Imitation in the film world is not always a bad thing. We can all think of movies that are eminently watchable despite owing an obvious debt to an earlier film or to the work of a particular director. Alfred Hitchcock is one director who has always attracted his fair share of imitators. Films such as Henry Hathaway's 'Niagara', J. Lee Thompson's 'Cape Fear' or Brian de Palma's 'Dressed to Kill' all owe an obvious debt to the master's work (even down to the trademark blonde heroine) but are nevertheless good films in their own right.
All the above films were influenced by the darker side of Hitchcock's work; the strongest influence on 'Dressed to Kill', for example, seems to have been 'Psycho'. He did, however, have a lighter side, often seen in his spy films which frequently blend suspense with humour. Examples are 'The Lady Vanishes', with its two eccentric cricket-loving English gentlemen, 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' and, most importantly for our purposes, 'North by North-West'.
'The Prize' clearly shows the influence of the lighter Hitchcock. The setting is the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, and the central character is the winner of the prize for literature, Andrew Craig, an alcoholic American novelist suffering from writer's block. (As numerous figures in the American literary establishment around this time did indeed have a drink problem, it is interesting to speculate who might have been the model for the character). Craig discovers a Soviet-block plot to kidnap Dr Stratmann, the German-born American winner of the physics prize, and to replace him with a double who will use ceremony to announce his defection to East Germany. Like the Hitchcock films mentioned above, the film mixes tension with humorous moments. The tension arises from Craig's attempts to thwart the kidnap plot and to convince the sceptical Swedish authorities of its existence. The humour mostly arises from the scenes featuring the other prize-winners. The French husband-and-wife team who have shared the chemistry prize have done so despite the fact that they cannot stand each other. (The husband has insisted on his mistress accompanying him under the guise of his 'secretary', while the wife enjoys flirting with Craig). The American and Italian co-winners of the prize for medicine constantly bicker about which of them has plagiarised the other's work. (The peace prize winner does not appear to feature in the film, although a pacifist is sorely needed to keep the peace among the others).
Even the scenes featuring Craig are not always to be taken seriously. Although there are genuine moments of suspense, such as the scene with the car on the bridge, there are humorous moments as well. As other reviewers have pointed out, the scene at the nudist convention owes much to the auction scene in 'North by North-West', also written by Ernest Lehman. The humour here arises from the contrast between the seeming absurdity of Craig's actions and their underlying serious purpose- he is trying to attract the attention of the police because he is in danger from the villains.
There are a number of effective performances, especially from Paul Newman as Craig and Edward G. Robinson as both Dr Stratmann and his double. The result is a superior piece of entertainment, not quite as good as Hitchcock at his best, but better than most of his sixties movies except 'Psycho' and possibly 'Marnie'. It is certainly closer to authentic Hitchcock than his last two spy films, 'Torn Curtain' and 'Topaz'. 8/10.