Have you ever hated a film the first time you saw it?
I mentioned how “Night Moves” hooked me right away, from the moment it starts with that score and the names “Gene Hackman” and “Arthur Penn” like a promise. Well, “Prizzi’s Honor” was a film that I eagerly anticipated the first time I saw it, excited about the cast and the director and the reviews and when that movie ended, I was so goddamn mad at it that I couldn’t see straight. I hated it.
I had this immediate near-physical reaction to it. The final shot is someone on the phone, by a window, the light from outside on their face as they talk softly. And yet an image that benign outraged me and turned me completely against the film.
Years passed and I remained steadfast in my hatred of it. If it came up, I just dismissed it completely, but to my secret pleasure, the film’s reputation didn’t last. The film just came up less and less, a forgotten footnote for both Nicholson and Turner, and little more than a trivia question answer for Anjelica Huston. I felt vindicated, like history felt the same way about it as I did. And when it came out on DVD from MGM Home Video, it was on a super cheapo disc with a cheap transfer. It’s nothing special. It showed how little regard there was for it, just some catalog shovelware to be sent directly to the $9.99 shelves.
So I picked it up. Almost out of pity. And I watched it again.
[more after the jump]
Only this time, I realized that the reaction I had to the ending of the movie all those years ago… that was the point, that the reaction itself was so powerful, so expertly delivered, that I had to bow to what John Huston had done. I wasn’t ready for it the first time. I was angry at the film for doing exactly what it sets out to do. It wants to make you sick and furious and hurt, because that’s the right reaction to have. That’s what you should feel, even after all the laughs. Only we so rarely actually feel it when confronted with death in movies. Most of the time, it’s a plot point. “Oh, they’re dead.” Even when it’s graphic or extreme. It’s still a plot point. You process it, but you don’t really feel it. Death scenes are tough to milk, because the audience is way ahead of you. They can be corny if overplayed or sold wrong. So dealing with death in a movie… really dealing with it and figuring out how to reach past the audience’s defenses and get to them in the soft spots, the places where they really live… that’s skill. That’s something special. That is “Prizzi’s Honor.”
And did I mention it’s really funny?
“So you must protect Prizzi’s honor. Do you swear it?”
We see young Charley’s induction into the Prizzi family, when he swears a blood oath that he will always put Prizzi honor above everything else in his life. It’s the same oath that every member of the family swears, and most of them probably never have to learn exactly what that means. Charley does, and it costs him dearly. I didn’t understand that the film isn’t about Charley and the woman he falls in love with, Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner). It’s about his relationship with his family, and his role within that family.
Part of the problem is that I first saw the film in 1985. And while I always watched and read things that were above my age range as a kid, I didn’t always have the life experience to fully appreciate or understand some of what I saw. I was fifteen when “Prizzi’s Honor” came out, and I was already a fan of many of the people involved. I wanted to see it because of all the great reviews, even before it ended up getting those eight Oscar nominations and actually winning one for Anjelica Huston. But this is a film that could only have been written and directed by people with a lifetime of experience behind them, wise and trenchant and cuttingly smart.
The film is based on a novel by Richard Condon, who co-wrote the script for the film. Same guy who wrote “Manchurian Candidate” and “Winter Kills,” so you can tell this is not a man who trusts people with power, and there’s an anger to his work, mixed with some jet black laughs, that is fairly sophisticated stuff. Here, he tells the story of the Prizzi family, a huge New York crime syndicate, and in particular, he focuses on a high level button man named Charley Partanna, played by Jack Nicholson. He may not look Sicilian at all, but Nicholson does transform himself physically as this outwardly-goofy thug with the overbite and the heavy-lidded eyes. Charley’s born into the life. His father Angelo (played by John Randolph) is consigliere to Don Corrado Prizzi, played by the corpse of William Hickey.
Well, okay, perhaps Hickey wasn’t actually a corpse at that point, but he played Don Corrado as the living dead, frail but lethal, that damaged freaky rasp of his forcing everyone to lean in when he speaks. As withered as his body is, Don Corrado is still dangerously smart, and as the film opens, he sits at the head of one of the most successful criminal organizations in the world. Happy. Content. The film opens at a wedding, and you can’t help but think of the way Coppola stages his huge Italian Mafia family weddings. I think Condon and John Huston want you to think about “The Godfather.” They know the comparisons are inevitable, and I think they’re actually commenting on the way Coppola made the world of the Mafia seem honorable and romantic and basically all-American, little more than the successful establishment of Italian immigration. Coppola fell in love with Puzo’s pulp, and he saw himself in it, and his sprawling family, with all their interests, and the way he was born into the life, and he ran with it. Huston? Not really so in love with the mob. He’s more interested in the rot, the thing that eats away at Don Corrado and the family around him. There are always people chipping away at the power, and one of the film’s primary themes is just how far people with power will go to maintain that power. You could substitute the world “wealth” there, and it would be the same thing.
