanizing author Andrew Craig (Newman) is the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (no year is mentioned, a descriptive post-credit card indicates “the future,” but it’s soooooooo 1963).  While his “genius” novels go nowhere, he secretly makes a decent living banging out detective thrillers under a pseudonym (sort of like the plot-within-the-plot of the Fred Astaire/Tony Hunter musical in the studio’s The Band Wagon).  He curmudgeonly accepts the Nobel for mercenary reasons – i.e., the 50K check that goes with the recognition. His reputation preceding him, Craig is more than delighted to see that the Swedish government has assigned him a handler – especially when he sees her – the not-so-wise decision of selecting Inga Lisa Andersson, aka Elke Sommer, in possibly the most beautiful she’s ever looked (and that’s saying somethin’!).

Ever on the prowl for action, Craig bumps into Dr. Max Stratman, the winner for physics, a survivor from the Nazi Holocaust, along with his (natch) super-gorgeous (and horny) niece Emily (“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” he asks the nymph, running into her at an after-hours club.  “I accept!,” she eagerly squeals –  a scene that made it into the trailer, and was received with gales of laughter and rapturous applause).

Stratman, loving his adopted country of America, and despising his now communist-held former residence, known as East Berlin, reluctantly meets an old acquaintance, hoping to personally give him a piece of his gifted mind (a dumb move for so brilliant a physicist).  He’s kidnapped, replaced by his evil brother (who will denounce the U.S.) and then “defect” along with said skanky niece/daughter, who’s apparently enthusiastically in on the switch.

Bickering co-award winners for medicine (heart transplants) Dr. John Garrett and Dr. Carlo Farelli and sex therapist marrieds (who sleep around, and, are, of course, from France), Drs. Claude and Denise Marceau, round out the rest of the cast of characters that swing into high gear when the American upstart writer gives a disastrous half-swacked press conference revealing his true source of income and how he has a “nose for finding devious plots in everything I observe.”  This prompts a Stockholm-based patriot to contact him about the Stratman “exchange,” which ludicrously (but royally entertainingly) puts Newman in the Cary Grant driver’s seat, as nasty, murderous spies descend upon him with a vengeance (including a refurbishing of the NBW auction sequence, now taking place in an indoor nudist colony), and ends in an action-packed, sexy finale that had audiences cheering from coast-to-coast.

The laughs are tense, oft-roller-coaster lip-biters, thanks to Lehman’s deft script.  The direction by Mark Robson, while professional and swift, undoubtedly kept Hitch amused without ever losing him a nanosecond of sleep.  The remaining cast is just terrific – a cornucopia of 1960’s movie and TV international stars, and features Diane Baker, Kevin McCarthy, Sergio Fantoni, Micheline Presle, Gerard Oury, Jacqueline Beer, Don Dubbins, Virginia Christine, Rudolph Anders, Martine Bartlett, John Banner, Peter Coe, Edith Evanson, Gregory Gaye, Stuart Holmes, Anna Lee, Queenie Leonard, Lester Matthews, Gregg Palmer, Gene Roth, Ivan Triesault, actor/director Sascha Pitoeff (as Daranyi, perhaps, the most sinister spy in cinema; for years, I actually thought that Antonio Prohias’ Cold War Spy vs. Spy strip in Mad Magazine was based upon him), and Britt Ekland (as one of the nudists!).  Most diverting is the Greek chorus duo of real-life Swedes Karl Swenson and John Qualen as special Nobel-assigned hotel bell captains.

Other credits are aces, and comprise the sensational camera eye (in Panavision and MetroColor, nicely restored) of an industry great, William Daniels (off and on at MGM since the silents) and rising newcomer composer Jerry Goldsmith, delivering one of his first big assignments.

Without question, the ladies are stunning, and seem to be having a ball playing with and off Newman.   The actor later revealed that making THE PRIZE was probably the most fun he ever had in Hollywood (and very likely got him the role in an actual Hitchcock thriller, Torn Curtain, three years later).  His drunken forays certainly suggest that he’s having a blast, frequently resembling a loving homage to Reggie Van Gleason.  Not surprisingly, it’s Edward G. Robinson (as Stratman) who owns the movie with his superb emoting in two (actually three) roles, each with their own vocal inflections and body language (a route he triumphantly took back in 1935, in John Ford’s The Whole Town is Talking).  I have to tell you a story about my seeing THE PRIZE on a July night in 1963 (sometimes MGM would preview upcoming movies for us in the Catskills before they went into wide release; THE PRIZE opened nationwide that December).  When Robinson made his initial appearance in the pic, the packed house burst into applause, with some members even standing to show their appreciation.  More like something one would see in a live Broadway opening; I had/have never experienced anything like that in any movie theater before or since.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray really does THE PRIZE justice.  In 1080p, it truly looks and sounds like it did first-run 57 years ago.  I’m still amazed at the matching of the extensive second unit Stockholm footage and the bulk of the pic (entirely shot at MGM, in Culver City); that said, a rear-screen of Newman’s character being pushed off a bridge totally propels the situation into High Anxiety territory, a moment that I suspect the Master of Suspense would have secretly loved.

THE PRIZE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Warner Brothers Home Entertainment/Turner Entertainment. CAT # 1000736867.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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