Back in 1985, before GoodFellas and The Sopranos really mixed mob stories with jet black comedy, the great director John Huston, in his second-to-last film, brought to the screen an adaptation of Richard Condon’s Mafia satire Prizzi’s Honor, complete with great performances and some of the most memorable lines ever collected in a single film. Huston may have been in the twilight of his days, but his filmmaking prowess was as strong as ever.
Huston still had one more great one in him too (The Dead, which he always intended to be his swan song, came out in 1987). Still, of his late work, Prizzi’s Honor is the one nearest to my heart. There was such synchronicity in Huston directing his father to a supporting actor Oscar back in 1948 for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and then doing the same for his daughter Anjelica in 1985 for Prizzi’s Honor. The downside: Huston didn’t get a directing Oscar for Prizzi’s Honor and you could read the disappointment on his face when he lost. What a clusterfuck the 1985 directing Oscar race was. First, as Steven Spielberg tried to make his first “grownup” movie with The Color Purple, they gave that film 11 nominations but none for Spielberg. Then on top of Huston’s much-deserved nomination, they also named the master Akira Kurosawa for Ran, but the Academy gave the directing prize to Sydney Pollack’s uninspired work in the equally uninspired Out of Africa.
Like most great mob stories, you have to stage a wedding scene and that’s where the real story of Prizzi’s Honor begins following three brief prologues tracing the formative years of eventual Prizzi family soldier Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson, in one of the greatest examples of him disappearing completely into a role without any of the typical Jack mannerisms). First, Charley’s father Angelo (John Randolph) shows off his newborn son to Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey), who swears to him in the nursery that he will be a second father to Charley and always will protect his future. We also get a glimpse of young Charley as a Boy Scout at Christmas excitedly opening a present of brass knuckles before as an adult he’s formally sworn in to the “family.” Then we flash forward to the wedding of one of the don’s granddaughters and nearly all the characters of note are present at the wedding.
Beginning with a shot of the stained glass, John Huston does a wonderfully slow pullback to the strains of “Ave Maria,” stopping briefly to visually introduce the main characters. There is the now aged don, (we’re never certain whether he’s napping or dead in the pew); the father of the bride (Dominic (Lee Richardson); the uncle of the bride Eduardo (Robert Loggia); and the return of the scandalous Maerose (Anjelica Huston), spurned by father Dominic over a busted romance in the past with Charley, who also is present and spots a stranger, a vision of beauty (Kathleen Turner) in the church balcony. The cathedral’s pews also are filled with many members of New York’s finest, on the dole of the Brooklyn-based Prizzi family. The ties between the police and the Prizzis are so strong, Charley even hitches a ride to the wedding reception in a squad car. Of course, Charley would want to get there fast since he’s on a mission: To find out who that beauty in the lavender dress was. He asks his ex-fiancée Maerose, who has no idea but still finds herself getting the cold shoulder from her father. “Screw them,” Charley tells her. “They don’t deserve you.” Then he spots the mystery woman and asks her to dance, neglecting to get her name before she is told she has a phone call and vanishes once again.
Once the smitten Charley gets back to his apartment and makes a few calls, trying to determine who that beauty was (including waking up an annoyed Maerose), he prepares to leave again only to run in to the cops who have to take him in for questioning about a hit that occurred while he was at the wedding. Of course, his pop gets him out in no time since Charley truly is ignorant of this particular crime. Angelo explains to his son that they had an outside hitter do the job while everyone had an airtight alibi at the wedding. Later, back at his apartment, he gets a call from an Irene Walker, who turns out to be the woman in the lavender dress, who apologizes for her sudden departure. Charley immediately asks to see her, but Irene informs him that she had to rush home to California suddenly so Charley sets up a date on the West Coast for the next day, adding yet another layer to Huston’s brilliant comedy: the difficulty of long-distance relationships. Once there, Charley wastes little time in declaring his love for Irene, even after she informs him that she’s married, though her husband walked out years ago and she doesn’t even know where he is and hopes he stays lost. It’s here we learn that Charley is a connoisseur of magazines and relationship speak. When he declares his love for Irene and she mistakenly says she’s “in love” with him too, Charley gets upset. “In love” is temporary, he tells her, some sort of fleeting chemical reaction that can evaporate. He loves her in a concrete, permanent way. “In love? Who needs it?” he tells her.
Once he’s back in Brooklyn, he shows his father the photo of Irene and while pop is happy for him, he sets out to start burning it up. Charley is puzzled until Angelo explains that Irene was the outside hitter they’d brought in to do the job while they were at the wedding. Pop questions his choice in women, but things are about to get even more complicated. Apparently, some of their Vegas people have been conducting a scam, skimming from the Prizzis, and Charley needs to fly out there and take care of it. One of the pair has already turned up dead, presumably whacked by the other, Marxie Heller, for a bigger slice of the pie. Charley finds Heller and roughs him up. “I think you broke my wrist,” Heller complains. “You won’t need it,” Charley tells him before taking him to his garage to finish him off. Charley then waits for the return of Mrs. Heller.
