Volume > Issue > Black Comedy at Its Best

Black Comedy at Its Best

A CINEMATIC VIEW

By Robert E. Lauder | September 1985

John Huston’s film career, which has spanned more than 50 years, has been a curious blend of the sublime and, if not the ridiculous, the striking­ly mediocre. With his initial contribution to the making of a film — he collaborated as a screenwrit­er on A House Divided in 1931 — Huston began a career in which his considerable cinematic talents both as a writer and a director have graced some extraordinary films. The Maltese Falcon (1941), Huston’s first directorial effort and now considered a classic, is part of an impressive corpus of Hus­ton’s directorial efforts that include the following outstanding films: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948; for which Huston won Oscars as both writer and director); The Asphalt Jungle (1951); The Red Badge of Courage (1951); The African Queen (1952); Fat City (1972); and Wise Blood (1979). That Huston also directed The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), Roots of Heaven (1967), and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) reveals that even this very talented director did not hit a home run each time at bat.

Prizzi’s Honor is being hailed by some as an­other Huston classic. At least partly a send-up of The Godfather, this latest Huston effort, which is adapted from a 1982 novel by Richard Condon, fo­cuses on the Prizzis, a Mafia family consisting of the elderly boss Don Corrado (William Hickey) and his two sons (Lee Richardson and Robert Loggia). In center stage is hit-man Charlie Partanna (Jack Nicholson), who with Don Corrado as his godfa­ther, is almost an adopted member of the Prizzi clan. The film’s plot, containing more than a few twists and turns, explores Charlie’s love affair with a mysterious lady, literally a femme fatale, Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), who has been married to one of Charlie’s victims. The pressures from his obligations to the Prizzis and from the dictates of the love he feels so strongly for Irene provide the conflicts through which Charlie has to wend his way.

I will reveal no more of the plot because Prizzi’s Honor is one of those films that succeeds best when the viewer approaches it with little knowl­edge of the story. This enables the twists and turns of the plot to work to their best advantage. Howev­er, the developments in the plot are only some of the surprises. Equally important are the shifts of mood. Much of Prizzi’s Honor is played for laughs. It is black comedy at its darkest. The opening shots of infant Charlie in the maternity ward — as his ad­miring father, a lawyer for the Prizzis, and godfa­ther discuss the baby’s future — and the following shots of a Nuptial Mass suggest a somewhat solemn atmosphere. But using dissolves and close-ups dur­ing the Mass, Huston begins to intersperse humor into the serious setting. It is during the Mass that Charlie first sees Irene, who is sitting in the choir loft. Instantaneously the hoodlum hit-man is com­pletely in love with her. With this send-up of love at first sight, Huston creates a kind of vertigo for the audience which he continues right up to the closing shot of the film.

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