Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
Written by Richard Condon and Janet Roach
Directed by John Huston
John Huston only had two years left in his life. I suspect he realized this. By 1982, he had to use an oxygen tank almost all hours of the day for his emphysema. He didn’t slow down in his filmmaking though making seven movies in the 1980s, even one the year he died in 1987. Prizzi’s Honor was his second to last film, the picture that won his daughter, Anjelica, her first Academy Award. Once again, he’d gather a cast of strong actors to deliver a deceptively dark comedy about love & business in the world of organized crime. I don’t think any of the films I’ve watched previously were overtly a comedy as much as this one. And it is a strange creature.
Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) is a hitman for the New York Prizzi mafia family. It’s headed by the elder Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey), who promised Charley’s father, Angelo (John Randolph), that he would treat Charley as a son. At one point, Charley was even engaged to Don Corrado’s granddaughter, Maerose (Anjelica Huston), but that fell through. While attending the wedding of a Prizzi family member, Charley notices a striking woman in attendance. Through his various channels, he contacts her and learns she’s Irene (Kathleen Turner). Irene is a tax consultant who lives on the West coast and knew members of the family.
Charley gets called in to take out a Prizzi associate who has ripped off one of the family’s casinos. He travels out to Los Angeles, where he takes the man out to discover his wife is Irene. She makes excuses but hands over the money and Charley goes to bat for her with the Prizzis. Then he learns Irene is a hitwoman brought in while the family was celebrating the wedding so they could all have alibis. As Charley peels back Irene’s layers, he becomes increasingly confused, stating, “Do I ice her? Do I marry her? Which one of these?” However, things become more complicated when a jealous Maerose begins planting seeds of discontent about Charley & Irene.
Prizzi’s Honor’s biggest problem is that the plot is way too complicated for the story happening at the core. This should be a dark, romantic comedy focused on Charley & Irene, the other characters supporting their arcs. However, the film brings in side plots with the Prizzi family members that get entangled with Charley & Irene. I’m not one to shy away from complex narratives; I love the film Magnolia and the intersecting of plots and layers of story happening at once. But this story certainly got away from the filmmakers. Maerose’s story never quite clicks with Charley’s, and she disappears for a significant portion of the film, too much in my opinion. On reflection, the same can be said about so many of the supporting characters. I understand who they but don’t really understand their motivations.
Nicholson is fantastic as Charley; this is unlike any character I’ve ever seen him play. He is one of the dumbest characters in a movie I’ve ever witnessed, yet with odd, sudden outbursts of intelligence. It’s implied he does a lot of magazine reading and will try to cite scientific information he’s come across while perusing these volumes. He is drawn to Irene because of their shared profession and understanding of the mechanics of assassination, making for an interesting relationship. I was happy the movie didn’t go in the direction a modern picture would, with prolonged shootouts or action set pieces. The kills here are very short and to the point; they aren’t gory, but these are people whose jobs are to make these clean unless the client wants it messy for a reason.
I have to say the ending definitely shocked me. It is about as dark as you can get, and Huston plays the tone as a typical Hollywood happy ending to add an ironic twist to things. Having watched a chunk of his best (and sometimes not) work, I have to say I have a great appreciation of John Huston. His early works with Humphrey Bogart are exceptionally fantastic films. Huston clearly is interested in people on the lower rungs of society’s ladder and examining their struggles. Fate is ruthless in his pictures, but his characters acknowledge that the universe is so indifferent to them there’s no point in moping. People who become too caught up in greed get what they deserve, and some people reaching for a more abstract, loftier dream might come to a tragic end. He’s clearly a filmmaker that helped create many archetypal frameworks that are still used in American movies to this day. Huston had just turned 81 when he passed away after fighting pneumonia brought on by his lung disease. He left behind a body of film that provides a great example of a director who walks that line between auteur & journeyman.