“Do I ice her? Do I marry her?”
“Marry her, Charlie. Just because she’s a thief and a hitter doesn’t mean she’s not a good woman in all the other departments.”
Charley’s life in the film is defined by two relationships. The first is with Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston), Don Corrado’s granddaughter. She was engaged to Charley until they broke it off, she ran away to Mexico in disgrace, and she was basically shut off from the family except on rare special occasions. She’s bitter, furious, barely able to contain herself at the wedding. When she tries talking to her father Dominic (Lee Richardson), he calls her a whore. When she tries talking to Charley, he tells her to find a man, settle down, and work on her meatballs. It doesn’t help that Charley’s distracted by a woman he spotted during the service. And that’s the other relationship, once Charley actually meets Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner). She’s from out of town and tells him initially that she’s a tax consultant. She’s not, though. She is actually a freelancer in the same line of business as Charley. Yep… she’s also a hitman, and once she and Charley get close-up on a date in Los Angeles, it’s all over. They fall in love, and that love sets off a chain of events that is both darkly comic and deeply illuminating.
Irene’s a compulsive liar. She lies about a money scam in Vegas that cost the Prizzi’s $720,000. She lies about her role in the death of a Prizzi employee. She lies about her husband. And despite it all, Charley finds himself growing more and more protective of her, determined that he can have this woman and still be true to his family. Early on, she makes a joke about how her ex-husband warned her that Sicilians would rather eat their children than part with money. “And they’re fond of their children,” she laughs. Charley doesn’t laugh, though, because the joke cuts too closely. He knows how right she is, and he also knows that she’s playing a dangerous game.
When Charley is tasked to kidnap a bank manager, he uses Irene as part of the job, and she ends up killing an eyewitness. In doing so, she brings the entire heat of the NYPD down on everyone in every crime family on the Eastern seaboard, and the Prizzis are forced to act, putting Charley in a difficult position, and giving Maerose a perfect opportunity to finally restore her own place in the family, while winning back everything she’s ever lost.
“She is your wife. We are your life.”
The irony of the title, of course, is that there’s no honor among these people at all. The “honor” they most vigorously defend has a cash value, and everything is seen through the filter of what it might earn or what it might cost. Charley is a good soldier, a guy who does what he’s told to do, and the love he feels for Irene is the first thing that has ever led him to question the family on any subject. Little by little, as the moral and situational implcations of everyone’s actions are revealed, Huston tips his own hand. He’s intrigued by the way these criminals justify their own actions, by the little tilts and shifts of power. And, more than anything, he’s amazed by the way these people can justify any action, no matter how cold-hearted and monstrous. The film builds to an inevitable conclusion, and that’s what outraged me so much the first time I saw it. I didn’t want that conclusion to occur, and I wanted Huston to do what most filmmakers would do and give me the easy out. I wanted the film to wrap things up in a way that let everyone off the hook. Charley and Irene are both contracted to kill each other, and I like that Huston doesn’t play them as duplicitous at first. Irene tells Charley when Dominic gives her the contract, and the two of them search for a way out. But little by little, every option is stripped away, and in the end, it comes down to whose instincts for self-preservation are sharper.
And then there’s that last scene I mentioned. Someone on the phone. Early morning sunlight on their face. And the sweet taste of victory on their lips. It’s a scene that perfectly sums up the movie, and it reveals the truest power player in the film, a plan perfectly realized. It’s a great, simple tag that sums up exactly what the film has been trying to say for its full running time: eventually, it is the smartest and the meanest of the Prizzis who defines what honor is.
Alex North’s score draws on several classical influences, and it’s a lush, old-fashioned score. In fact, much of the film could be described as old-fashioned. Huston’s direction, the way the script unfolds at a leisurely pace although every single moment is important. It’s that blend of a conventional Hollywood sensibility with the bugs-under-a-rock study of the unethical world of mafia ethics that makes this such a jolt. And even now, 24 years later, “Prizzi’s Honor” feels new, its obvious influence on so much of what’s come since (hello, “Sopranos,” I’m looking at you) unable to dull its impact.
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