Probably the best Alfred Hitchcock movie that was made by someone other than Alfred Hitchcock — and there have been many — is "Charade," the charming, funny and suspenseful confection starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.
But a close second is "The Prize," starring Paul Newman, and which opened in theaters just 20 days after "Charade" in December 1963.
The two films' parallel lives on home video, however, have been further apart. "Charade" has been on DVD for 13 years — and on a variety of labels, as Universal somehow let the copyright lapse and the film fell into public domain. (The best home-video transfer is by far on the Criterion Collection label.)
But MGM's "The Prize" has just now made its DVD debut as a manufacture-on-demand title at Warner Archive (go to www.wbshop.com and click "Warner Archive"). It may be a DVD-R, but it's been transferred from a gorgeous print and the widescreen picture is very good. (A VHS release was in pan-and-scan, significantly reducing the impact of director Mark Robson's use of every corner of the Panavision frame.)
Based on the popular 1962 novel by Irving Wallace, the title refers to the Nobel Prize, and in "Grand Hotel" style (right down to the opening monologue) the film is laced with subplots about the laureates in various disciplines who gather in Stockholm for the ceremony.
But the central story concerns a heavy-drinking playboy novelist from America (Newman), who has won for literature but has scandalously expressed his disdain for the prize, saying he's only accepting it for the money.
The mystery — steeped in Cold War politics — kicks in after Newman is introduced to another Nobel winner, a German physicist working for the American government, played by the great Edward G. Robinson. He's affable, gregarious, lectures Newman on the award's importance and happily agrees to have his picture taken.
The next day, however, when they meet again at a press conference, Robinson is gruff, aloof, refuses to be photographed and doesn't even remember having met Newman. Soon the author discovers that the real physicist has been kidnapped and replaced by a double who will turn down the award and denounce the United States.
Newman is at the top of his game, charming the audience as well as the Swedish assistant (Elke Sommer) assigned to keep him in line and the physicist's niece (Diane Baker) who knows more than she's letting on.
Along with Newman, Sommer and Baker are also terrific, as is the large supporting cast. But Robinson stands out as he plays two characters, each with a distinctive personality.
And, of course, Newman fulfills the Hitchcockian role of the innocent man who stumbles upon a dangerous plot, then must dodge assassins when he can't get the authorities to believe him.
The screenplay is by Ernest Lehman, who earned six Oscar nominations during his career, writing scripts for "Sabrina," "The King and I," "Sweet Smell of Success," "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," among others.
He also wrote two for Hitchcock, "Family Plot" and "North By Northwest," and the latter provides a lot of the fodder for "The Prize." In fact, it's fair to say that "The Prize" is almost as much a recycling of "North By Northwest" as it is an adaptation of Wallace's novel. (There are also echoes of "The 39 Steps" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much.")
Not that I'm complaining. Lehman steals from himself in clever ways, perhaps most obviously demonstrated by his reworking of the famous auction scene from "North By Northwest." Here it becomes a nudists' convention, whose meeting is disrupted by Newman so the police will be called, thereby rescuing him from pursuing villains. It's hilarious.
And it points to what really makes "The Prize" sing — it isn't just a thriller, it's also a comic romp. I was surprised at how much I laughed throughout the movie, and Newman's delivery of a generous selection of sharp-edged one-liners is perfect.
In its old-fashioned way, "The Prize" starts off slowly, which may tax the patience of modern, younger viewers. But each early setup has a payoff, and once the film gets going, the action is fun and the comedy is delightful.
Earlier the same year, Newman had starred in one of his iconic roles as "Hud," so "The Prize" must have seemed like a nice respite from the serious-minded films that were fast becoming his specialty. He certainly seems to be having fun.
And so will you.
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