Prizzi’s Honor lives that most uncomfortable space – the black comedy. It’s uncomfortable because to set and maintain the proper tone, the entire production operates on a razor’s edge. If any part of the process falters, from John Huston’s direction all the way down to the selection of condiments at the craft services table, the delicate artifice collapses.
Most important of all is the acting. For a black comedy to succeed, the actors must maintain constant earnestness with the comedy not coming from punch lines but from something inherent in the character himself.
When a black comedy fails, it’s almost always easy to pinpoint the culprit. But when it succeeds, it’s possible to glide right past the great performances that made it so. Jack Nicholson’s Charley Partanna in Prizzi’s Honor is just such a performance.
Partanna is gruff, almost monosyllabic. But he’s not stupid, he just knows that talking too much often leaves you overextended. He’s a competent gangster on the way up and he’s centered in that world with a heavy anchor. And as the movie unfolds, and absurd situations ripple the surface, he never strays far enough from the boat to get lost. He surprises us with literacy, curiosity, passion and ingenuity along the way, but without deviating from his solid base.
Bouncing off Jack’s steady foundation are Angelica Huston and Kathleen Turner. Irene Walker (Turner) pretends to be an outsider, but she’s busy trying to run scams on gangsters. Huston took home an Oscar for turning the screws behind Partanna’s back as Maerose Prizzi. Maerose is the one character in the movie that really seems dangerous.
I remember this movie from my childhood because of William Hickey’s strange voice. His Don Prizzi stretches words like hand-pulled noodles until the innocuous is threatening. But Jack’s Partanna isn’t just holding up the tent for these fine supporting characters.
He seems a poor match for Irene on the exterior, but his devotion, shot straight, wins her over. We’re not sure where Partanna fits in the hierarchy of the Prizzi family at first, but his intelligence and resourcefulness prove his worth.
Alex loves Jack’s line, “Marxie Heller so fuckin’ smart, how come he’s so fuckin’ dead?” Not only is it a fantastic reading, an argument ender but spat out of the side of his mouth, it’s also the start of the slow leak leads to disaster for Partanna and Irene. Partanna has killed Irene’s husband, Marxie Heller, before learning of the connection. Irene swears she was going to leave him anyway, but she has enough nice things to say about the guy to get under Partanna’s skin and cause that great line.
Partanna could never trust Irene completely. Did she come with him because she loved him or because all her other plans were turning to crap and he represented her best chance at survival? He couldn’t answer the question satisfactorily so when stab came to shoot, he hurled a knife through her throat.
The movie works because Jack is great. But Jack is great without doing a lot of the things that he’s usually great at. He’s neither hip, cool nor sarcastic. He’s a lug. And he plays the lug straight up and down the edge without ever missing a step.