Prizzi’s Honor (Huston, 1987)

prizzis-honor-poster

This wry black comedy was the penultimate film of legendary director John Huston, made just two years before his death in 1987. A master of the old school, he was also the member of a famous family which has left its mark on three generations of Hollywood filmmaking, beginning with his father Walter as an actor in America’s Golden era.

With landmarks like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951) decades behind him, Huston was still able to bring to the big screen a faithful, sardonic adaptation of Richard Condon’s bestselling novel. Condon himself collaborated with Janet Roach on the screenplay and it proves to a perfectly pitched one, with astute casting a major factor in its success.

It begins with Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson), a dim-witted hitman for Chicago’s dominant crime family the Prizzi’s, falling head-over-heels for a gorgeous blonde he spots at a wedding. She turns out to be the strictly non-Sicilian Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), and after a whirlwind romance of just two days, Charley impulsively proposes marriage!

Little does he know that she’s already married and his latest assignment involves carrying out a contract on her husband. Charley’s confusion at this turn of events almost overwhelms his limited mental capacities, and he confides to past girlfriend, Maerose (Angelica Huston), and granddaughter of Don Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey), that he doesn’t know whether to “marry her or ice her!” Irene is full of surprises herself and turns out to be employed in the very same field as her new lover!

There are plenty of neat twists and complications along the way as Irene is secretly hired to carry out a hit, commissioned by a vengeful member of the Prizzi’s, on Charley himself. There’s also some stolen money to account for, a kidnap and extortion that leaves the family disjointed, and rancorous counter-murders from the Prizzi’s competitors to worry about.

Swept along by its clever narrative, witty observations and deadpan humour, Prizzi’s Honor is a pleasure to revisit. Boiling down to a contest between love and family, there’s really no contest at all, it seems, when murder – regardless of the target – can be shrugged off by the Prizzi’s as “business – only business!”

Nicholson is in great form, a tiny padding beneath his upper lip to make it protrude slightly – and combined with that dead look in his eyes – giving Charley the perfect combination of streetwise efficiency and witless malcontent.Turner, following her head-turning star roles in Body Heat (1981) and Romancing the Stone (1984), is absolutely luminous as the wily Irene who has more hidden depths and talents than our first provocative, persuasive impressions of her would suggest.

The staggering quality of the support cast is what aids the film’s enduring appeal as well, with John Randolph hilarious as Charley’s father Angelo, the eccentric William Hickey unforgettable as the corpse-like Don Corrado, and the director’s daughter Angelica – in her Oscar-winning turn – as the bitter and lovelorn Prizzi granddaughter with the classical looks who takes extreme countermeasures to win Charley back and circumvent his union with Irene.

It’s impossible to underestimate John Huston’s contribution to cinema. Even at the tail end of his career he displays the ability to keep pace with the times, and Prizzi’s Honor, made 44 years after his debut behind the camera, is a vintage black comedy/drama which has aged just as well as any other great film from this great director.

 

Advertisements

The Hidden (Sholder, 1987)

hiddencde8ec2303bd17a4652a0a177332fb90

Maybe once in a journeyman director’s career all the pieces will line up, the stars mysteriously aligned; if so, there’s a chance for something remarkable to occur, and in the case of veteran Jack Sholder, the fateful project was 1987’s The Hidden. Intelligently blending a police manhunt with strong elements of horror and sci-fi, it has – I was pleasantly surprised to discover – survived the intervening decades remarkably well. Earning a shot in the director’s chair on the back of the first Nightmare on Elm Street sequel two years previous, Shoulder delivers the goods with a superbly executed thrill ride featuring two memorable central performances.

L.A. detective Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) and his men are the trail of a ruthless thief and killer engaged in a random spree of terror across the city. With a propensity for stealing Ferraris and blaring heavy-metal music at full blast, Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) needs to be stopped, and after an exhilarating chase in the opening sequence, he crashes his car before being ruthlessly pounded by a police artillery. In hospital and near-death, it seems the city’s most wanted criminal has finally come unstuck.

In fact, it’s only the beginning of Beck’s trouble, for DeVries’ body has been nothing but a shell harbouring an alien lifeform, a slithering black worm-like creature that hops from body to body once it senses the weakening physical capabilities of its host. A quiet, undemonstrative FBI agent arrives from Seattle, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), his assignment to track down the now dead DeVries, but his concerns are hardly alleviated by the sight of the man’s mortal remains. Confounding Beck with his oblique suggestions of a danger still at large, he keeps the detective frustrated, uncomprehending but intrigued.

