Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Thirty-Six


#36 — Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston, 1985)
I always think of Prizzi’s Honor of the kind of film that results when old pro cinematic creators settle in and have some fun. I do mean to imply that the film is sloppy or lazy. Quite the contrary, it has the endless aplomb of something constructed by master craftsmen. It also has a vivid ease, a calm assurance and a strudy exactness. There’s no meandering, no equivocating. The film unfolds in a grandly satisfying manner. There’s no sweat on the lens.

Certainly, that’s largely attributable to the efforts of John Huston behind the camera. This film came out forty-four years after his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon and he spent those years working steadily. He credited with more features than I care to count, but it’s telling enough that the longest span between films in his career was three years, even after the point when most of his contemporaries had hung up their old-timey megaphones for good. By this point, he knew how to make a movie as assuredly as a lifelong carpenter knew how to drive in a nail. That didn’t necessarily mean that he made a classic every time out, but it did mean that he could always get the most out of his material. And if the material was great to begin with, something special was bound to happen.

In the case of Prizzi’s Honor, the material was pretty great. Richard Condon joined Janet Roach in adapting his own novel about mob assassins who fall in love, a situation complicated by them drawing each other’s names as assigned targets. The film treats all of these underworld machinations as the height of charming absurdity, as if the star-crossed lovers in the screwball comedies of Hollywood’s earliest heyday had simply reached a new plateau of romantic challenge. Great moral dilemmas become the stuff of cute bickering and farcical activity. It’s as if the operatic chess games of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films were exposed as something far more frantic and goofy, a ludicrous board game from the eighties, like Hungry Hungry Hippos, maybe.

In the leading role, Jack Nicholson may not have been as venerable as his director, but he was definitely a seasoned pro by the this time, his second Oscar still new enough to retain its original shine. Shortly after this film, he’s start easing into a sort of semi-retirement, occasionally setting aside his quicksilver creativity and rambunctious brilliance to take on acting jobs where he could just get by playing variations on his off-screen persona: the cat living with full knowledge that he could get his fill of canaries any time he wanted, just by grinning, holding his arms wide and raising his eyebrows. Within the next five years, he’d play both The Devil and The Joker with the happy disregard of a man now accustomed to getting away with mischief. In Prizzi’s, though, Jack the actor is still hungry, determined to make every scene his own. It’s a fine measure of his unique talent that he was able to adopt a broad “dese” and “dose” accent and still convey the humanity within his character.

Bur for all this veteran skill, the film is absolutely owned by an actor that most considered, somewhat erroneously, a newcomer at the time of its release. Anjelica Huston had a whole batch of credits to her name by 1985, though few of them were impressive. As the daughter of the monolithic man in the director’s chair, she may very well have actually had celluloid in her blood. As Maerose Prizzi, the ex of Nicholson’s Charley Partanna, Huston demonstrates how scenes–hell, practically an entire film–can be stolen by simply leaning back, purring out the lines with supreme confidence and letting everything come to her like buoyant material carried inexorably to the depths of a whirlpool. She’s magnetic, compelling, endlessly intriguing, sometimes with seemingly little more than an unexpected wrinkle of her mouth. Like many of her counterparts in the film–besides those already noted, there’s exceptional work on display from Kathleen Turner, William Hickey and Robert Loggia–she emanates complete command. Her performance, like everything else in Prizzi’s Honor, is a gratifying reminder of what can happen in moviemaking when consummate professionals are put in charge.

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