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One of the more idiosyncratic efforts among the glossy adult thrillers so prevalent in early '60s Hollywood, The Prize (1963) offered up a story of Cold War espionage set against the admittedly unusual backdrop of the presentation of the Nobel awards. While the film's willingness to abandon the dire seriousness of its source material and veer into farce and innuendo confounded the critics of the period, moviegoers of the day flocked to see it, and there's plenty to commend it to the contemporary viewer as well.
Arriving in Stockholm to claim the prize for Physics is the affable Dr. Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson), a native German who cooperated with the Nazis to shield his family during WWII and has lived in America since. It's not long before he finds himself abducted by Eastern Bloc spies, who have a propagandistic fillip to their plan to spirit him back behind the Iron Curtain. They replace the aged scientist with a look-alike (also played by Robinson) who purports to be Stratman's long-lost brother (previously believed dead), and who will use the global stage provided by the award ceremonies to openly denigrate the West before "defecting."
Into this intrigue ambles the dissipated, insouciant American novelist Andrew Craig (Paul Newman), that year's recipient of the prize for Literature. The hard-drinking wordsmith has no compunctions about telling an appalled world press that he's simply there for the money; it's been five years since his last serious work, and he's been hacking out pseudonymous detective thrillers to make ends meet. The amateur sleuth in Craig becomes piqued by an encounter with "Stratman," who oddly has no recall concerning their introduction the night before. The writer's snooping is less than appreciated by Stratman's abductors, who take increasingly dangerous measures to throw him off the track. Craig has his work cut out for him in trying to thwart the plot, as well as not appearing delusional to Inger Lisa Andersen (Elke Sommer), the gorgeous foreign office attache assigned to monitor his behavior.
The Prize reunited Newman with his creative collaborators on From the Terrace (1960), director Mark Robson and screenwriter Ernest Lehman. In freely adapting Irving Wallace's 1961 best-seller, Lehman crafted an effort that patently sought to tap into the spirit of his teaming with Alfred Hitchcock on North by Northwest (1959). Once again, Lehman presented the odyssey of a disbelieved protagonist whose quest for the truth takes on turns that are occasionally darkly funny, but most frequently deadly. Representative is a sequence where Craig is being chased by the heavies, with the only refuge being a lecture hall where a nudist conference is underway. The trapped novelist realizes that his only chance to lose his pursuers is to lose his laundry, and be so disruptive of the gathering that the police are summoned.
Although lacking the comfort level that Cary Grant could demonstrate for such shenanigans, Newman acquitted himself well as the cynic in search of redemption. He also had his playful moments including one sequence where he's clad only in a towel while pursued by assassins. Robinson offered credible work in both his characterizations, his first dual role since The Whole Town's Talking (1935). Sommer, in her second Hollywood feature film, proved an able romantic foil, and she took home the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer for her efforts. Of the supporting players, Diane Baker was noteworthy as Stratman's beautiful niece, vying for Newman's attentions as a means of furthering the conspiracy.
The Prize also offered up subplots about the other occupants of the dais. Married Chemistry recipients Micheline Presle and Gerard Oury are trying to reconcile their professional lives with their failing marriage. While the Medicine prize is also being split, the recipients coming by their findings independently, and embittered American physician Kevin McCarthy is determined to prove that Italian medico Sergio Fantoni cribbed his research.
Purportedly, one of the dimmest views taken of The Prize at the time of its release came from the Swedish government itself, which felt that the whole production compromised the dignity of the Nobel presentation by placing it at the crux of a cloak and dagger entertainment. The general critical consensus wasn't much better with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times writing "it's all just a bit too garbled, illogical and wild. This might happen at a bathing beauty contest - but please, not at the Nobel Prize affair!" Arthur Knight in The Saturday Review called it "such a melange of claptrap melodrama and purply passion that the film could better be titled "Dr. No in Stockholm." Regardless, these responses did little to chill American audiences' enthusiasm for the film, as its producers, aptly enough, discovered box-office gold.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman, Kathryn Hereford
Director: Mark Robson
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman, Irving Wallace (novel)
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Urie McCleary
Music: Harold Gelman, Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Paul Newman (Andrew Craig), Elke Sommer (Inger Lisa Andersen), Edward G. Robinson (Dr. Max Stratman/Prof. Walter Stratman), Diane Baker (Emily Stratman), Micheline Presle (Dr. Denise Marceau), Gerard Oury (Dr. Claude Marceau).
C-135m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg