Black Comedy at Its Best
A CINEMATIC VIEW
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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