Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Monday, July 20, 2015
The Size Of The Population
Coming during the middle of the year in the middle of the decade, June 1985 was surprisingly sedate in terms of new releases, relatively speaking—THE GOONIES, COCOON, the all-holy LIFEFORCE—falling between the blockbuster openings of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II in May and BACK TO THE FUTURE in July. And on a fairly quiet Friday in the middle of the month the best reviews went to legendary director John Huston’s latest, PRIZZI’S HONOR. It seems mind-boggling now that such a film would be a major studio release in June but there it was, playing in fewer screens than almost all of the others in the top ten but opening to a better per screen average, leading to a healthy run and multiple Oscar nominations. The likes of Kael and Canby raved at the time but it seems almost forgotten now, a dinosaur; it was aimed at an older audience, after all, and though the film is a comedy it’s an extremely dark, cold one so maybe it’s not something that’s going to be remembered with great affection. Apparently this year’s Comic-Con included a panel on films from “the great geek year of 1985” but I’m going to guess this wasn’t a prominent topic. There isn’t even a Blu-ray of it available, let alone an anamorphic DVD. Deadpan all the way through, PRIZZI’S HONOR is about as dryly funny a film that has ever been made to the point where the amount of laughs it contains doesn’t really matter. The absurdity behind the archness of the dealings are what it’s about in the end, more than any jokes. It is a cold film. It’s a cold world. The acceptance of that fact is part of what the film is about, after all.
Charley Partana (Jack Nicholson), a hit man for the New York Prizzi crime family led by the legendary and ancient Don Prizzi (William Hickey), meets the mysterious Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner) at a Prizzi wedding and is instantly besotted with her. She disappears before he can even learn who she is but soon after when she reappears in his life he realizes that not only does she have a surprising connection to a large amount of missing money the Prizzis are looking for but she’s a contract killer herself. Charley falls in love and marries her almost immediately but when Dominic Prizzi (Lee Richardson), still furious over Charley’s treatment of daughter Maerose (Anjelica Huston), looks to hire a contractor to take care of him he hires Irene for the job, not knowing of her true relationship to Charley. As Maerose puts her own plan into effect to hold Irene accountable for the missing cash, Charley begins to learn that mixing business and family is more complicated then he first realized.
Maybe even more surprising for what was once a summer comedy, PRIZZI’S HONOR is very much an old man’s movie, made by a filmmaker who was just shy of 80 at the time and something of a legend. It’s a film about a patriarchy that is determined to go on existing no matter what, paying little attention to the outside world around them because none of that matters, even the cops are just someone else they have to deal with. The language they speak is very much their own—when someone orders a drink if the bartender hasn’t heard of it that’s his problem. In this context of today, PRIZZI’S HONOR is a movie consisting for the most part of people (men, mostly) in rooms talking and visually speaking rarely gets more flashy than that. But it also has a zip, an energy that comes from the actors in their scenes, almost as if they’re continually trying to figure out just where the other person is coming from and it ends an extra layer of intensity, comic and otherwise, as a result. One of the more purely visual moments comes early on during the opening wedding sequence: a slow tracking shot that arrives on William Hickey’s all powerful Don Prizzi, asleep at the wedding he’s lording over. He opens his eyes for a moment, almost seeming to regard us but not really, and we can tell immediately that while he may have been sleeping, there’s nothing about him that is unaware of what’s going on. The old men are the ones in charge of this world and they’re not letting go. Most of the women in this world are powerless with only Maerose, who quietly knows how to play this particular of chess game better than anyone and Irene, who as smart as she is only thinks she knows all the rules. Even if Huston himself never appears on camera there’s a slyness to every single moment that feels like what we think of as his own screen presence and it’s a film with a giant poker face staring back at us from the screen in every scene.
Of course, PRIZZI’S HONOR (screenplay by Richard Condon and Janet Roach, based on Condon’s novel) is also a romantic comedy featuring that MR. AND MRS. SMITH setup everyone seems familiar with by now, placed in a world where such needs and desires are almost incidental, no matter how much you want to fight against that fact. The brief scenes of young Charley Partana during the opening credits make it clear—your life is set right from the beginning, your destiny is set from the minute you’re born. It would be nice to change where you’re going so you can have that perfect romance when the Thunderbolt (as Michael Corleone described when first meeting Apollonia in Sicily) happens but too often that’s not how it works. You were always going to be what you were always going to be, the decisions are made for you, even if you try to deny it for as long as possible. The deadpan nature of the film holds all the way through and some of the film’s most famous lines (“I didn’t get married so my wife could go on working” or Anjelica Huston’s legendary “Just because she’s a thief and a hitter doesn’t mean she’s not a good person in all the other departments,” to defend Irene) are its biggest laughs but it’s the effect PRIZZI’S HONOR has that stands out just as much, the absurdity mixed in with Huston’s expertly careful direction, that seems loaded with subtle camera movements instead of cuts and even then moving when only needed, to proceed with the story that it always knows where it’s going.