Together they hunt for the body-hopping alien, Beck at first convinced of an elaborate scheme tying all the participants together. Before long however, even he becomes a believer as Gallagher, with a secretive past of his own, realises the need to spell out their predicament in black and white to ensure a legitimate chance at tracking the alien down and exterminating it once and for all.

The Hidden succeeds on so many levels, not only as a riveting police thriller, but as a genre film and wicked satire with cleverly suggestive moments of ironic dark humour. Beck and Gallagher are an odd but inspired pairing, with Nouri’s physicality and wearied, hardened edge complemented by MacLachlan’s minimalist underplaying of the outsider and his motivations.

There are clever touches aplenty in the screenplay by Bob Hunt, including a series of light-hearted jabs at the gulf separating the pair’s working processes, the reasons for which remain elusive until well into the film. It’s never clear how it all might end either and even when it seemingly does, Hunt has another neat trick in store for the film’s poignant coda. It’s rare that alien life forms are given the dimensions they are here, with qualities that clearly delineate the hunter from his prey, including empathy for earthly compatriots and a constant pining for simple family values.

Unlike so many films from its era, visually The Hidden has retained a toned-down, drab but gritty appeal that isn’t marred by glaring, grossly anachronistic fashion or style; much of that can be attributed to the fine work of production designers Mick and C.J. Strawn and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin. Another successful component are the many well-chosen pieces of rock music regularly inserted into the action, fitting comfortably between the harsh, jagged electronic daggers of Michael Convertino’s score.

Sholder has been a prolific workman over the years but nothing in his subsequent output – which seems to have ended in premature retirement in 2004 – comes close to what he achieved on The Hidden, a mostly forgotten but genuine treasure from the ‘80’s, one still highly regarded today as more than just a B-grade or cult classic.

The Killer (Woo, 1989)

the-killer-1989-movie-poster-01-391x600

Bullets flying, bodies splaying, white doves scattering: all the John Woo trademarks are present in scene after scene of explosive action supplemented with dreamy Asian colours and simplified melodic electronic music. In The Killer (1989), an astonishing early work that brought Woo’s name to the attention of the world, the director strives for operatic heights in a familiar, but daringly realised tale of the perplexing duality adjoining adversaries on opposing sides of the law.

In one corner is hired assassin Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat), a man with only a peripheral sense of morality, despite the ruthless efficiency with which he performs his duty. When he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh), during his latest hit, his sense of guilt compels him to look out for her. He befriends her without revealing his identity but soon has both the police and the triad he works for on his trail for allowing his identity to become widely known.

Leading the charge for his capture is Inspector Li (Danny Lee), a wayward cop whose obsessive, single-minded approach to crime solving doesn’t always endear him to his superiors. It’s his task to defend an important figure at a public ceremony, a man who turns out to be Jeff’s next target. The subsequent chase draws the two men together where they unexpectedly become aligned by circumstance. Less unexpected is the sight of two men in a familiar stand-off pose with guns pointed at one another. This unique signifier, a Woo trademark, is an insistent, recurring image he uses like a visual motif.

The most intriguing element of The Killer explores the affinity these two men share when forced to become allies to save their lives as the triad closes in with its army of hapless opponents. Li’s curiosity is piqued by both Jeff’s decision to save an imperilled girl during their shootout, as well as his obvious affection for Jennie; in time he senses, in the other man, another outsider straying beyond the expected boundaries of his profession, dubious and morally repugnant to him, though it may be.

This notion of a unifying strand binding the two men only strengthens as their lives are placed in greater jeopardy. Jeff bemoans the dawn of a new era, one he refuses to accept in offering his life or that of Jennie as a premium for his perceived sins; in a reflective moment, he explains that “we’re too nostalgic” to his handler and only friend, Fung (Kong Chu). It becomes increasingly obvious that he and Li’s destinies are entwined, and as twin images of the other, Li needs to assume the mindset of his adversary to track him down.

Michael Mann may have explored similar ground with slightly more sophistication in his later masterpiece Heat (1995), but here Woo infuses his occasionally melodramatic tale with distinctly Asian shadings; equally true is that no American director in history, not even Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969), has achieved the sustained level of exhilarating gunplay that Woo achieves in The Killer.

The battles are furious and bloody, carried off with extraordinary flair and technical precision; despite a series of impressive set pieces through the first two acts however, they prove to be only part of a minor preamble to the final showdown in a church, where the film begins and ends.

