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MOVIE REVIEW : TO LOVE, HONOR, AND VA VOOM

Times Film Critic

To get some sense of how John Huston has shaped the intricate workings of “Prizzi’s Honor” (selected theaters), try to imagine “The Maltese Falcon” set in Brooklyn and done like an Italian opera. What emerges is a resoundingly comic love story with sobering underpinnings, taking place in and around a reigning Mafia family, the Prizzis, where every emotion is larger than life, but death is simply business.

To say the film is the treasure of the year would be to bad-mouth it in this disastrous season. “Prizzi’s Honor” would be the vastly original centerpiece of a great year. It’s a rich, dense character comedy in which Huston, working from a screenplay Richard Condon and Janet Roach adapted from Condon’s novel, cocks a playful but unblinking eye at love, family loyalty and the togetherness of a happy marriage--Sicilian style.

At the center of the action is Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, the Prizzis’ principal hit man. You want someone iced, you call Cholly: very efficient, not a creep--no ice picks, just va voom an’ the problem is gone.

We are on the scene on the fateful day when Charley gets his --at the hands of Cupid. Right there at the wedding of Don Corrado Prizzi’s granddaughter, with the Don himself (William Hickey) dozing like a parchment mandarin in the front pew, Charley is transfixed by one smoldering glance from Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner), thrown from the balcony.

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Charley struck by anything--the germ of an idea, incredulity, pleasure, suspicion--is a monumental sight. Gears grind, almost audibly; his Bogart-like upper lip curls while his lower jaw drops in awe, and those eyes that Condon called “ball bearings” squint in half-lidded concentration. You expect to hear the coin drop somewhere in the mechanism.

And when he feels love’s call, he responds mightily. The film’s opening whooshes along like the hot blast from a furnace as Charley single-mindedly tracks down Irene, trampling over any and everyone in his way. It’s a not-so-hot idea when one of the trampled is Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston), the family’s black sheep who looks more like the Black Swan: elegance with a Brooklyn mouth.

Maerose and Charley, you see, had a thing together four years ago. Now, she has just a torch, a reputation and a certain something flickering behind her eyes that Charley would be wise to notice. He doesn’t, of course--does anyone when he’s uncontrollably in love?

And so the movie’s love stuff is set in motion. Since much of the astringent fun of the film is in its surprise, nothing more should be said except that Charley and Irene find that they’re in astonishingly compatible professions, Irene bringing equal opportunity to a decidedly male-dominated field.

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There are lashings of plot left over, however--dark Prizzi family business dealings involving stolen money, rival gangs and an unfortunate occurrence that wrecks the delicate balance between the Mafia and all the cops in New York, the Bronx and Brooklyn. If the film lags anywhere, it’s in the double density of the plot just at the point when you’d like to get to know the characters a little better.

It’s a collection of characters--and performances--to rival some of the landmark Huston films, “The Asphalt Jungle” or “Beat the Devil.” Leading off is Anjelica Huston’s terrific Maerose--melancholic, practical, seductive; an interior decorator with just a soupcon of Borgia blood in her veins. There is William Hickey’s death’s-head Don, with a voice that seems to have worked its way up through a subway grating; John Randolph as Charley’s shrewd and amiable Pop; Lee Richardson as Dominick, Maerose’s apoplectic father, and Robert Loggia, quietly humorous as the Don’s lawyer son, a supremely good practitioner of la mano morta .

And, of course, we have Charley (as memorable a character as Bogart’s Charlie Allnut in “The African Queen”) and his Irene, lovers in the style of the Old World and the New, respectively. With Nicholson’s Charley a character so much bigger than life, Turner is slightly overmatched, but she never seems to notice, and there is certainly the necessary sexual tension between the two. (If there are ties to old Huston films here, and there certainly seem to be, then Polish outsider Irene may be a more assured sister of “The Maltese Falcon’s” Brigid O’Shaughnessy.)

Huston guides them all in immaculate style, helped by a dangerously witty musical score by Alex North, who underlines the Sicilian dirty tricks with quotations from Rossini overtures and Verdi marches. If you look carefully at Dennis Washington’s evocative production designs, you’ll notice that “Prizzi’s Honor” is set in the past (a vaguely ‘60s period that’s back again today in everything from furniture to fashion.) But since the whole milieu is so foreign--not to say exotic--we don’t feel “Prizzi” as a period film. Condon and Huston’s underlying comment, on the interrelation of organized crime, business and government, seems as current as . . . well, as this week’s “Doonesbury"--wherever it may be.

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In its dangerous mix of love and murder, Huston is traversing terrain that he (and certainly “The Manchurian Candidate” author Condon) blazed decades ago. This ‘80s-version denouement may distress the squeamish, but it’s right in keeping with Prizzi honor.

‘PRIZZI’S HONOR’ An ABC Motion Pictures presentation of a 20th Century Fox release. Producer John Foreman. Director John Huston. Screenplay Richard Condon, Janet Roach, from Condon’s novel. Camera Andrzej Bartkowiak. Production design Dennis Washington. Editors Rudi Fehr, Kaja Fehr. Music Alex North. Set decorator Bruce Weintraub. Costumes Donfeld. Sound Dennis Maitland, Art Rochester. With Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, Anjelica Huston, William Hickey, Robert Loggia, John Randolph, Lee Richardson, Michael Lombard, Lawrence Tierney, Joseph Ruskin, Ann Selepegno.

Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).

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