The Prize (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray
Produced by Pandro S. Berman; directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Ernest Lehman, from the novel The Prize by Irving Wallace; cinematography by William H. Daniels; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by Jerry Goldsmith; starring Paul Newman, Edward G. Robinson, Elke Sommer, and Diane Baker. Blu-Ray, color, 134 min., 1963. A Warner Archive release.
Before the Trump era dawned, few looked to routine international summitry when craving The Thrill of It All. In the good old days, the whole point of a self-respecting global conclave was that it proved boring as hell. Circumspection, compromise, and carefully crafted concordats were the stuff of successful statecraft. So, at first glance, Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray release of The Prize (1963) looks quixotic. How many people came out of Björn Runge’s The Wife (2017) thinking, “I must clear my diary in order to track down other films about the awarding of a Nobel”? Moreover, The Prize’s marquee names—star Paul Newman (The Hustler , Hud ), screenwriter Ernest Lehman (West Side Story , The Sound of Music ), and director Mark Robson (Von Ryan’s Express )—all made notably bigger and/or better movies immediately either side of this one. Nonetheless, there’s something culturally timely (because thought-provoking) about this movie’s commercial reappearance in 2019. As a cinematic work, The Prize feels utterly of its original time. But ideologically speaking, it has much to say that is relevant to our own.
A lot of distracting period quirk and cliché needs to be discounted, however, before The Prize can be seen in those terms. The film’s plot, for example, frequently indulges in the kind of 1960s Cold War kitsch that reached its apogee by the decade’s end in popular cultural figures like James Coburn’s Derek Flint. When not penning superb antifascist novels, American writer Andrew Craig (Paul Newman) proves irresistible to women and impervious to alcohol. Arriving in Stockholm to collect the Nobel Prize for Literature—or rather, to his initially sybaritic mind, the hefty cash prize that accompanies it—Craig becomes embroiled in an unlikely morass of Soviet-sponsored skulduggery. GDR spies kidnap another Nobel recipient, German-born scientist Max Stratman (Edward G. Robinson), and plan to smuggle him to the Eastern Bloc. Meanwhile, a near-identical double will simultaneously renounce Stratman’s prize and denounce his adoptive United States, where the scientist has lived and worked since WWII’s end. Stumbling on the plot by accident, Craig combats it with help from his initially skeptical, cartoonishly beautiful Swedish government handler, Inger Lisa Andersson (Elke Sommer). At the same time, he is antagonized by Stratman’s equally beautiful niece, Emily (Diane Baker), who appears to be a Stasi plant.
If Ernest Lehman’s plot now looks like period high camp, Mark Robson’s direction seems the epitome of mid-century middlebrow style. It’s apposite that The Prize is bookended for comic effect by the fretful musings of Nobel ceremony host, Count Jacobsson (Leo G. Carroll). After all, this movie might easily be dismissed as a self-consciously aspirant filmic equivalent of the kind of lavish global diplomatic jamboree located at its narrative’s heart. No-expense-spared-style crowd scenes (bustling hotel lobbies, groovy Stockholm nightclubs, glitzy official receptions, and the climactic Nobel ceremony) are serially staged without notable incident or innovation. Each protagonist in the notably large ensemble of international players is accorded their respective turn in the spotlight. A distractingly broad range of subplots and character clusters exists in significant part to showcase the filmmakers’ skill in somehow folding them all into a two-hour-or-so-long narrative whole. In addition to Craig and the Stratmans, a series of comic and/or romantic subplots are spun around other American, French, and Italian Nobel recipients. Often (and much like a conventionally executed diplomatic summit), The Prize isn’t content simply to expertly choreograph its bulky narrative content. Rather, it tries to reify expert choreography into a form of content in and of itself. Given that some or all of these qualities also characterize many of director Robson’s best-known works of the late 1950s and 1960s—The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), Von Ryan’s Express, Lost Command (1966)—The Prize often feels like the work of a studio hand content to attain the status of trusted apparatchik rather than that of nonconformist auteur.
Yet, despite all this, the fine thematic grain of Lehman’s script renders The Prize an uncannily resonant parable for modern times. For one thing, the movie smartly anatomizes the particular kinds of prejudice and preening that can combine to create a proto-Trumpian version of American values free of compunction about causing offense on the world stage. Markedly better-dressed and better-looking though he may be, Paul Newman’s embittered and self-regarding Andrew Craig initially plays his Swedish sojourn straight out of the present-day presidential playbook: arrive late, lurch off-script at every opportunity, and fashion a perverse sense of self-worth around antagonizing one’s tight-lipped hosts. As Craig himself blithely puts it, “I’m rude to everyone.”