Unfortunately, she turns out to be Irene. She insists to Charley that Marxie had just returned and she was going to ask him for a divorce and she had no part in the scam. “If you was anyone else, I’d blow you away,” Charley tells her. Later, when she suggests taking part in a kidnapping plot, Charley laments that he didn’t get married so his wife could go on working.
To avoid revealing too much more in the way of plot details for those who haven’t seen Prizzi’s Honor, I thought I’d instead praise one of my favorite screenplays of all time. Richard Condon who wrote the novel (and the novel of The Manchurian Candidate) co-wrote the screenplay with Janet Roach and there are so many memorable lines of dialogue that it’s remarkable. (Condon also wrote the novel Winter Kills, whose film version by William Richert gave John Huston one of his most fun acting roles.) In fact, the lines were so great, they were used in the film’s Oscar ad campaign. A few examples:
Irene: Charley, I’ve been doin’ three to four hits a year for the past couple of years, most at full pay.
Charley: That many?
Irene: Well, it’s not many when you consider the size of the population.
Maerose: So let’s do it.
Charley: With all the lights on?
Maerose: Yeah. Right here. On the Oriental. With all the lights on.
Charley: How can I live with this? I gotta do something about it. I gotta straighten it out.
Maerose: Then do.
Charley: Do what? Do I ice her? Do I marry her? Which one of dese?
Maerose: Marry her, Charley. Just because she’s a thief and a hitter doesn’t mean she’s not a good woman in all the other departments.
Irene (discussing her car, an Excalibur): The Japanese make them in England for the Arab market. It’s a great California car.
Charley: It’s a great anyplace car.
Irene (imitating her husband Marxie): The Jews in this business are bad enough, sweetheart, but them Sicilians! They’d rather eat their children than part with money and they are very fond of children.
Charley: If Marxie Heller’s so fuckin’ smart, how come he’s so fuckin’ dead?
William Hickey was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for his great work as Don Corrado Prizzi, yet aside from the prologue, he doesn’t speak until nearly an hour into the film, but boy is it worth the wait. Until then, he appears as walking (or sometimes sitting) death, usually with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Don’t let Corrado’s ghostly pallor or odd, halting way of speaking fool you. He bears the title don for a reason. He can seem kindly and sinister at the same time when he offers someone a cookie and he can strike as quickly as a rattlesnake, just when grabbing someone’s hand. Hickey’s performance is one of the most unusual I’d ever seen up until that point and I relished every odd inflection he came up with when saying things such as “This killing of the police captain’s wife is costing us ALL TOO MUCH,” which each one-syllable word rising in tenor and force. He can even say a word as common as “Nevada” and make it sound as if you’d never heard it before. Of course, Hickey didn’t win. One of his competitors was even the actor who played one of his sons in Prizzi’s Honor, Robert Loggia, though his nomination came for Jagged Edge. Hickey lost to Don Ameche in Cocoon, when he wasn’t even the best supporting actor in Cocoon. Life isn’t fair and neither are the Oscars.
Anjelica Huston has a remarkable pedigree: Daughter of John Huston, granddaughter of Walter Huston. Like he did for her grandfather, John Huston gave Anjelica a remarkable role in a film and she deservedly won an Oscar for it. (I wonder, if John were still here, could he do anything about his son Danny’s lack of acting talent?) The character of Maerose Prizzi shares much in common with her onscreen grandfather in her ability to manipulate and scheme to get what she wants. Maerose, shunned by her father and her family because of a scandal she caused when engaged to Charley years earlier, is eager to get back into the fold. “The calendar takes care of everything,” one character says and that is something Maerose is counting on since, as Charley explains to Irene, she can’t even go to Brooklyn unless it’s a special occasion. Maerose is ready to play every card and angle she can, regardless of the consequences. She gets her grandfather to intervene, even though the wily old man knows what she’s up to, and sets out to get her father, Charley and Irene in hot water as long as things work out for her in the end. Anjelica Huston is brilliant and her Oscar win is one of the best of all time.
I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the great script and performances that help make Prizzi’s Honor such a special film, but I feel I need to talk more about what John Huston brought to this film. The pacing is great and there are many interesting shots and uses of the camera, but nothing too showy. Huston was not one to show off, but when he did unusual takes, it was to serve the story. There were numerous great sequences, many aided by an original score by Alex North as well as the use of classical pieces by greats such as Rossini and Puccini. He especially used it well in the entire sequence involving the kidnapping of a bank executive, one of the most fluid sequences Huston ever filmed. He also mastered the deft blending of the comic moments with more suspenseful elements, right down to the film’s climax.
Edward Copeland is founder of the blog Edward Copeland on Film.