Charley Partanna, a hit man for the Prizzi New York crime family, falls in love with Irene Walker, after meeting her at a family wedding. They marry even though Charley knows she is a freelance assassin herself, who has already done a hit for the Prizzis. They take on an important job together for the family - the kidnapping of a bank president. A police captain’s wife is killed during the kidnapping, thereby bringing additional heat on the family. In the aftermath of the kidnapping and its fallout for the family, Irene and Charley are each hired individually by family members to hit each other, as they have both committed offenses against the family.
OSCAR WINNER for Best Supporting Actress (Anjelica Huston)
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This mob comedy was the second to last film John Huston made, and he was an ill man when he did so, hooked up to an oxygen machine on the set. However, there is nothing valedictory about “Prizzi’s Honor”; no sense of looking back or saying goodbye. It is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Richard Condon and the film finds Huston turning one last time to the kind of material that inspired him throughout his long career as a writer and a director. It is a tough, unsentimental look at a group of criminal misfits, which also manages to be wryly funny. The story is narrative driven, with all the plot twists one would expect in a tale of betrayal and revenge, but Huston and his screenwriters, Condon and Janet Roach, keep the threads of the narrative straight, even as things grow considerably more complicated toward the end. The making of the movie was a family affair, as Huston cast his daughter, Anjelica in the key supporting role of Maerose Prizzi, as well as Jack Nicholson, (who happened to be Anjelica’s longtime boyfriend) in the lead as Charley Partanna. Kathleen Turner rounds out the triangle as the beautiful and dangerous Irene Walker.
The cast of characters assembled rounds out Huston’s vision of this dysfunctional crime family. William Hickey, for instance, as Don Prizzi, plays a man now in his dotage, seemingly frail and vulnerable. He is, however, wide awake the whole time and Hickey has great fun playing with our perceptions of the elderly Don. Hunched over in a huge chair, shrunken by age, Don Prizzi is a tiny, furious Nosferatu figure - a creature of the underworld never to be messed with lightly.
The standout performance is delivered by Anjelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi. Maerose, is in many ways the most interesting character in the film. She is the Lucrezia Borgia figure of the family. She is also Charley’s former fiancée and a “family scandal”, having stained the Prizzi’s archaic sense of honor in her own way. In a display of vengefulness for Charley’s flirting in front of her, she ran out on him with another man, and thus ended their engagement. Huston, as Maerose, speaks a wonderfully comic, knowing, gravelly Brooklynese - “You wanna do it Charley? ... Let’s do it ... right here on the oriental with all the lights on.” The story makes it clear that Maerose is made of the stuff of assassins as much as Charley, or any of her kin, are. She just never uses a gun. When she is finally allowed back in the family, after Charley’s marriage to Irene, she plays a devious game with her disapproving father, egging him on to a possible cardiac arrest at the dinner table with her telling of outrageous stories. She also plays a pivotal role in the final stages of Charley and Irene’s complicated relationship. Anjelica Huston handles Maerose with style, wit and control. She never becomes an outright villain, just a complicated lady with a very deep reservoir of anger and a long memory.
Coming from an earlier era of the movies, Huston does not offer up graphic violence even when dealing with the most brutal of crimes. When Charley marches a mark into a garage and closes the door, we hear two shots and then Charley calmly makes his exit. Huston’s instinct is right, certainly for this material, as it would violate the light tone of the film to go too thoroughly into the dark side of the criminal underworld. As well, Alex North’s light opera score, made up of flourishes from Puccini and Rossini, achieves the same effect. It is perfect for a farcical take on the mob, and offers a fitting aural equivalent to John Huston’s comic vision.