The simplicity is such that maybe Huston would have made it exactly the same way 30 years earlier if the code had allowed it and pieces of some earlier films come to mind -- the brief detour to Mexico for the quickie wedding feels like we’re in TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE territory but more than that it feels like the pairing of Nicholson and Turner that seems very much a Bogart & Bacall update, with both actors measuring up to that comparison; you could even picture various Warner Bros. contract players from way back when playing the supporting roles. But there’s a gravity to it that makes us aware that it was made by the older version of the man who made THE MALTESE FALCON and it’s a film made by someone with nothing left to prove, with the awareness that he doesn’t need to flash up the story. The classical music carries the visuals bringing an amused blitheness to it all never denying how icy cold it all is. A few people are gunned down like nothing, seconds after they’re introduced, because they’ve committed no crime greater than entering the world of the Prizzis. And that’s just the way it is.
Fittingly, the storytelling is fleet and dense at once, always focused on the characters and the pacing allows us to soak in the absurd majesty of these men as they tell Charley what he has to do, what it’s his destiny to do. I watch it now and I think about how I not only saw it way back when because even when I was a kid I wanted to see movies like this (I was a weird one, what can I say) and I also read the book, even though I’m sure I barely understood it. My vague recollection was that the film is as close an adaptation as I’ve ever encountered and there’s something in observing the film’s crystal clear way of laying out its beats now that reminds me of this. Every single scene shot seems to go together and even actor placement within the frame could be studied as an example of how to do something like this. Even the repeated airplane as Charley and Irene jet across the country from New York to L.A. and back again punctuate their obsession with each other, the most deadpan way of getting rid of that shoe leather imaginable.
“Everyone’s always falling in and out of love,” says Charley trying to explain the difference between that and the concept of simply ‘love’ which he prefers. And PRIZZI’S HONOR is about trying to figure out that difference, trying to figure out where such loyalties are going to fall all while navigating mixing business and family, trying to figure out which is which in the end. What is love anyway? What is loyalty? How do you hold on to the honor you believe is yours? The Prizzi’s have their honor. Everyone on both sides of the law has their honor and winning isn’t as important as maintaining that honor, it means even more than the money they’re always demanding. It’s all business. And personal, of course, that really is the truth, no matter what anyone else says. Whether you like it or not, strings are always being pulled that are beyond your view, beyond your control. PRIZZI’S HONOR was the only time that John Huston, the Noah Cross of CHINATOWN, directed Jack Nicholson, and the effect it gives off is almost as if J. J. Gittes finally came around to what Noah Cross was telling him about ‘the future’ and decided to join his side, bringing Noah Cross’s daughter, this time in the form of Anjelica’s Maerose, along with him. At one point Nicholson was going to make the CHINATOWN sequel THE TWO JAKES right after this film; it was eventually made, concluding with J. J. Gittes’ acceptance of the ghosts of the past but maybe after PRIZZI’S HONOR that realization couldn’t come off as anything but hollow. You have to accept where you were and who you are. Even if you never find out all the steps that were taken that let you to make that decision.
It’s so deadpan that Jack Nicholson said in interviews he didn’t even realize it was a comedy at first and this seems to inform his performance. Even now it’s maybe one of his most argued-about performances, with a dees-dems-dose way of speaking and stuffing something into his upper lip which heightens the Bogart resemblance he looks like Jack but everything about him is different, straddling this line between dumb guy and dumb guy trying desperately to be smart. His timing is perfect and with an element of ‘Jack’ removed from the persona it’s one of his loosest performances, one of his most vulnerable. In one of several films Kathleen Turner made post-BODY HEAT where she seems to deliberately go against the movie star sexpot image you’d expect, Kathleen Turner plays up her confidence and intelligence while always keeping an air of mystery about her, so you’re never quite sure which lies are the important ones. The film keeps a distance from her (I imagine maybe the script does too) as if Huston and Nicholson are off discussing things by themselves but that works and unlike him you correctly sense the wheels always spinning as she speaks. As the other woman after Charley, Anjelica Huston is dynamite in the performance that won her the Oscar, with a power that builds as her character continues to emerge through the film giving her a comic intensity that feels totally unique. It’s no surprise that she and Nicholson seem so comfortable with each other and that familiarity goes perfectly with their scenes.
William Hickey not even 60 at the time and seeming twice that age, was nominated as well and he plays every second like a wizened, joking form of death incarnate, almost as if the film is daring us to not accept that it’s going for a performance so off the charts as if it’s a jokey cameo that got expanded resulting in a tightrope act in terms of tone that in the end couldn’t be more perfect. As it turns out, many of the roles aren’t even played by Italians (well, there’s always Robert Loggia, but interestingly his role is the most business-oriented of the family) which seems to add to the anti-GODFATHER joke of it all—John Randolph is particularly enjoyable as Charley’s father. There are some great parts here as certain people make an impression with just a few lines including Lawrence Tierney who spits out a lot of exposition in just a few lines and barely moves a muscle. It’s a film, and a world, where the ones in charge know they don’t have to overdo it to get their point across.
The overall effect that PRIZZI’S HONOR gives off is one of acceptance, of realizing that this is the way things are, like it or not. Maybe John Huston’s last three films—UNDER THE VOLCANO, PRIZZI’S and THE DEAD—form a trilogy that serves as a statement of mortality, of coming to peace with your place in the world. Hey, it beats going out on ANNIE, after all. Maybe if anything PRIZZI’S HONOR feels a little too contained, hermetically sealed, as if nothing goes on outside of the frame just as nothing of importance goes on outside of the world of the characters. It makes sense but causes me to feel more clinical admiration for it than any sort of passion. But that’s all right, I suppose. The 80s had a lot wrong with it but at least a film like this was able to play during the summertime. We should be so lucky right now.