Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Directed with a cool detachment that persuades us to watch the actors and not worry
about the ordinary gangster-movie environment, Prizzi's Honor operates like a ruthless
short story opened up to feature length. It's enlivened by a trio of fine performances from
its star actors. Jack
Nicholson, Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston form a murderous triangle in a world where
murder is commonplace. Sold as a wicked comedy, the show is too blasé to be wicked. It
was a big hit in 1985, but I think that was because its slick pedigree intimidated audiences
into an approving posture.
Prizzi clan hit man Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) falls for lovely outsider
Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner) not realizing that she's a freelance assassin herself. Although
she loves him too, she lies as needed to protect herself. Charley's marriage to Irene
drives a wedge between him and the mob, which expected him to eventually marry Maerose Prizzi
(Anjelica Huston), the unstable daughter of mob boss Dominic Prizzi (Lee Richardson). Charley is
still a top man in the organization, but senses something is wrong. He has to rely on his father
Angelo (John Randolph), another wheel in the Prizzi works, for guidance.
Prizzi's Honor is a black comedy about romantic entanglements among Mafia types. The virtue
of black comedy is that if the premise holds up, common standards of taste aren't an issue. The
Loved One and Dr. Strangelove made light of funeral homes and nuclear war, and used them
to get across heavy duty messages about greed and folly. Richard Condon's story is nowhere near as
serious, but it takes a post-Godfather tack on the Mob: it's just a family with big politics
and business to conduct. Crime and murder come with the territory.
Moralistic gangster movies went out with the 60s, but the amoral world of Prizzi's Honor is
way over the despairing side. The mobsters are solid-citizen gents that adore their families, hold parties
and listen to opera. One has a spoiled daughter who will play with fire when her pride is scorned.
And the two lovers are a pair impossible to warm to. She is a wholly untrustworthy schemer who
means well but is willing to kill anybody or do anything depending on her next survival move. He's
a slow-witted plodder, wholly dependable and realistic. They meet like Romeo and Juliet, with sparks
The black part of this comedy comes when Love not only doesn't conquer all, but gets lost in a welter
of plots and double-crosses. Both star-crossed lovers are assassins, so the call of professionalism
comes into play as well. Prizzi's Honor stays interesting because it keeps its body count
storytelling strictly mundane. Charley and Irene might be sweethearts badly matched up in any kind
of business or organization where their alliance becomes inconvenient for a third party. Analysts of
gangster films have been claiming since the 30s that the genre is a mirror for the corrupt
ways of capitalism, in radical arguments that wear thin quickly. The only message I was able to take
away from Prizzi's Honor is that Romance no longer has a chance in this world when opposed by
business, profit, or even everyday comfort and convenience. Everybody has to look out for themselves,
This is all well and good if one has a point to make, butPrizzi's Honor's only message is that
the world of human affairs is uniformly rotten. The story logic makes an issue over the fact that
old morality long gone; the same tale could be told amid a bunch of Nazi staffers trying to one-up
another in Hitler's SS, with the hero learning to shoot his pet German Shepherd to prove his loyalty
to the Reich. The gangsters here are generic, but they're no joke; the authors tell us that this is
how the world is. I doubt if 2% of viewers pick up on what has to be the only functioning thesis
going on here; the joke's on us.
The acting can't be faulted. Jack Nicholson is as thick as Luca Brazzi from The Godfather, yet
is no dummy - his hit man is a sound strategist and an asset to the family, provided he demonstrates
his loyalty to their satisfaction. Kathleen Turner has the harder job, being both a sincere lover and
a resolutely independent schemer. Only a bona fide movie star could make such a character charming.
The most interesting of the three is Anjelica Huston as a troublemaking Mafia-American Princess willing
to spill blood to get what she wants.
John Huston wisely stays out of the way of a script that knows what it wants. The joke of
endlessly crisscrossing the country on jets makes the tale into an absurd bi-coastal romance. The
actors are mostly restrained, with John Randolph and Robert Loggia handling their mob boss roles
well. William Hickey's patriarch is an odd caricature, either that or the actor didn't convince playing
an older guy. The rest of the direction stresses absolute normality in setting and style. It's as
if staid faculty members were resolving a staffing dispute in an Ivy-League college. The result is
interesting, sometimes amusing, but there are no big laughs. Nothing here is what we expect, and
that's good. But the cold attitude encourages us to keep our distance.
MGM's DVD of Prizzi's Honor thankfully gives us two encodings of this handsomely-shot picture,
a flat adapted pan-scan, and a letterboxed non-enhanced widescreen transfer that retains a sense
of composition and focus. The audio is fine, with Alex North's subtle score making its points
nicely. This is a big star-power picture, but there are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Prizzi's Honor rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 9, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson