Monday, August 9, 2010

Two from John Huston: Prizzi’s Honor and Under the Volcano

[This post is my contribution to Adam Zanzie's John Huston blogathon; head on over to Icebox Movies to check out the rest of the great entries.]

When thinking about Adam's question and main theme for the blogathon – whether or not we can call John Huston an auteur – I knew that I wanted to consider this question while placing it within the context of Huston's late era; in this case two of the final three films he ever made. Prizzi's Honor – a dark comedy about the mobster genre – was unlike anything done at the time, and the film that preceded his penultimate project, Under the Volcano, perhaps the best movie about drinking ever made (containing one of the best performances of a drunk by Albert Finney). Each film's merits aside, were they proof that Huston was an auteur, and if they did prove that he was, what then is Huston's mark on the medium? The obvious answer is Huston's love for literature. Almost all of his films are adaptations of some sort, some from quite famous and important authors (Flannery O' Connor, Malcolm Lowry, and a little nobody with the last name Joyce, I think…), and even though his films aren't flashy or pretentious they may just be some of the most consistent pieces of work since the likes of Howard Hawks or John Ford. There's something warmly familiar about Huston's films, and there's something gratifying in the consistency at which he churns out quality picture after quality picture; in addition, there's always something postmodern or theological going on beneath the surface of his films; and the wrestling of those bigger topics is Huston's indelible thumbprint on film. To watch a John Huston film is somewhat of a con game; it's easy to find yourself thinking that what you're watching is simply quality filmmaking, but there's a lot more going on in the frame than a mere competence of filmmaking 101.

Prizzi's Honor feels like a postmodern gangster film as these rather cruel, violent, and extreme characters act so ordinary in one extraordinary situation after another. It's an interesting film that is only slightly flawed; a baroque comedy, very dark in nature, which is having some fun riffing on the more seriously baroque and operatic The Godfather with the way it effortlessly shows family feuds and how blood ties disintegrate marriages. What sometimes doesn't work about the film is the performance of Jack Nicholson. Yes, it's true that the actors all at least of a decent rapport with one another (as is accustom to a Huston film), but Kathleen Turner and Nicholson – Turner is absolutely great here – never really seem to coalesce into that kind of dynamic acting duo that we can't turn away from. And it pains me to say this since I love the man so much, but the major culprit for this is Nicholson. His ham-fisting is so distracting in certain scenes that I found myself laughing for all the wrong reasons. It's possible that he was riffing on the genre the way Marlon Brando did in The Freshmen, but I never got the sense that the characters were meant to be seen caricatures.

It's by no accident that the film begins at a wedding; Huston is playing with the familiar opening images of The Godfather here. The camera has a way of weaving through the crowds at the beginning rather effortlessly, and in a very subtle way introduces us to all of the main characters. We have Charley (Nicholson), a hitman who at a young age gave a blood oath to always be loyal to the Prizzi family; Irene Walker (Turner), a fellow assassin and the beautiful blonde that Charley becomes infatuated with at the wedding; Eduardo Prizzi (Robert Loggia) family lawyer (think Tom from The Godfather); Maerose Prizzi (Anjelica Huston), the daughter of Don Corrado Prizzi (the wonderful William Hickey); and there's others like Pop (John Randolph), Charley's father; Dominic Prizzi (Lee Richardson), son to the Don; and finally police lieutenant Hanley (Lawrence Tierney!), the policeman who is in bed with the Prizzi family. All of these characters swirl around the primary story of Irene and Charley's romance and subsequent marriage, and a hit gone wrong.

Irene, unbeknownst to her, shoots the Lieutenant's wife on a hit. Because of this the Prizzi family is getting a lot of pressure to rectify the situation by killing her. All kinds of convoluted double crossing and darkly comic hijinks ensue, and before we know it Charley and Irene both have orders to kill the other. They solve this problem by trying to double cross the Prizzi family, but as Charley meets with the Don, Eduardo, and his dad he is informed that for everything to be okay again he must kill his wife. It is here where we see one of Huston's favorite themes: the idea of the group or duo trying to negotiate love in a world where such negations are moot. 

Love is something that can be compromised in the name of "family" or blood ties. Love is not the conqueror of all; and the film ends on a hilariously postmodern note: Charley has just had to murder his wife. Sensing that being with someone is better than being alone; he calls up Maerose and asks her to dinner. She emerges from the darkness, sitting on the edge of her bed, and approaches the window as she asks Charley to elaborate on what "dinner" means. Charley gives a rather brusque answer and Maerose smiles as the image lightens and the light through the window begins to shine on her. She smiles and accepts the invitation, and flowery music plays and the fairy tale title card pops on the screen: THE END. Her gain, he chance at love with Charley comes at the expense of the man having to assassinate his own wife. Love is a twisted, fucked up thing in this world (and in the 80's and postmodern movement in general), and happiness is found for one in the death of another.

