<i> Times Arts Editor</i>

At the age of 78, John Huston is one of earth’s principal wonders.

Fifty-seven years after he made his first small venture in screen acting (“The Shakedown,” 1928), 54 years after he did his first bit of screenwriting (dialogue on “A House Divided,” 1931), 44 years after he directed his first feature (“The Maltese Falcon,” 1941), Huston defies actuarial tables of every kind and makes films that combine the vigor of youth with the craft and guile of seniority.

His newest film, “Prizzi’s Honor,” which opened Friday, has been generally rapturously reviewed for the zaniness of its characterizations, the richness of its surfaces, the shining darkness of its humor--like polished onyx--and the sardonic inevitability of its message, which is approximately that families who slay together stay together, or, spilled blood is thicker than water.

Huston read the novel in galleys at his home in Puerto Vallarta, he explained with a chesty chortle the other day. It had been written by his pal from Ireland days, Richard Condon, and Huston urged his producer, John Foreman, to buy the rights.


It turned out the novel had been published three years earlier; the galleys had been sitting around, buried under the detritus of a busy director’s life. But no one else had taken the property; Foreman and Huston got it and began the exasperating, infuriating struggle to find a studio to finance it.

“Oh, I pray the film is a success,” Huston says with a ferociously wicked gleam in his eye; “I do so pray it’s a success. I will chafe my palms and gloat, for it was turned down right and left.” Fox finally took the project.

One of the turners-down was Universal, which had financed Huston’s demanding, difficult and brilliant rendering of Malcolm Lowry’s novel, “Under the Volcano"--a film, Huston insists, that will ultimately make a profit for the studio, although at first sight it was a considerably less commercial enterprise than “Prizzi’s Honor.”

“Then again,” Huston says, “one hears tales of rejection about almost every decent picture that comes along. Michael Fitzgerald (who produced “Wise Blood” and “Under the Volcano” with Huston) is having trouble getting a deal on a simply wonderful project called ‘The Cradle Will Rock,’ to be directed by Orson Welles. Orson! Can you imagine how many people want to see any picture Orson makes?”


For Huston, the several satisfactions of “Prizzi’s” included working with Jack Nicholson. “Jack has the greatest virtuosity of any actor in the business. He is not necessarily the greatest; he shares that with two or three others,” Huston adds with a courtly and tactful nod. “But his virtuosity is unsurpassed.

“He changes his mouth . He made his mouth the star and center of the characterization. His soul was under his upper lip where peopled used to keep snuff.”

Nicholson’s powers of invention and innovation are extraordinary, Huston thinks. “He takes the lines--Albert Finney has this power, too--and makes them his own, never having to reach for them, never having to color the lines with technique. What he says grows out of a progression of feeling.”

Huston cites a long scene in which Nicholson recites a bundle of exposition, all the while washing up, dressing (battling a recalcitrant shirt) and preparing to leave. All the physical business, Huston says in great admiration, invented and timed-out by Nicholson.


Another of the satisfactions was the performance of William Hickey as the wheezing old don who heads the Prizzi Mafia family.

“Sam Jaffe would have played it if he’d been alive,” Huston says, “but Sam, whom I’d known since I was 16 years old, up and died on me, as so many of my friends have insisted upon doing.

“So, various old actors trotted in, some of whom I remembered from the Group Theatre of my youth. They were all either so infirm they wouldn’t have been able to navigate through the scenes, or they were so hale they didn’t look any different from anybody else.

“Then I remembered Hickey, whom they’d found for me for ‘Wise Blood.’ He lived in New York with a dog and his mother and taught acting and drank. Then his mother died, so he lives with the dog and teaches acting and drinks, a joyous drinker who is not fighting it and has no intention of quitting. Being a thorough professional, he was dry throughout the shooting, and when it was over he showed up most gloriously liquefied--a precious, dear, beloved, talented man.”


Although he plays an ancient, Hickey is not yet 50.

Kathleen Turner, whom Huston had seen in “Romancing the Stone” and “Body Heat,” plays the Polish-descent hit person who does lethal chores for the family, and turns Nicholson’s life inside out.

“Well, now, she’s the champion filly of this time, this short generation, isn’t she?” Huston says, adding in that deep and stirring voice of his, “ totally professional. She just takes it away; she’s on wings, and she never goes wrong.”

With one calculated and shocking exception (to underline the thesis of the film), the violence in “Prizzi’s Honor” is implied and off-camera. Huston nods. “I get bored seeing the cat beheaded time after time. Just like scenes of coitus; they’ve become unbearably banal. There’s one scene of Jack and Kathleen making love on the bed, but it’s essentially funny. They crash to the floor. Anything to avoid that library shot, that stock shot over the bare shoulder.”


The comedic discovery of the film is Huston’s daughter Anjelica as the “dese"-and-"dem” Mafia daughter who has brought disgrace on the family and who has both the hots and the hates for the Nicholson character. “Lovely,” Huston says proudly.

Making films is not the fun it was in the big studio days, Huston thinks, because of the wearying battles with timidity at the top, the difficulty of getting projects approved. On the other hand, if the system doesn’t create stars anymore, the actors are probably better, and certainly freer.

“The stars played themselves, and they weren’t allowed to go against their character. They’d never have let Nicholson play this part in the old days. And the idea of Gary Cooper doing anything not entirely decent? Unthinkable!”

Huston will next do a documentary about the Sea of Cortez. “It’s a fascinating place,” he says, “800 miles of inland sea, dolphins as far as the eye can reach, leaping and playing. And there are whales that stay in the sea and no longer migrate--grays, humpbacks, killer whales, the orcas. It’s something I very much want to do. Let’s say I feel an obligation to the whales.”