The triad descends with its gun-toting minions, and Jeff and Li are backed into a corner with the helpless Jennie cowering beside them. The would-be executioners are as dumb as they are lacking in any notion of strategic attack, but as wave after wave emerge from the dark night, Woo elevates his systematic slaughter to the level of high art, replete with painstakingly choreographed carnage, balletic slow-mo, crude but painterly framings stretched with a range of garish colouring – in short, an assault on the senses that’s impossible to deflect.

Both Lee and Yun-Fat are exceptional, the latter providing that inescapable, sublime charisma that marks all his performances, whilst Lee is an attractive reminder of the kind of renegade, barely-defendable M.O’s of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan and officers of his ilk, and endlessly embodied in authority-resistant, cinematic anti-heroes ever since.

An essential, defining moment in Hong Kong cinema, The Killer is a staggering film and John Woo’s indisputable masterpiece; it’s sure to be regarded as monotonous and repellent to some for wallowing in its brutal, stylistic excesses, and as passionately glorified and revered by the rest of us for the very same reasons. It remains a visceral funhouse ride, a kinetic, gore-soaked shooting gallery brought to vivid, existential life; in short, though far removed from reality, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.

Thief (Mann, 1981)

thief81A-PQge5IL__SL1500_

With its heavily accented male viewpoints, Michael Mann’s 1981 heist drama has style to burn, and proves typical of the director in numerous ways. Also on display here is his penchant for unique visuals and endearingly left-of-centre musical accompaniment. Thief, starring James Caan as Frank, the crim of the title, is a fascinating early landmark in Mann’s career; it was his first major cinematic release and even without the precision of execution seen in his later work, it still carries all the early signatures his devotees have come to admire. Though technically an 80’s film it feels like a carryover from the previous glorious decade of American cinema with its stark, gritty story – hardly an original one, certainly, but carried off with such conviction that it becomes a compelling experience by the end.

Frank has spent a lot of time in jail but with a new relationship blooming with waitress Jessie (Tuesday Weld) he’d ideally prefer to settle down if financial security can be arranged. He works as a freelancer, self-employed, with an able right-hand man in Barry (James Belushi), and with a job as a car salesman by day as a front. After complications ensue from his latest job, however, when the man transporting his money ends up dead, he finds himself confronting the temptations offered by underworld kingpin Leo (Robert Prosky).

Frank decides to seize the opportunity offered, claiming a stake in one last massive job with a large haul guaranteed, before hoping to ride off into the sunset with his lady and a life of luxury and financial security assured. But as you might expect not everything goes to plan as Frank discovers, the job behind them, it’s a lot more difficult than you imagine to extricate yourself from under the thumb of the man pulling all the strings. The consequences for both sides, trying to assert their primal dominance, will be bloody.

Caan makes Frank into a rough but charismatic anti-hero, a belligerent and dangerous man to those who get in his way. There are mannerisms Caan adopts that faintly annoyed me initially though I was beginning to turn down the stretch. Tuesday Weld is excellent as the tough but vulnerable Jessie, whilst Prosky shines in an unusual role for him. Belushi is fair support but given little to work with whilst Willie Nelson has a couple of good scenes as Frank’s dying mentor in prison.

Mann’s screenplay, based on a book by Frank Hohimer, feels slightly undisciplined and random, a little rough around the edges at times, but I like its hardness and he fashions a handful of classic moments – especially the interplay between Frank and the cops on his tail, a series of scenes that comes to a head in a brutal but humourous interview room beating. Visually the film is superb, the highlights being the glittering night-time scenes on slick wet Chicago streets which dominate the action, the empty urban darkness lit starkly by the slowly saturating neon. His point of view shots give certain scenes a resolute immediacy.

Mann’s musical sensibilities have always been a reflection of his peculiar subjectivity and Thief is no exception. Here he employed synthesizer band Tangerine Dream, who were popular for a few years at that time amongst filmmakers, to overlay long scenes with their dreamy, though simplistic, ambient soundscapes; it’s not something I’d listen to on CD but it has an undeniably hypnotic impact and works to great effect at times – though not when actual themes are called for, as for a family life montage towards the end when their approach dates the music badly. The last scene of the film too, with electric guitars introduced, sounds like it was scored by Pink Floyd.

Thief is a wonderful early effort from the director; though he’s undoubtedly surpassed it on numerous occasions – Heat (1995) for example feels like Thief‘s imposing older brother – but it’s hard to avoid falling in love over and again with the stylish, noirish texture of the film and, of course, the infinitely rich era of cinema it comes from. Anyone looking for a nostalgic filmic experience or who is a recent Michael Mann convert will find this a mostly compelling and exhilarating ride.