The best scenes come between Nicholson and Anjelica Huston (no surprise since they were lovers at the time), especially a scene where Charlie, distraught over his love for Irene and the dilemma of her also being a killer, visits Maerose for a late night booty call. Maerose cuts through all the bullshit in a wonderful moment from the actress, and she simply says: "well, what are we waiting for…let's do it." Charlie drolly replies "what, with the lights on?" It's a great moment (as is the subsequent conversation at the breakfast table between the two where Charlie confides in Maerose), a small moment that stands out as one of the best scenes of the entire film.

Huston's camera is usually stationary and he entrusts his actors to carry a lot of the weight of the film. The aesthetic isn't flashy, as mentioned before, but the film is always elegantly lit and framed (more on that later), and Huston – a lover of art in addition to his aforementioned love of literature – uses color (especially red) brilliantly, especially in the scenes where Hickey's pale white skin is juxtaposed nicely with the giant red velvet chairs that he barks orders from. I can't glean much from Huston's style here – other than it's always 'nice' looking, and there never seems to be a wasted or unnecessary shot – to firmly avow that, yes, this is what makes him an auteur; no, as I mentioned earlier it's something much more subtle that exists in the subtext or the margins of his films. Power, certainly, is a major theme of Huston's films (Sierra Madre and The Man Who Would Be King quickly come to mind), but the characters of Prizzi's Honor don't really seem to be seeking power (they already have it), and Huston isn't preoccupied (like most mob movies would be) with tired genre story threads like Charley trying to usurp the Don all in the name of love. Charley doesn't compromise his love for Irene easily, but he decides to go through it, cementing further that his role in the "family" is nothing more than a puppet. 

Now, the main purpose of this blogathon is to decide whether or not Huston is an auteur…well to (semi) quote Jake Cole of Not Just Movies (and his brilliant review of Wise Blood): show me another 70+ year old filmmaker who would be willing to make this kind of movie; a baroque, blacker than tar postmodern comedy. Prizzi's Honor is one of the auteur's (there, I officially said it) best films from his late era oeuvre, only surpassed by the film that preceded it, Under the Volcano.

Under the Volcano, Huston's adaptation of brilliant and extremely difficult Malcolm Lowry novel, is one of the best films I've seen about people who drink. What's amazing about the film is not just Albert Finney's fantastic performance as former British Consol Geoffrey Firmin, but in the way that Finney and Huston seem to be in harmony about how to portray such a drunk. Huston film's the story with such lucidity and ease (the tone is somber, and you often feel like you're roving the streets of Mexico with the Consol…to call the pacing deliberate would be an understatement) that it's further proof that the viewer is in the hands of an old master. Under the Volcano is one of the more difficult books that I've ever tackled, and Huston wisely dispenses of the novel's multiple layers and subtext (in addition to being a novel about alcoholism it is also a novel about the parallels of self-destruction and the destruction of society, specifically Mexican society, in the face of WWII) and just gives us an unfiltered look at the final days of an alcoholic who is convinced he can "drink himself sober."

The film opens with an ominous bit of foreshadowing as Firmin (Finney) stumbles through a graveyard as Mexican natives are tending to the graves in preparation for Day of the Dead. In addition to the setting (as if that weren't enough foreshadowing) Firmin's shades reflect the images of skulls hanging off of a stand on the side of the road. The image is clear enough: we're going to see death in this film. Now, it can be argued that Firmin's drinking has essentially killed him already as he has lost his job as Consol (what good is a drunk diplomat?) and he prays in a church for his estranged wife to return to him, perhaps in some last ditch effort to realign his life. He frantically tries to keep the lose threads that connect him with family and community together, but he is unwilling to do so by giving up the bottle. Even when his estranged wife Yvonne (wonderfully played by Jacqueline Bisset) returns in hopes she can convince him to stop drinking for her, he sees her as nothing more than a hallucination at first, and continues to drink; the more he drinks the clearer he sees. The acting in this scene – the initial realization that Yvonne is indeed standing there looking at him – is one of the best bits of "drunken acting" I've ever seen. Finney is so understated (he doesn't do any of the hammy drunk actor shtick) here that he succeeds in not making us sympathize with him nor envy him; he's just there, he simply is, and Finney understands perhaps more than any other actor who has tried to tackle the role of an alcoholic. There isn't grandstanding and there aren't histrionics in the performances; here is a character who is convinced that they can remain lucid despite the fog they're enshrouded in. It's an amazing thing to watch the performance unfold throughout the film and to see how Firmin devolves even further than we're initially introduced to him. The rest of the film simply follows Firmin and all of the people he encounters and the situations he gets himself into during the final days of his life. It's really a simple film that, like most Huston films, is really more challenging than it appears.

