Richard Condon and John Huston’s show is like a gangland version of Moonstruck, bouncing effortlessly between earnest romanticism and cynical satire. Hit man Jack Nicholson is a brass-knuckle Romeo, and Kathleen Turner’s mysterious bicoastal Juliet has nothing but surprises for him. Near the end of his career, Huston’s direction is as assured as can be.
KL Studio Classics
1985 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 130 min. / Street Date August 29, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Street Date September 16, 2003 / 14.95
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, Robert Loggia, John Randolph, William Hickey, Lee Richardson, Anjelica Huston.
Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Production Designer: Dennis Washington
Film Editors: Kaja Fehr, Rudi Fehr
Original Music: Alex North
Written by Janet Roach, Richard Condon from his novel
Produced by John Foreman
Directed by John Huston
Who said that John Huston slacked off in his later years? True, his Annie could be fairly re-titled as Gambling Debts Paid, but when Huston applied himself to his work, he tried the kinds of films nobody else would touch: Fat City, Wise Blood. Directed with a cool detachment that persuades us to watch the actors and not worry about the ordinary gangster-movie environment, Prizzi’s Honor functions like a ruthless short story opened up to feature length. It’s enlivened by a trio of fine performances from its star actors. Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston form a murderous triangle in a world where murder is commonplace. Sold as a wicked comedy, the show is too charming to be truly wicked — and Jack Nicholson’s mob assassin is one of his sweeter characters. The show was a big hit in 1985, partly because its slick pedigree intimidated critics into an approving posture.
Who can choose whom they fall in love with? Prizzi clan hit man Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) falls for lovely outsider Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner) not realizing that she hides some very important secrets. Although she loves him, Irene lies as needed to protect her ‘secret identity.’ Charley’s marriage to Irene drives a wedge between him and his bosses, who expect him to marry Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston), the unstable daughter of mob boss Dominic Prizzi (Lee Richardson). Charley is still a top man in the organization, but he can sense that something is wrong. For guidance he must rely on his father Angelo (John Randolph), another top cog in the Prizzi works.
Making a mob comedy that isn’t stupid is a tall order, and Prizzi’s Honor is a slick black comedy about romantic entanglements among Mafia types. The virtue of black comedy is that if the premise holds up, common standards of taste aren’t an issue. The Loved One and Dr. Strangelove made light of funeral homes and nuclear war, and used them with varying success to deliver heavy messages about greed and folly. Writer Richard Condon, the genius author of The Manchurian Candidate, seemingly specialized in political paranoia. But this more whimsical story takes a post- The Godfather tack regarding organized criminality: it’s just a family game with big politics and business to conduct. Lawlessness and murder come with the territory. Even a killer like Partanna is a civil gent, not too ostentatious. He’s a big tipper, too.
Moralistic gangster movies went out with the ‘sixties, and the amoral world of Prizzi’s Honor is way beyond concern for such issues. The mobsters are solid citizens that adore their families, hold parties and listen to opera. One has a spoiled daughter who will play with fire when her pride is scorned. On the other hand, our two lovers are a wholly unique odd couple. They meet like Romeo and Juliet, with sparks flying. He’s a slow-witted plodder, dependable and realistic. She’s an untrustworthy schemer who means well yet levels with nobody — her survival requires it.
Radical analyses of gangster films have been claiming since the 1930s that the genre is a mirror for the corrupt ways of capitalism, but the arguments wear thin quickly. The black part of this comedy comes when Love not only doesn’t conquer all, but also gets lost in a welter of plots and double-crosses. Both star-crossed lovers know how to put business above pleasure, so the call of professionalism comes into play as well. Prizzi’s Honor stays interesting because it keeps its body-count storytelling strictly mundane. Charley and Irene might be sweethearts badly matched up in any kind of business or organization where an alliance becomes inconvenient for a third party. In Prizzi’s Honor is that Romance no longer has a chance in this world. Business stability is more important. For that matter, petty comfort and convenience comes before Romance, too. Everybody has to look out for Number One, you know.
Prizzi’s Honor feels quite comfortable in its suave nihilism. The story logic makes an issue over the fact that old morality is long gone; the same tale could be told amid a bunch of Nazi staffers trying to one-up another in Hitler’s SS, with the hero learning to shoot his pet German Shepherd to prove his loyalty to the Reich. The gangsters here are generic, but they’re no joke; the authors tell us that this is how the world is. I doubt if 2% of viewers pick up on what has to be the film’s only functioning thesis; the joke’s on us.
The acting can’t be faulted. Jack Nicholson is as thick as was Luca Brazzi in The Godfather, yet is no dummy — his hit man is a sound strategist. He’s a continuing asset to the family, provided he demonstrates his loyalty to their satisfaction. Kathleen Turner has the harder job, being both a sincere lover and a resolutely independent schemer. Only a bona fide movie star could make such a character charming. The most interesting of the three is Anjelica Huston, the troublemaking Mafia-American Princess willing to spill blood to get what she wants. We’d been seeing Anjelica in small roles for fifteen years, beginning with her debut in A Walk with Love and Death. She’s a real standout here.
John Huston wisely stays out of the way of a script that knows what it wants. The joke of endlessly crisscrossing jet airliners frames the tale as an absurd bi-coastal romance; I’ll bet that the first order of business in the production meetings was to make sure they had good stock shots of those jets going back & forth across the country. The actors are mostly restrained, with John Randolph and Robert Loggia handling their mob boss roles well. William Hickey’s patriarch is an odd caricature, either that or the actor didn’t quite convince playing an older guy. The rest of the direction stresses absolute normality in setting and style. It’s as if staid faculty members were resolving a staffing dispute in an Ivy-League college. The result is interesting and frequently amusing, but the film’s real appeal is its movie star chemistry. Nothing here is what we expect, and that’s good. The slightly cool attitude encourages us to keep our distance.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Prizzi’s Honor finally makes this picture look good. The 2003 MGM DVD came in equally fuzzy-looking Pan-Scan or flat-letterboxed formats; the additional resolving power of HD more properly presents Andrzej Bartkowiak’s lush filtered photography with its warm hues (don’t judge by the random web images sourced here). Alex North’s restrained, rather classy music score avoids Italian-American clichés. Of course, the mob boss’s concession to culture is Opera.
Kino’s extras start with an audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, who happily get right into the complicated business and personal politics of the filmmakers and actors – the show was a power play by all concerned. John Huston was in failing health during the shoot, although one would never know it by the look of the finished film. Also added to the extras page is a selection of trailers.
Supplements: audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson