“North by Northwest” Revisited

North by Northwest was one of Hitchcock’s best (which I used to teach in grade 10 English); it had that much in it and was that entertaining then, as it still is now. In 1963, a similar serio-comic thriller-romance came along in its wake and was another winner with audiences of the time looking for similar fare. The Prize is about an American Nobel Prize winner for literature (Paul Newman) in Stockholm for the awards who uncovers a Soviet plot to kidnap and substitute a nefarious look-a-like and smuggle the real doctor back to Russia for their own ends. (Edward G. Robinson plays both doctor roles and manages to convincingly portray distinct character differences.)

The Prize has all the ingredients that made its predecessor a hit including: non-stop funny one-liners, duplicitous characters, kidnapping, evil plotting, romance, and suspenseful action scenes. The screenplay was also written by Ernest Lehman with its prerequisite of one-liners, sexy women. and caddish male chauvinsists. (MeTooers will not get too far with Newman’s drunken epigrams, puns, and propositions, but this kind of cheeky humor was quite acceptable back in 1963. In any case, he also has a moral comeuppance and character revision by the finale, which was also typical back then in Hollywood films.)

The music by Jerry Goldsmith is of a similar wide-ranging type to that done by Bernard Herrmann in Hitchcock’s film. It often, effectively, influences how the audience responds to scenes and characters. The movie was also filmed on location and I can only recall maybe two phony backdrops added for ‘coverage’ by the director. You get to see the auditorium where the awards are given and the hotel in which the winners stay along with typical press conferences. Mark Robson’s direction is relatively flawless, no doubt because of the comparisons that would have inevitably been made back then to North by Northwest.

He always manages to make each scene entertaining and gets good performances from Newman, Elke Sommer (the writer’s sexy hostess), Diane Baker (another more shady temptress), Micheline Presle (as an unexpected older woman who wants to use the writer to evoke jealousy in her wandering husband), and Kevin McCarthy (another ‘ugly American’). Everyone is well-cast. But it is Edward G. Robinson who creates the most interest in his two roles every second he is on screen. Hard to believe he was still very active and good in films some 40+ years after his Hollywoods start playing gangsters.

This movie is delightfully entertaining despite its throwback elements and morality. It is suspenseful, intriguing, and very funny in places. On its own terms, The Prize is still a big winner for mainstream entertainment. No, they don’t make ’em like they used to, sad to say.

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