The Hitman and Her

I didn’t like PRIZZI’S HONOR that much at the time — but I just read Richard Condon’ s source novel, which is terrific, so I gave the movie another shot. Nope, still don’t like it much, but for different reasons.

I wondered at the time if John Huston were getting a free pass from critics because was obviously nearing the end of his run, and because everyone was relieved this wasn’t another ANNIE or ECAPE TO VICTORY. I’m pretty sure now that’s EXACTLY what was happening. But I’m kind of glad it did: we got THE DEAD, maybe as a result of this one doing quite well, and THE DEAD is maybe a great film, certainly a great note to end on. Its cinematic qualities are very slight, but everything is good enough to let the writing and performances carry it, and they do. Result: majesty.

PRIZZI’S HONOR is quite extraordinarily faithful to its source, which turn s out to be a good thing in this case: even the photographs mounted behind William Hickey at the ceremony he throw s to announce his son’s quasi-retirement are as Condon describes them: Toscanini, Pope Pius XII, Enrico Caruso and Richard M. Nixon.

The supporting actors resemble their characters as described in the book to a startling degree: Don Corrado has tiny, steely eyes so William Hickey, playing a man thirty years older than himself, causes his normal-sized eyeballs to shrink by will alone. He’s a 100% convincing octogenarian in his late fifties, and it has nothing to do with the vampire makeup they’ve given him. (A critic once complained that Hickey wasn’t realistic in some play he was doing: Hickey remarked, “People don’t go to the theatre to see REALITY, they go to see AAAAAAAAAAAAAAACTING!“)

Here’s Condon describing Maerose Prizzi through protagonist Charley Partanna’s eyes:

“Maerose was a great woman even if she had messed up. She was a very wop looker, all eyes and beautiful bones among the grabbing domes and dunes. She was almost as tall as Charley, with sad eyes and long fingers. She was a woman who had done everything right — except once.”

Easy to picture John Huston reading that and thinking, I know who’d be just right for it. Of course, Anjelica Huston isn’t Italianamerican but of all the WASP actors in the cast she gets it the most right. And she’s stylised but real, like Hickey. She overplays everything and makes you like it.

The film’s problem is Jack Nicholson. It isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw that he doesn’t resemble the Charley Partanna in the book, a physically imposing tough guy. “Jesus he was big. He was like a tall rectangle of meat and hair.” But his dumpy appearance gives Kathleen Turner severe motivational problems when she has to act falling in love with him.

Huston at the time remarked that most of the takes in the film were take one, thanks to Jack. Looking at it now, I think it needed a few more takes, all the way through. Maybe not Kubrickian numbers, that had a weird effect, but just a few more to let him calm down and let his co-stars get used to him.

Nicholson plays the thing with a prosthesis in his upper lip which does make him look like a mook, but does nothing for his supposed seductiveness and is a bit distracting: we know he’s NOT a mook, just Jack Nicholson with a thing in his lip. He also overplays Charley’s dumbness, adding to our puzzlement about why Turner should be attracted to him. In the book this is all made clear with prose from her point of view: she needs to seduce Charley to pull off the scam she’s running, then falls for him because nobody was ever so kind to her, and he’s fantastic in the sack. None of this is really present in the film.

Kathleen Turner struck Fiona as “just kind of plastic,” which I think is because what she’s acting against makes no sense to her and she has to try to shut it out and project a fantasy co-star to act opposite. She must have seen Nicholson was a problem — dumb, slobby and ugly — but her director was apparently enamoured of the guy. Maybe JH should have taken Turner’s role.

The editor is obviously smitten too: scenes which could cut sharply on a funny line are allowed to expire slowly over a lingering dissolve. Nicholson has one of these unconvincing phone calls where nobody says “‘Bye,” and instead of cutting, which could have solved that nicely, we have to look at him vamp while waiting for his director to say “Cut.” Sometimes those moments are golden. One shouldn’t say “Cut,” until every possible thing has happened. But then one should be brutal in the edit. Here, Nicholson shifts awkwardly on his feet, then LOOKS AT THE PHONE QUIZZICALLY. Something nobody ever did. Ever! And it gives us plenty of time to wonder if the phone call is over. Aren’t they going to say goodbye?

Find a woman who looks at you like Kathleen Turner is pretending to look at Jack Nicholson here.

Stanley Kubrick wanted to cast Nicholson as Napoleon, which we all know would have been hilarious because we’ve seen him in uniform in THE TERROR, but his reasoning was that Nicholson projected intelligence, “the one quality that can’t be faked.” Ridiculously untrue: write intelligent lines for an actor and he can learn not only the words but their meaning, say them like he just thought of them, and look intelligent. Huston knew this from FREUD, where Montgomery Clift was barely functioning. “On the screen, he looked like he was thinking. God knows he wasn’t.”

Nicholson’s trouble is that he can’t fake dumb: he’s an incurable wise-ass and he has to wink at us to let us know he’s not really this dumb jerk of a mob guy.

A shame, because with DeNiro or… or maybe we’ve even found a role Stallone could play? … and a decent editor and a decent font and some better medicine for the director this really could be the film reviewers said it was.

But I’ve been wrong before. As an 18-year-old in 1985 I was confused by Huston’s uncertain period setting — it’s, in fact, a modern film made to feel like a period one, just like WISE BLOOD; and I didn’t like that the lovers were fatally parted. I thought the movie’s job, having put this insuperable barrier of mob life between them, was to somehow solve the problem. I think the film fails as a comic tragedy, whereas the book succeeds because you really feel something for the characters, loathsome as they ought to be (we hear a bit about Charley’s career zotzing people and it’s blood-chilling). A lot of the book’s best writing occurs inside the characters’ heads, and naturally, that’s the stuff the (really quite accomplished) script can’t do.

