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100 Greatest Gangster Films: Prizzi’s Honor, #89

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Prizzi's Honor, #89 1

100 Greatest Gangster Films

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Prizzi’s Honor, #89

It makes our Top 100 because of its cast. But of all the movies portraying Italian-American gangsters in this book, we have to say that we’d rank this one as the most offensive to Italian-Americans.

Movie Still: Prizzi's Honor

Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner in Prizzi’s Honor (1985-R)
TM & Copyright 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

This movie should have been better than it was. The cast is outstanding. The director, John Huston, is a legend.

But the story and the dialogue don’t match the talent.

Despite positive reaction from critics when the movie first played in theaters, the view from here on Prizzi’s Honor is negative.

It makes our Top 100 because of its cast. But of all the movies portraying Italian-American gangsters in this book, we have to say that we’d rank this one as the most offensive to Italian-Americans.

Now we recognize that many Italian-American civil rights organizations get up in arms over everything from The Godfather saga to The Sopranos. Their arguments are that the portrayal of Italian-Americans as gangsters reinforces an ethnic stereotype and demeans all members of the ethnic group.

We’ve heard the arguments ad nauseum and usually offer a freedom of speech response. If you don’t like it, don’t go see it. A movie rises or falls on its artistic merits. There is also a level of whining and a rush to embrace victimhood on the part of many of those groups that too often blurs the issue.

The bottom line—and a point one of us has made several times in the past: any ethnic group that can give America Antonin Scalia and Camille Paglia in the same generation doesn’t have to worry about Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone being its poster boy.

That being said, Prizzi’s Honor is offensive both cinematically and from the ethnic perspective.

The dialogue is forced and stilted and the relationships nonsensical. This is cartoonish buffoonery that poses as satire. It’s supposed to be a dark comedy that echoes Italian opera. Lots of background music by Puccini and Rossini help make that point.

But there is nothing subtle in the storyline and hardly anything comedic about the way it is delivered.

Unlike a movie such as Moonstruck, for example, which in many ways is a love letter to all Italian-Americans, the sense here is that the writer—and by extension his audience—is laughing at, not with, the characters that are portrayed.

And unlike The Freshman (movie No. 100 on our list), which spoofs the genre and by extension its Mafia characters, Prizzi’s Honor holds its characters up for ridicule.

A minor but telling point is that on two occasions Jack Nicholson’s character, Charley Partanna, uses the word “wop” to refer to himself and those around him. Italian-Americans may, among themselves, joke about “Guidos,” “guineas,” even “dagos.” In some ways it’s the same as African-Americans using the n-word or one of its slang derivatives to refer to themselves.

But “wop” has a different connotation. It’s like “coon” or “spic.” There is nothing remotely humorous about it. And the fact that writer Richard Condon chose to weave it into his dialogue and Huston decided that it helped define his lead character showed either a lack of caring or understanding.

Prizzi’s Honor plays like a story written by someone with no idea how Italian-Americans think, act or relate to one another. These are cardboard Pirandello characters desperately in search of an author.

The love triangle created by Charley, Irene (Kathleen Turner) and Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston) is the wheel around which all the complications flow. Maerose, the granddaughter of Don Prizzi (William Hickey), has been ostracized by her father and sees Charley, her former boyfriend, as a way to get back in.

Irene’s husband, Marxie, has scammed the mob and her initial interaction with Charley revolves around his attempts to get the cash back for the family.

And Charley is . . . just Charley. John Huston reportedly told Nicholson repeatedly to remember, “He’s dumb.”

Murder, kidnapping and betrayal (on several different levels) follow as the romantic entanglements overlap with the “business” problems that face the Prizzi family. The story is driven by Charley’s various assignments to straighten them out.

William Hickey is cantankerous but hardly sympathetic as the aging don and Robert Loggia, as his son Eduardo, is serviceable as the lawyer of the family.

While a good opera can be farce, a film satire or dark comedy works when viewers are not hit over the head with what is supposed to be irony. If it is too obvious, then it isn’t really ironic. And that, sadly, is too often the case here.

There are some good lines. Charley’s take when Irene first mentions her late husband’s underworld warning about Sicilians, for example, is classic.

