Tuesday, June 28, 2022

“Prizzi’s Honor”: Where Are They Now?

After The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) swept up every honor in sight, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of Italian-American mafioso types. But well before Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990, starring the late Ray Liotta) and TV’s The Sopranos (for six seasons, starting in 1999), came Prizzi’s Honor, directed by one of Hollywood’s oldest and feistiest lions. I’m talking about John Huston, responsible over the decades for such studio gems as The Maltese Falcon in 1941, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948, The African Queen in 1951, and The Man Who Would be King in 1975. As an actor, he also turned in an unforgettable performance as sinister tycoon Noah Cross in 1974’s Chinatown. Prizzi’s Honor was released in 1985, when Huston was almost eighty. It was his last film but one; he followed it up with a poignant adaption of a James Joyce story, The Dead, made as he approached his own death in 1987.

 Prizzi’s Honor, too, has its somber moments, but it is at base a comedy, if an extremely macabre one. Jack Nicholson, reuniting with Huston a decade after Chinatown, plays a Mafia hitman with a deep loyalty toward his ancient padrone. The latter, Don Corrado Prinzi, is vividly played by a sepulchral-looking, gravel-voiced William Hickey, who earned an Oscar nomination for this role. The body of the film starts, à la The Godfather, with an elaborate cathedral wedding scene in which an overblown bride is joined in holy wedlock to a shrimpy little groom, as a massive group of wiseguys looks on with approval. Nicholson’s Charley Partanna is one of them, cocky and slightly cynical about the world around him, but newly entranced by the unknown blonde in the balcony.

 That luscious lady in lavender is played by Kathleen Turner, just three years after she’d burst onto the screen as the dangerous Matty Walker in Body Heat. Svelte and blessed with an seductively throaty voice, she couldn’t be more enticing. Of course Charley is smitten, but the surprise is that she seems to be enraptured by him as well. Their coupling plays out both in New York and L.A. (lots of amusing shots of a now-defunct airline heading right to left, then left to right, across the screen). But who is this mysterious blonde, and what’s her game? The audience figures it out before Charley does. (He’s not too smart. She likes that in a man.) 

 Tension builds, as Charley’s love for Irene starts to interfere with his obligation toward the honor of the Prizzi family. All is resolved in a conclusion you won’t soon forget. This was a movie that was adored by critics, but perhaps less so by squeamish audiences. Though nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, it won only for Anjelica Huston’s supporting-actress turn as  Maerose Prizzi, the Mafia princess spurned by Charley and itching for revenge. Sweet revenge for Anjelica too: the talk had been that she was cast in the film only because she was Huston’s daughter and Nicholson’s girlfriend. Turning in a seethingly angry performance, she fooled them all.

 John Huston, of course, is long gone now. Jack Nicholson, once Hollywood’s favorite man- about-town, has not been on screen in a dozen years, and rumors fly abut his physical and mental state. Turner’s still working, notably in TV’s The Kominsky Method opposite Michael Douglas, but her svelte shape is long gone and her husky voice is now almost a baritone. Happily, Anjelica too remains active, though a lot of her recent work is in voiceover. Time is cruel in the entertainment biz.



Thursday, June 23, 2022

Playing With Time in “The Big Clock”

Alfred Hitchcock, it is said, was far more interested in suspense than in mystery. Rather than making Agatha Christie-type whodunits, in which we struggle to figure out the identity of the murderer, he focused on the tension surrounding the apprehension of the guilty party.  A particular favorite Hitchcock device was that of the “wrong man,” the innocent who’s wrongly accused of a serious crime and must spend the rest of the film trying to shake off those determined to apprehend and convict him.

 A 1946 novel proved much sought-after by the motion picture industry because of its elaborate twist on the “wrong man” genre. The Big Clock, by Kenneth Fearing, ultimately became (after several plot changes) a 1976 French crime drama starring Yves Montand, as well as a 1987 political thriller, No Way Out, with Kevin Costner in the leading role. But the film adaptation closest to the original material retained the book’s title, The Big Clock, and cast Hollywood stalwarts Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, and Maureen O’Sullivan as its leads. It was directed by John Farrow (yes, Mia’s father), and overseen by Richard Maibaum, a longtime producer and screenwriter best known today for his work on 13 James Bond screenplays.

 Like many a noir-type feature, the screen version of The Big Clock begins near its climax, with Ray Milland’s George Stroud hiding from the law inside an office tower distinguished by an enormous set of international clock faces. Time, as he notes in a voiceover, is not on his side. He’s wanted for murder, and the police are hot on his trail.

