Prizzi’s Honor

February 17, 2012

Prizzi’s Honor is just about as black as black comedy gets. That’s to be expected, considering the creative team behind the movie. It’s based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also co-wrote the script), the author of such appallingly funny books as Winter Kills and The Manchurian Candidate.

The director is John Huston, whose directorial personality, since The Maltese Falcon, often finds voice in the driest of dry chuckles. Huston has made the occasional out-and-out black comedy (Beat the Devil), but is more known for the understated drollness of even his serious films. At the age of 78, Huston is droller than ever, and with Prizzi’s Honor he’s found a good vehicle for his bitingly sarcastic observations.

Condon and Huston are aided by Jack Nicholson, whose comic talents have always had a black side—especially seen in his wildly funny, very scary performance in The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick, who knows a thing or two about nightmare comedy), which was ostensibly a horror movie.

In Prizzi’s Honor, Nicholson plays the favorite son of a Mafia family. He does odd jobs for the clan, jobs that sometimes include zotzing (killing in Nicholson’s parlance) people who have displeased the family.

That’s all part of the job, and Nicholson has few moral qualms about it. The family comes first, after all, and since they provide for him, he always comes through for them.

His lifestyle is altered when he meets a beautiful Los Angeles tax consultant (Kathleen Turner) and carries on an affair with her. This affair, which culminates in their marriage, is at the emotional expense of Nicholson’s former paramour (Anjelica Huston, the director’s daughter and Nicholson’s longtime real-life companion). She’s the daughter of the patriarch of the Prizzi family, and her rejection leads her to hatch a nasty double-cross against Nicholson and his bride.

But, this being Richard Condon country, that’s just the first of the double-crosses. Most disturbing of all to the befuddled Nicholson is the revelation that Turner is not what she seems. It would ruin a few surprises to reveal her true vocation, but it’s about as far from tax consultation as you can imagine.

Prizzi’s Honor is deliberate and sly, never tipping its hand toward out-and-out comedy. In fact, so dry is it that some viewers may be put off by the ending—but it’s meant to be just as sneakily humorous as the rest of the film. It’s all a smoky, deadpan poker game in which the players maintain their bluffs with their very lives at stake.

Turner, having proved herself game (and gifted enough) for just about anything with Romancing the Stone and Crimes of Passion, seems unperturbed that her role here is relatively secondary (at least in terms of onscreen time). She conveys a lot in that short time. Nicholson is splendid, sporting a Brooklyn drawl and a perpetually puzzled look—he’s usually just a half-step behind everyone else.

The real prize performance comes from Anjelica Huston, who has heretofore led a peripheral existence as an actress—most notably in her father’s A Walk with Love and Death, and a brief but memorable bit as a lion tamer in Nicholson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. She’s just superb here, as she elegantly leads the Mafia bosses (led by William Hickey and John Randolph) around by their noses, and quietly plays a game of tightrope with Nicholson. Like the rest of the movie, she’s coolly delicious.

First published in the Herald, June 15, 1985

Nice experience, this movie; people may not recall now how thoroughly this movie rebooted Anjelica Huston’s career, and what a forceful tear she went on for years thereafter. (She won an Oscar, which you do recall.) It also re-started things, to some extent, for William Hickey, the strangle-voiced, Hawkingesque acting teacher who was rediscovered here.

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The Dead

November 28, 2010

When the late John Huston was filming The Dead, he almost certainly knew that is would be his last film. How else to explain the elegiac majesty of this very small movie, the wry feeling of finality?

Actually, death has played a major role in Huston’s films since the beginning—for the most part, as just another absurd event in the accident of existence. (In The Man Who Would Be King, Sean Connery and Michael Caine find themselves snowbound and freezing in the Himalayas; as certain death approaches, they laugh wildly, which causes an avalanche, forming a snow bridge that carries them to their next adventure.)

Living was the dicey part, though Huston’s crew of adventurers managed to pull themselves together well enough for that. For them, facing death was one more way of making their journey more interesting.

In The Dead, the James Joyce story that Huston wanted to film for years, there is no great physical undertaking, as in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Moby Dick. Rather the movie is the account of a festive family dinner on a cold Dublin night in 1904, and the brief aftermath of the dinner, when a husband (Donal McCann) and wife (Anjelica Huston) wrestle with a painful memory—revived for her, heard for the first time by him.

The opening shot of the movie shows the street and the family house; snow falls outside, but through the windows we can see the glow of warmth inside, see the shadows of bodies moving past in dance, and hear the lilt of the music. This beautiful shot suggests the difference between outward and inner reality, and Huston guides the film from the soothing warmth of the dinner to the cool blue light of the final scene, when the husband and wife, so charming and responsible during the gathering, go on a spiritual search of themselves.

It is a quiet, subtle film; very little that is conventionally dramatic happens in its 83 minutes. The dinner sequences, in the soft rosiness of Fred Murphy’s cinematography, are full of minor incident: songs, recitations, the carving of a goose and the declaiming of a toast.

The dinner is not the only family affair going on in the film. Tony Huston, the director’s son, wrote the screenplay; Anjelica Huston previously worked for her father in Prizzi’s Honor.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann are superb, as is every member of the Irish ensemble. Particular praise, though, to Donal Donnelly, as the nephew whose drunkenness cannot hide a good heart; Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delaney, as the sweet aunts who host the party; and Dan O’Herlihy, the veteran actor who plays the grand old man of “the other persuasion” (he’s a Protestant).

This film is one of those delicate works of art in which every little moment seems to carry an old master’s touch. Some images are unforgettable, such as Anjelica Huston standing on a stairway, listening to a song as her husband observes, apart and alone; or McCann watching snowflakes swirling around a lamppost like a gathering of memories. John Huston knew just how to tell his last story, and The Dead is an exquisite winter’s tale.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

The film is an example of a significant director who had the chance to go out on a just-exactly-right note. It is a challenge to write a newspaper review and try to convey in 530 words or so an outline of a career and an appreciation of the new movie, but every once in a while you have to hunker down and get it done. I feel pretty good about this one. The Dead is my #1 film for 1987, as arranged in my list here.