But as well as offering a prescient diagnosis of a particularly American political malaise, The Prize nimbly proposes an antidote to the very same thing. The elegant structural paradox around which Lehman’s script is organized articulates a satisfying riposte to the xenophobic, anti-immigrant order of American identity central to the Trumpian worldview. While the film’s story centers on Craig’s extended efforts to physically save Stratman, its overarching moral is distilled within Stratman’s effortlessly quick ideological rescue of Craig. When the two men first briefly meet, German-born Stratman proudly refers to “the wonderful United States of America” as “back home.” Leading by example, he starts to guide his U.S.-born-and-bred fellow Nobel winner toward a more decorous and self-disciplined way in which to personify and proselytize on behalf of American values for an international audience’s benefit. Indeed, the precise form of words that Stratman uses in order to reject a communist spy’s overtures (“My country is the United States of America: I have it in writing”) recasts the apparently self-evident referent of The Prize’s title. New World egalitarianism (a form of citizenship that underwrites equal constitutional status regardless of any individual’s point of national origin) ultimately outshines Old World hierarchy (the Nobel award that claims exalted status for an isolated elite).
Moreover, for Lehman and Robson the correlative of this consciously liberal form of American self-regard is a profoundly un-Trumpian commitment to international diplomatic encounter and engagement rather than an isolationist rejection of just these things. As in many of Robson’s late-’50s and 1960s movies, the central cast of characters/actors is unapologetically cosmopolitan—in this case, American, French, German, Italian, and Swedish. The film’s opening title sequence, during which journalists from around the world report the Nobel nominations in a smorgasbord of languages, celebrates that institution as a locally created, but globally maintained, cultural and political phenomenon. Even the lightly sketched scientific achievements for which Craig and Stratman’s fellow nominees (an Italian heart surgeon and a French husband-and-wife team of chemists) are garlanded suggest the ideal of productive solutions that can be imagined and achieved across previously unbridgeable divides between different bodies. The Italian wins for helping overcoming immunological barriers to successful organ transplantation; the French couple do so for their work on the vitrification of human reproductive materials.
Cleverest of all in this regard, however, is a short set piece sequence of ostensibly superficial rough-and-tumble. This scene, more than any other within The Prize, illustrates both why this movie initially feels hard to recuperate and also the potential benefits of persisting with that critical project nonetheless. A climactic struggle on the roof of Stockholm’s Concert Hall (the venue for the Nobel prize-giving ceremony) sees a Stasi henchman fall to his death. To make doubly sure, he is impaled on Carl Milles’s Orpheus Fountain (1936), the monumental group of sculptural bronzes that stands outside the building. Cinematically speaking, the scene in question is a dud. Ropey antique SFX and workmanlike direction render it a molehill in a mountain’s shadow—the intensely similar, but infinitely more iconic Mount Rushmore-set cliffhanger that Ernest Lehman (script) and Alfred Hitchcock (direction) jointly realized a few years earlier in North by Northwest (1957).
As an example of subtextual sophistication, however, the scene is a doozy. A covert emissary of Wall-bound, modern-day totalitarianism is dispatched by a public reification of cross-border diplomacy mythologized as a timeless human ideal. The Greek myth of Orpheus, after all, has its hero travel from the world of the living to Hades in order to negotiate the safe passage home of his deceased wife, Eurydice. Like experienced spies ingeniously adept at concealing clandestine material within mundane matter, Mark Robson and Ernest Lehman somehow smuggle an internationalist treatise on America’s relationship with the post-WWII geopolitical order into an otherwise staidly glossy espionage potboiler.
Ultimately, then, The Prize offers far more than first meets the eye. As a movie, it’s far from perfect. Moreover, Blu-Ray extras on this rerelease are practically nonexistent (one period theatrical trailer only). But any contemporary film lover or filmmaker who cares about whether squarely mainstream American filmmaking could and should play a progressive political role during depressingly regressive times can find things to learn from the ingenious ideological maneuverings and double-bluffs on display here.
Jonathan Murray teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3