 Then we flip back a few hours to how it all began. Stroud is editor-in-chief of Crimeways Magazine, part of the Janoth publishing empire headquartered in the skyscraper that boasts the huge clock. So valuable is he to the imperious Earl Janoth (played with his usual outsized presence by Charles Laughton) that Stroud and his wife have never had a proper honeymoon. Now he’s determined to change all that, defying Janoth’s insistence that he give up a sweet little West Virginia getaway to follow up on some true-crime leads that have come his way.

 In sticking up for his personal freedoms, Stroud gets sacked, then finds himself in a barroom commiserating with Janoth’s unhappy mistress (Rita Johnson as Pauline York). It won’t be long before she turns up dead, and someone has glimpsed him stealing away from her apartment not long before the discovery of her murder with a blunt object that had recently been in his possession.

 The twist is that Janoth, much less interested in Pauline’s death than in the potential for covering an exciting manhunt in his magazines and tabloids, enlists Stroud to track down the killer. We know Stroud didn’t do it; we also know who did. But every clue he uncovers in the line of duty points back to himself as the guilty party. Before poetic justice is finally served in the film’s last few minutes, we see a man unraveling as he comes closer and closer to being apprehended for a crime he didn’t commit. Though there’s a morose take on corporate culture in The Big Clock, ultimately the wicked are punished and the righteous man finds his reward. Which is how the world should work, right?

 As always, Milland makes a good hero and Laughton steals the show as his avaricious boss. And, as is so often true, the women are basically just along for the ride. One exception is Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, as a dotty artist who provides some much needed comic relief.


Monday, June 20, 2022

Romancing the Lost City (or Do Romance Novelists Have More Fun?)

A recent airline trip gave me a good excuse to catch up with The Lost City,  a much-touted new action comedy in which a reclusive romance novelist finds herself south of the border, fighting off bad guys and finding true love. Starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, with assists from Daniel Radcliffe (as a weird baddie) and Brad Pitt, it makes a running joke of the low-cut and sparkly fuchsia jumpsuit in which the heroine is kidnapped, and in which she eventually finds herself sprinting through tropical rainforests and plunging down waterfalls. There’s also fun in the fact that Tatum’s character, initially a cover model in a Fabio-like long blond wig, turns out to be less a dashing swashbuckler and more a sensitive guy with a crush on his favorite author.

 The whole thing was enjoyable airplane viewing, but it made me think back to the original film that successfully blended Latin American adventure with comedy and romance. Of course I mean 1984’s Romancing the Stone, starring Michael Douglas (who also produced) and Kathleen Turner.  Both were near the start of their acting careers at the time. Douglas, son of Kirk, was best known for starring as a homicide inspector in TV’s The Streets of San Francisco and for producing (but not appearing in) the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He began as simply the producer of Romancing the Stone, before deciding to take on the role of the film’s gutsy though slightly goofball vagabond hero.  Turner had leapt into the public consciousness as bad-girl Matty Walker in Body Heat(1981). and was mostly being typecast as a femme fatale. Romancing the Stone gave her a chance to stretch as a dreamy, introverted romance novelist who finds herself in over her head after being summoned to the jungles of Colombia. Another member of the cast is Danny DeVito, Douglas’s former roommate and longtime pal, as an inept rogue also vying to find the priceless emerald that is the film’s McGuffin.

 A young Robert Zemeckis directed with a light touch, just one year before he became a big man in Hollywood following the release of Back to the Future. But for me the essential part of the team was the film’s screenwriter, Diane Thomas. Thomas enjoyed a Cinderella sort of career in Hollywood, but one lacking a happy ending. She was working as a Malibu waitress, and studying screenwriting through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program (which employs me to this day) when she managed to slip a copy of Romancing the Stone to Michael Douglas. He read it, loved its razzle-dazzle spirit, and the rest is movie history. The film’s success led to other projects, including the chance to write an Indiana Jones sequel for Steven Spielberg. Alas, in 1985 she was riding with boozy friends on Pacific Coast Highway in the Porsche gifted to her by Douglas when a terrible accident ended her life. For years, UCLA Extension hosted a student screenwriting competition in her memory.

 Is Romancing the Stone better than The Lost City? That’s hard to say, story-wise. It has no shocking pink “disco-ball” glitter garb, no Fabio-lookalike, and no outrageous Daniel Radcliffe, though it does boast a  plethora of crocodiles. Perhaps the big difference between the two is that the earlier film doesn’t seem to be trying quite so hard to give us a rollicking good time. Still, I’m not sure Douglas is right in saying that Romancing the Stone invented a genre that had never before been tried. Maybe it's worth mentioning The African Queen?