But it did lead to THE DEAD and it did give us Anjelica Huston, who was, whatever the reviewers said, GREAT in her dad’s A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH and is great again here.

PRIZZI’S HONOR stars Jack Torrence; Dolores Benedict Hfuhruhurr; ——Morticia Addams; Dick Laurent; Arthur Hamilton; Rudolph Smuntz; Anton Bartok; Joe Cabot; Mo’at; The Horla; and Stanley Kubrick.

14 Responses to “The Hitman and Her”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I couldn’t disagree with you more about this one. I’s Huton having the sort of fun he hadn’t had since “Beat the Devil” (which it somewhat resembles in tone) Anjelica is PERFECT as Maerose, especially in her big scene with Hickey

  2. ehrenstein47 Says:

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Regarding Jack, I know what Kubrick was talking about. “Projects intelligence”? At best he has always projected “street smarts” — at its best in “Chinatown”

    Huston as a whole is a big complex subject for discussion. We all know the classics, and the “paychecks” like “Annie” and “Victory.”
    I rather like the painfully obscure “Phobia” But here at the last is Anjelica with one of the great single moments in all of cinema

  4. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Regarding Monty. He clashed with Huston because he was staying at Huston’s place in Ireland and brought a trick back for a sex romp that greatly annoyed Huston. He would however have starred in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (Taylor was going to put up the insurance money herself) had he not died.

  5. Yeah, what Nicholson projects is wise-assery, fine in its place but sometimes destructive. This sort of black romp needs some vestige of seriousness, which Anjelica and Hickey fully understand.

    JH evidently had some unexamined homophobia: he wouldn’t have been offended by a hetero houseguest making whoopee, one assumes. But that sad fact was that Clift was struggling to give a performance, and Huston kept changing the lines, as was his wont, and Clift couldn’t keep up. This resulted in Huston torturing a performance out of him, which he all but confesses to in his book. It was cruel and unnecessary: I don’t think Stanley Kramer needed to mistreat the actor to get that AMAZING performance out of him in Judgement at Nuremberg (Clift and Garland in that film are the reasons I can never wholly dismiss Kramer, despite his many vices).

  6. David McCallum (still alive!) tells some chilling stories about working with Montgomery Clift & John Huston on “Freud” in this podcast

    To hear McCallum tell it the relationship between actor & director was that of a sadist & a masochist, who were irresistibly drawn to each other

  7. (it’s 22 minutes in, but I copied the link at the current time)

    also for what it’s worth, I also disagree with you about Prizzi’s Honour. I think it’s pretty terrific, although probably would disappoint in comparison with Condon’s novel, because he’s the tops

    I don’t think the critics were kind to it just because Huston was ill & it wasn’t “Annie” or “Escape to Victory”, partly because they were pretty harsh on “Under the Volcano” the year before.

    Prizzi, It’s clearly the work of an older director, a less certain hand than Maltese Falcon or Man Who Would be King, but for me clearly the same laconic voice, in love with these grotesques. I do agree that maybe the central romance between Nicholson & Turner doesn’t work (maybe because Huston doesn’t believe in love) but there are so many pleasures along the way. I could watch Hickey’s character for days.

  8. Thanks!

    Well, the central romance is a pretty big part of the film – you see in the book how important it really is, because you believe it.

    I think Under the Volcano is a lot more interesting and successful, though.

    I’ll listen to that podcast for sure!

  9. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Taylor Mead called it “Judgment at Neuroticaburger” comparing it all to a diner (the cast being its cooks and waiters0 and saying that when Judy took the stand “I wanted to scram ‘SING THE TROLLEY SONG ! SING THE TROLLEY SONG!’ “

  10. ehrenstein47 Says:

  11. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Was Huston a sadist? Not sure about that. But Monty was definitely a masochist. He use to go to leather and cause fights specifically ia able to be beaten up. I saw him coming (or rather crawling ) home from one the night he died. it’s a chapter of my forthcoming (if I can land a publisher soon) memoir “Raised By Hand-Puppets”

  12. Allan Sharp told me Huston was a sadist — they worked on The Last Run before Huston quit. Michael Fitzgerald told me, very emphatically, that he wasn’t, and that only inadequate non-talents would form that conclusion. Huston admired Fitzgerald so my theory is he wouldn’t have exposed that side of his character.

    Angela Allen is a great, but honest protector of Huston’s legacy. I’m sure she wouldn’t call him a sadist but I’m pretty sure she would admit he could be sadistic.

  13. ehrenstein47 Says:

    He was mercurial. He gave Anjelica terrible time on “A Walk with Love and Death.” So much so that she doubted her ability to act completely. Luckily she took up modeling and working for Halston gave her the confidence she needed to resume her career.

  14. John Simon’s review (“the face of a gnu and a body of no discernible shape”) couldn’t have helped.

    He stole Anjelica from Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, which she’d wanted to do (I’m not sure that’d have been fun for her) and so we got Olivia Hussey. I’ve spoken to a couple of lesbian friends who got their first glimmers when seeing that film in school… maybe Anjelica wouldn’t have had the same effect?

    Huston’s line to McCallum about why he abused Clift, “It’s good for him, son, it’s good for him,” is echoed by another line when he was asked why he tormented the most vulnerable people around him:

    “Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block.” Pretty chilling.

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