“If Marxie Heller was so fuckin’ smart, how come he’s so fuckin’ dead?”

And his surprise when Irene confesses that she’s socked money away by performing three or four hits annually is a setup for one of her best comments. Charley is amazed by the number, but Irene says, “Well, it’s not many when you consider the size of the population.”

But too often the dialogue sounds like the words of a condescending writer slumming it, if you will, among the goonish Mafiosi. What should be empathy comes across instead as derision.

“When the merda hits the fan,” a line uttered by Loggia, is ridiculous.

So is Charley’s comment when he learns his wife has been given another hit assignment.

“I didn’t get married so my wife could go on working.”

Much of this is uttered in somber tones and against a phony backdrop of honor that The Godfather captured so well, but that Prizzi’s Honor mocks rather than spoofs. And that, at the end of the day, is the film’s principal problem.

Despite glowing reviews at the time of its release and lots of Academy Award nominations, the movie doesn’t hold up well against either the gangster classic or most of the other comedies reviewed in this book.

Charley’s final choice, between family and THE FAMILY, is one that occurs over and over in mob movies. Even when played for laughs, it has worked better elsewhere.

HIT: While Anjelica Huston got the praise, Kathleen Turner steals every scene she’s in. A cold, calculating hit woman, this role seemed like a reprise—albeit comedic—of the even more conniving murderess she portrayed in Body Heat in 1981.

MISS: There’s way too much extraneous dialogue with cowriters Richard Condon (on whose novel the film is based) and Janet Roach trying to channel a harder-edged Guys and Dolls, but too often coming up empty.

WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Marches like weird and gloomy clockwork to its relentless conclusion, and half of the time we’re laughing. This is the most bizarre comedy in many a month, a movie so dark, so cynical and so funny that perhaps only Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner could have kept straight faces during the love scenes. They do.”—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

REALITY CHECK: Charley takes a cab to Marxie Heller’s house in a sprawling Los Angeles suburban community to carry out the hit. Then he walks out the door. So how does he get back to his hotel and/or the airport? No way a real hit goes down like that. Taking a cab leaves a trail. A smart hit man, and Charley is supposed to be one, doesn’t take a taxi.

BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Novelist Richard Condon, whose body of work includes the highly acclaimed The Manchurian Candidate, wrote three other Prizzi novels: Prizzi’s Family, Prizzi’s Glory and Prizzi’s Money. Thankfully, none were made into movies.


CASTING CALL: Al Pacino turned down the role of Charley. Nicholson, who was dating Anjelica Huston at the time, was chosen over Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray and John Travolta. Several top actresses were considered for Maerose, including Rosanna Arquette, Demi Moore, Melanie Griffith and Jessica Lange, but Anjelica Huston got the part. She wasn’t a bad choice, even if nepotism was part of the mix. She won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The film got several other nominations, including Best Actor for Nicholson, Best Supporting Actor for Hickey and Best Director.

BEST LINE: Almost everyone favors the line that captures Charley’s dilemma when he first learns that the woman he has fallen in love with is a hit woman and has scammed the family out of $360,000.

“Do I ice her? Do I marry her? Which one of these?”

But our favorite is the exchange between Charley and Irene after the kidnapping. Irene is dumbfounded that the bodyguard she ends up killing didn’t try to catch the “baby” she was carrying when she tossed it to him. (The baby was in fact a doll, part of an elaborate plan she had mapped out.)

“I can’t get over it,” she tells Charley. “What kinda creep wouldn’t catch a baby? If it was real, it coulda been crippled for life.”

To which Charley sagely replies, “He wasn’t paid to bodyguard the baby.”

VIOLENCE LEVEL: Very professional and low-key. Strictly business. These are, after all, professional hitters.



Join us as we count down the greatest gangster movies of all time — a new entry every Thursday! Click here to see what you’ve missed so far.

[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]

The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies

George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and author of several books, including "Blood and Honor" which Jimmy Breslin called "the best gangster book ever written." Glen Macnow was a writer for the "Philadelphia Inquirer" and "Detroit Free Press." He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia. George and Glen have co-authored "The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies."

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