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Prize, The (DVD Review)

20 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson, Elke Sommer, Diane Baker.

There’s a scene in this glossy Metrocolored Irving Wallace potboiler, probably the worst in a mildly diverting 2¼-hour haul, where Paul Newman is trying to get himself arrested at a nudist gathering to avoid a couple hired thugs out to kill him. Other than the fact that Newman is wearing nothing but a towel (Krazy-Glued to his torso from the looks of the perfectly tapered fit), the set-up is strikingly akin to the art auction disruption played for far greater hilarity by Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, released just four years earlier.

Oh, wait: I get it. As part of a movie designed to remind us of Hitchcock all the way down to Hitch regular Leo G. Carroll’s subordinate role, this adaptation of Wallace’s same-name novel has a script by Ernest Lehman, who wrote the brilliant original screenplay for NBN as well. Sometimes, it’s harder to go back to the drawing board than it is to go back to the well.

For all its handsome Panavision clunkiness partly redeemed by a mostly snappy “on-demand” Warner Archive print, there’s more than a smidgen of amusement in seeing Newman involved in Cold War intrigue much lighter in tone than anything in the actor’s “official” Hitchcock movie: 1966’s Torn Curtain. Released the same year as Hud and positioned at the time as MGM’s December holiday picture just after the JFK assassination, The Prize is a little more fun than some of the other oddballs of Newman’s ‘60s career (think The Outrage, Lady L and The Secret War of Harry Frigg), Paul-baby, 38 here, is cast as what used to be a called a dipso writer — though the youngest novelist, we’re told, to have won the Nobel Prize for literature since Rudyard Kipling.

Because Newman’s character is in the martinis so much, even he isn’t fully certain of whether to trust himself when that Stockholm living room which yesterday held a corpse he stumbled upon is now redesigned and corpse-less. And in standard movie fashion, there’s a sweet older woman answering the door who has no idea why he or anyone has dragged the police to her modest apartment. Come to think, there’s a scene like this in North by Northwest as well.

Along for the ride as Newman’s official keep-him-out-of-trouble chaperone is Elke Sommer, who is probably starchier here than she has to be. Less than a year later, the actress would have her own nudist colony screen situation in Blake Edwards’ masterpiece A Shot in the Dark — a growing screen ritual that enabled Hollywood to have it both ways in the early ‘60s: dealing with free spirits without getting too clinical in portraying them. We also get Newman’s co-Nobel Laureate, played by Edward G. Robinson — who, as part of some Cold War plotting, walks around alone at night with bongo scoring (of portent) in the background. You know something is off-kilter when a movie combines Eddie G. and bongos. It’s like seeing Russell Brand in spats.

What else? Newman gets chased on a bridge, heaved off a tall building into some water (complete with jazzy camerawork while he’s falling) and, for real danger, faced with voluptuous blonde nudists who beckon him to remove his towel. You can almost hear him going home at night after shooting and saying, “You’ll never believe what they made me do today, Joanne.”

The director is Mark Robson, who was no Hitchcock — and certainly not at this stage of his career. As I watched him mangle scene after scene Hitchcock would have gotten right, I recalled middling-or-more fondness for part of Robson’s sometimes (but not exclusively) impersonal output including several Val Lewton’s; Champion; My Foolish Heart; Bright Victory; I Want You; Return to Paradise; The Bridges at Toko-Ri; Peyton Place and (a bit later) Von Ryan’s Express. But by this time, he was starting to look like a go-to guy for trash, which led to, among other things, at least two definitive crash-and-burners: Valley of the Dolls and Earthquake (though having Charlton Heston and Marjoe Gortner in the same movie was something to behold).

But in this case, he did have Newman, and if The Prize is ultimately no prize, it does have one of the greatest stars of the day (and many days) modifying his image with less disastrous results than in some of his outright misfires. If it isn’t ideal casting, at least we still know we’re in the presence of developing royalty. And for novelist Wallace, it had to be a real step up in terms of leading men. Only eight years earlier, he’d penned the screenplay for Sincerely Yours, a movie simply begging for a Warner Archive showcase. It’s the one where Joanne Dru and Dorothy Malone more or less got into a territorial skirmish over the loins of Liberace.

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