(Note: This essay was originally posted at Edward Copeland on Film
The year was 1985, and though I really didn’t need to take any more college electives I had decided to add a film class to my schedule that semester simply because I’d never experienced one before. The instructor of that class had very eclectic tastes in movies, but one of the films he unspooled for the students was John Huston’s Fat City (1972), a warts-and-all look at “the fight game” that in retrospect was one of the better choices he had selected for what was again a most diverse lineup.
He and I discussed Huston’s work after class, and I recall telling him that John was one of my favorite directors; we debated back-and-forth such films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The African Queen (1951). The professor then asked me if I had taken the opportunity to see Huston’s latest film—a jet-black Mafia comedy entitled Prizzi’s Honor (1985), based on the novel by The Manchurian Candidate author Richard Condon. “You really need to see it,” he enthused. “It’s simply his best work in years.”
And he wasn’t being hyperbolic. John Huston’s penultimate film—about the ill-fated romance between a pair of contract killers—still remains one of the director’s finest cinematic achievements.
Hit man Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) is in the employ of the powerful Prizzi family, headed up by the aging but still formidable Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey). The daughter of one of Don Corrado’s sons, Dominic (Lee Richardson), is getting married and as a member of the “family,” Partanna is on hand to make certain the wedding goes off without a hitch. During the ceremony, he spots a woman (Kathleen Turner) in the “cheap seats” whom he tries to make time with during the reception — but she disappears shortly after, and Charley desperately tries to learn who she was. He finally meets up with the mystery woman — she’s Irene Walker, and she states that she’s employed as a tax consultant. Partanna learns from his father Angelo (John Randolph) that Irene is not who she claims to be—she’s actually a contract killer, in the same business as Charley. With mixed emotions as to what to do in this most unusual of romantic situations, Partanna listens to his heart and not his head…and the two of them get married.
Things get rocky after the couple tie the knot. Charley learns that Irene’s former husband, a man named Marxie Heller (Joseph Ruskin), was involved in the theft of a huge sum of money from a casino in which the Prizzi family has an interest...and that Irene may have possibly been in on the theft as well. Furthermore, Charley and Irene end up “working together” on a job that involves kidnapping a banker (Michael Lombardi) who’s stealing from the Prizzis—and while this is going down, Irene is forced to shoot a witness to the kidnapping…who turns out to be the wife of one of New York’s finest. When Don Corrado learns from his granddaughter Maerose (Anjelica Huston)—a former flame of Charley’s—of Irene’s participation in the casino theft, he confronts Irene and insists she pay a stiff penalty to make things right. But with the pressure being applied on the family’s business interests by both the police—who insist that the family turn over the person responsible for the murder of the witness—and rival families, Charley is informed by Don Corrado and his son Eduardo (Robert Loggia) that Irene must be offered up as a sacrificial lamb for the sake of the family. Nothing personal—it’s just “business.”
When I watched Prizzi’s Honor for the first time, I knew I had seen an entertaining movie and its subject matter—involving the conniving machinations of a Mafia family—suggested to me that my mother, who has long since romanticized the Cosa Nostra (“One thing about the Mafia, they take care of their own” is a phrase she often uses), would flip over this film. So I went back to see it a second time, accompanied by both my mother and father…and my mother’s reaction was stony silence. She hated the film. My father, on the other hand, thought it was brilliant—and this from a man who doesn’t express anything resembling a sense of humor when the need arises.
I’ve seen Honor several more times since my original trip to the theater, and to me it’s a movie that becomes more and more brilliant with each successive viewing. At the time of Honor’s release, Jack Nicholson was riding high after coming off a Best Supporting Actor Oscar win two years previous for his turn as the laconically lascivious astronaut Garrett Breedlove in the four-hankie weeper Terms of Endearment (1983). His interpretation of the dull-witted Partanna is, in my opinion, one of his all-time best film roles—a masterful comic performance in which his portrayal of a stereotypical dese-dem-and-dose mobster (similar to the kind played by actors like Nat Pendleton, Warren Hymer or Guinn “Big Boy” Williams in the films of the 1930s) masks a very dangerous individual to be around (the police only half-jokingly refer to Charley as “the All-American hood”). Film historian Danny Peary once posited in his wonderful book Alternative Oscars that Nicholson—nominated for his performance as Best Actor—should have taken home the trophy for his first-rate turn…and I’m not entirely unconvinced that Peary isn’t right. (It certainly wasn’t without precedent—Nicholson won a Golden Globe and recognition from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics and the Boston Society of Film Critics for his outstanding performance.)
Kathleen Turner is also sensational (and also won a Golden Globe), using her Body Heat smolder to make the mysterious Irene a most entrancing female at the film’s beginning…and then after we learn more about her, bringing in much of the appealing qualities of the heroine she played in Romancing the Stone (1984) to make her someone to root for—and ultimately someone to mourn when her Irene meets her tragic fate. Turner didn’t get nominated, but Anjelica Huston (as the treacherous Maerose) did for Best Supporting Actress…and won, continuing a tradition of Oscar wins in the Huston family that began with her father and grandfather Walter’s trophy take-homes for the 1948 film classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. William Hickey’s turn as the cadaverous Don Corrado also snagged a nom; all-in-all, Honor racked up eight selections in the 1985 Academy Awards race, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (Condon and Janet Roach).
Hickey’s pallid Mafia don is a perfect example of what my instructor liked to refer to as Huston’s “flair for the grotesque,” and though it sort of typecast the actor in “crazy old man roles” (One Crazy Summer , National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation ) it made me curious to seek out his earlier turns in films like A Hatful of Rain (1957), Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971) and Huston’s earlier Wise Blood (1979). The same applies to John Randolph, an actor who before I saw him in Honor was recognizable for his turn as father to Robert Hays in the short-lived sitcom Angie (1979-80). His finely modulated work as Charley’s fiercely loyal but pragmatic “Pop” led me to discoveries of previous performances in classic films like Seconds (1966) and Pretty Poison (1968). The beauty of Honor is the fine casting all around — including Loggia, Lombardi and a brief appearance by noir icon Lawrence Tierney as a cop who explains to the Prizzis that it won’t be “business as usual” if they insist on maintaining their silence as to who croaked the cop’s wife.
Two years after the release of Prizzi’s Honor, John Huston’s final film The Dead (1987) was released to theaters — and though I wasn’t particularly wowed when I saw it the first time (in the same multiplex that I saw Honor) subsequent viewings have convinced me that it’s a most exquisite work, and that it was incredible that Huston went out on such a high note (a rare occurrence among film directors). But even if Huston hadn’t managed to hit one last triple before retiring from the game, Honor would stand as a lasting testament to his talent.