I'm afraid I'd heard too much praise of Prizzi's Honor by the time I went to see it. I'd heard it touted as the second coming of The Maltese Falcon, whereas, at best, it's the second coming of Beat the Devil. Prizzi's Honor (from 20th Century Fox) is a good movie, not a great one, so don't go into it expecting too much. If you do, you are apt to be disappointed, which would be an unfortunate reaction to a film which is really a lot of fun.
Prizzi's Honor is a satire laced with black humor, a combination not to everyone's tastes. Director John Huston extracts the picture's best laughs from murder and blackmail, and the central theme is that, rhetoric aside, the Mafia is a business. Honor and family all go by the boards when enough money is at risk, despite self-serving claims that preservation of honor and family are the issue. I doubt if many people really believed otherwise, but the mythology of the sanctity of the Mafia family introduced in The Godfather may have a residual life in the back of some minds. Prizzi's Honor sets out to wipe out any such beliefs.
The story concerns a Mafia hit man (Jack Nicholson) who works for the Prizzis, the most powerful of the New York families. Nicholson suddenly falls in love with a woman (Kathleen Turner) glimpsed at a family wedding. Obsessed with her, he hunts her down, only to discover that she is equally in love with him. Unfortunately, she proves to have some secrets which are extremely inconvenient, to say the least. Family business begins to conflict with family business, if you get my drift. To go into more detail would spoil some of the surprises, which, regrettably, have already been leaked in the trailer and in most reviews of this film. None the less, I will resist the temptation to follow the trend, and leave them to the viewer to discover fresh, if possible. (Towards which end, if you haven't yet read any other reviews of Prizzi's Honor, I strongly advise you to see it first, as most reviewers are not as circumspect as I.)
Despite the fact that Prizzi's Honor is loaded down with plot, is plot heavy, in fact, it's really an actor's piece. The finest moments of the film do not arise from the twists and turns of story which weigh down the second half of the film, but from delightful character bits turned in by the superb cast. Nicholson heads the list. This is one of his finest roles, a sure Oscar candidate, particularly since it's off his usual track. Charley the hit man is a thoroughly Brooklyn thug who, while not quite as dumb as he looks, is certainly no tower of intellect. Neither is he ruggedly independent, Charlie is a company man, first and foremost, the sort who can be trusted to do as he is told, with no moral compunctions. Huston allows us to forget, every so often, that Nicholson makes his living killing people, but only so that he can sneak up on us to catch us sympathizing with a conscienceless killer. Nicholson abets him mightily, making the hit man an easy figure to like, in the way that one rather condescendingly likes a moderately dim dog. His thick Brooklyn accent and aggressively outthrust upper lip, along with a slightly glazed look in the Nicholson eyes that usually flash with wicked intelligence, cause us to forget his business just long enough to feel guilty about our sympathy for a vicious hood with rather few redeeming features.
Kathleen Turner is also exceptional as Nicholson's love, though her part is less flashy and is compromised with some incredible stupidity near the end of the story. Her cool, aristocratic manner has a delightful way of slipping under pressure to reveal the girl from a lower class Polish family who has come a long way on lots of brains and very few scruples. Turner is becoming one of my favorite actresses. She is willing to stretch and take chances in a way that some performers will not.
As is the manner of Huston films, the supporting cast is excellent. Casting has been one of Huston's strongest points throughout his career, and it still serves him well in Prizzi's Honor. Particularly well chosen is William Hickey, who plays the cadaverous head of the Prizzi family. Hickey is practically a walking death's head, a suitable symbol of the utter moral decomposition of his family business. His is definitely an Oscar candidate in the supporting actor category. Angelica Huston, John Huston's daughter, also makes a strong impression as Hickey's granddaughter, a dishonored woman who once had a thing going with Nicholson. Her continuing lust for the hit man is a major spur to the plot, and Huston does a fine job with a part basically lacking in sympathy. None of Angelica Huston's previous performances have been nearly this good, including one previous part in one of her father's films. Here, her tremendous height and almost disturbingly strong features work to good advantage, and she finds the way to make the character real and understandable. Robert Loggia and John Randolph also make good impressions as leading figures in the Prizzi family.
John Huston directs with a good deal more interest than he showed in Annie. (Surely one of the most bizarre choices of directors in recent memory; if Ray Stark wanted a veteran director, why not get Stanley Donen, who everyone knows can direct musicals?) He's in complete control of the first half of the film, with the result that this portion of Prizzi's Honor is utterly delightful. Somehow, though, the plot complexities screenwriters Richard Condon and Janet Roach force on him in the second half begin to wear Huston down. The plot twists aren't crisp enough, and Huston fails to leave the sense of satisfaction which follows a perfectly resolved scene. As Huston's career has progressed, his interest in story as such seems to have declined in favor of examination of character. His most satisfying recent films, such as Fat City and Wise Blood were light on plot but long on character. The unlamented Phobia and Victory had no real character, and Huston's direction seemed disinterested.
Prizzi's Honor is a typically well made Hollywood film. Alex North contributes a score with lots of borrowings from Italian classical music. The score works quite well, but one can't give North many points for inventiveness. Andrzej Bartkowiak's photography is reminiscent, at times, of the shadows and earth colors of The Godfather, probably deliberately, but shuns the richness of that film's color scheme. Bartkowiak gives us a clearer view of the Mafia, less romanticized, which is in keeping with the general tone of the film. The production design is careful, a non- intrusive evocation of a recently passed period.
Prizzi's Honor definitely deserves to be seen, yet it is not the masterpiece some claim. It's a solid addition to Huston's credits, and a welcome change from the mindless slam-bang action we can expect for much of the summer. Some delightful performances are the main attraction, followed by a few very clever lines and some nicely set up comic bits. There is little explicit sex or violence, another change of pace from the usual standard. Huston's craftsmanship is careful throughout, and inspired in places. Overall, I'd rate Prizzi's Honor as easily the best film of what has been, so far, a rather disappointing summer.
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