At the end of every year since 2012, I’ve made a top ten list of favourite movies I saw for the first time in its 12 months. Four months into 2014, I was starting to think I might not make a list this year. While I liked most of the movies I’d seen, there weren’t any that enthralled me like my past list choices. “Mexican Spitfire” and “The Prize” changed that. Their stars are a big reason why. Once in awhile, I’m introduced to a star who is cute in a way that feels fresh and original. It’s like there are countless variations on the basic quality of ‘cuteness’, and Old Hollywood has an actress for each one.
My new favourite is Lupe Velez. She’s headstrong, hot-tempered, mischievous, and adorably energetic as the title character of “Mexican Spitfire”. 24 hours before seeing the movie, I wasn’t even aware of her existence. All it took was one performance to make me love Velez the way I’ve loved other actresses for years. It looks like typecasting (including endless weak sequels) and a tragic personal life prevented Velez from making many good movies. I am eager to track down and savour watching the rare few I can find.
“The Prize” features a star performance that was revelatory in a different way. It wasn’t a case of me not knowing the star. I just never knew he could be so fun. I’ve respected Paul Newman for many famous roles he did over five decades, without considering him a favourite actor. He lacked a certain offbeat quirky quality that is common among actors I like. In “The Prize”, he resembles them more than ever before, giving a light performance of dichotomies. He’s a womanizer who drinks too much and slurs, yet has articulate charm and a romantic side. When he works to expose a nefarious cover-up, he’s desperate, determined, wry, and freaked out at the same time – an appealing mix of qualities for a hero.
Written by “North by Northwest” screenwriter Ernest Lehman, “The Prize” sometimes riffs on that film. Watching “North by Northwest” for the second time recently, I noticed that it’s funnier than I remembered. Subtle, sly, and subversive humour is sprinkled throughout the exciting thriller. “The Prize” is similar, with more comedy. Newman and his female co-stars banter with the playful wit of a James Bond and his more assertive, independent women.
“The Prize” also conjured up memories of “All Through The Night”, another thriller-comedy about a man hot on the trail of creepy, droll, and intelligent villains. A comedic highlight of both movies is the hero making trouble by crashing a cult-like group’s meeting. My only complaint about “The Prize” is some draggy exposition scenes of characters recapping plot. Thankfully, even some of those are entertaining. I laughed hard at the one in which Newman gives leading lady Elke Sommer an outrageous report of his crazy night. Sexy, dignified, and gifted with smooth comedic timing, she’s an ideal match for him. Their scenes together are delightful.
I was partially attracted to “The Prize” because Edward G. Robinson is the second-billed actor under Newman. Robinson’s screen time is disappointingly minimal, yet offers modest pleasures for a fan of the man and his long, diverse career. The nature of his role brings to mind what he did in “The Whole Town’s Talking”, and like so many Robinson performances, demonstrates that he was an extremely underrated and versatile actor. As he did in “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet”, Robinson disappears into his role so completely that I think if I’d never seen him before, I might have assumed he was German.
I don’t know if I’ll make a top 10 list at the end of 2014. If I do, “Mexican Spitfire” and/or “The Prize”, will almost certainly be on it. The Nobel Prize-related plot of “The Prize” got me thinking about how my ‘favourites of the year’ lists are like my way of declaring winners for a ‘Nobel Prize in Film’ that doesn’t actually exist.
On top of everything else I love about “The Prize”, there’s a bonus detail that sounds like it was thrown in just for my pleasure. As soon as I noticed the movie took place in Sweden, I started hoping for a Greta Garbo reference. It always makes me happy to see evidence that she was still remembered by Hollywood writers after her retirement and death. Watching Paul Newman and co-star Diane Baker flirting, I fantasized about a Greta Garbo cameo.
Of course I knew this wouldn’t happen, since she’d stopped making movies by 1963. I told myself to forget about this silly dream of Garbo inclusion and just continue to enjoy the movie. Then, Newman and Baker referenced Greta Garbo AND Ingrid Bergman back to back! And they did it in a way that was both natural and funny! If I didn’t already love the movie, this would have certainly done the trick. Not a Garbo cameo…but probably the next best thing possible.