The brilliance of Finney's performance is another example of Huston the director trusting his actors to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Like most of Huston's films the aesthetic here is rather pedestrian, making sure to not get in the way of the performance. Huston doesn't employ a lot of film trickery to put us in the place of the Consol (which again, is not the point of the film; this is simply a film were we observe the characters, not try to understand them); techniques like swirling cameras or messing with the focus (we see things as clearly as they must seem to the Consol). The closest Huston gets is using camera angles (tilted and low, and sometimes extremely close-up) to show the disorientation of the Consol, especially in a scene at a carnival where Firmin goes on a ride and the scene is shot in a delirious manner that gives us the feeling of inebriation, the feeling of being in that ride's cab with the Consol.

Under the Volcano is an odd film; a film where nothing much really happens, but we're always enraptured by what's unfolding in front of us. The destruction of someone, I suppose, is always interesting; even though Finney never plays the role for pathos, the inclusion of Yvonne into the story gives the film the dramatic weight it needs for the viewer to remain interested in watching how this man is killing himself. The tone of the film, as mentioned earlier, is quite deliberate; I don't know if I would call it contemplative because there doesn't seem to be much that Huston is trying to say here. The director has simply taken the most interesting aspects from his difficult source material and made a filmable story out of what many considered an unfilmable book. A story about a man who is content in his very real, very ugly hell; while his wife – who almost appears to him like a ghost or an alien – tortures him with thoughts of the utopia that awaits them outside of Mexico…if only he would stop drinking. That final request is what makes Yvonne's presence troublesome for Firmin (this is more pronounced in the novel, but Huston touches on it in the film's final half hour where Bisset has a powerful scene where she pleads with the Consol to "let [her] be [his] wife") as he proclaims – appropriately red faced – that hell is his "natural habitat". How do you save a person who thinks like this? This very personal, very human dilemma is at the core of Huston's adaptation, and, as mentioned at the beginning of this essay, is a reoccurring theme throughout Huston's work. The idea of the duo, the couple, having to make extremely difficult decisions that will have a drastic effect on their future is something that seemed to particularly intrigue Huston towards the end of his career (and life).

Like Prizzi's Honor, Under the Volcano is another example of how late-era Huston shows a filmmaker interested in the inner conflict. His late-era films don't have a lot of "action" (that is to say, there isn't much that happens in these films), but they're hypnotic in how introspective they are. Huston's care for his source material and his love for getting that source material onscreen is apparent throughout his career; not only that, Huston also gives his actors a wide breadth to do their best work. Watch how Albert Finney navigates his way through the world of a drunk; it's a completely mannered performance with countless nuances that you usually don't find in a performance of a drunk. Most actors would love to act to the back of the theater with a performance like this, to take away from the quite tone of the film and make it loud and masturbatory; Finney doesn't do any of that, and instead of obvious Oscar-bait moments we get subtle occurrences that cut much more deeply for Yvonne (especially that final scene in the whore house) and those who care about the Consol. It adds to the somber, melancholy tone of the film; a film that thankfully doesn't preach or grandstand or try to be something "more", it just simply is. Under the Volcano seems to exist int his uncategorical vacuum of greatness. It's an impossible film to place within a genre, and to describe it is even more difficult. One thing I can clearly state about the film is that it's one of the director's very best, and certainly the best film I've ever seen about drinking.

Of note: Hugo Stiglitz has a small role in the film. He doesn't have any dialogue, but he's there in all of his glory.


After watching these two late-era Huston films I realized that his style reminds me a lot of some of my favorite old masters, directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks. Through this mannered filmmaking style (detractors would call it prosaic or stilted) doesn't lend itself to a flashy style that we associate with most auteurs. The idea behind the theory of auteurism (created by Truffaut) is that you can always see that filmmaker's indelible mark on the product, as if he or she were the author of the work. I haven't watched enough of John Huston's films to get a sense of an overarching style, or imprint he left on cinema, but I know that watching these two late films of his one thing I can associate with Huston is that not only does he employ a classic, old Hollywood aesthetic, but he doesn't get in the way of his actors (none more prevalent than in the film I ended up not reviewing for this blogathon, his final picture, The Dead). 

The other clear mark of auteurism here is that Huston was a very literary director. Yes, he wasn't as popular or flashy or pretentious as some his contemporaries like Orson Welles, but he was always consistent; in fact I would be hard pressed to find a really unpleasant viewing experience within his oeuvre. Huston was always most comfortable (and at his best) with his literary adaptations: The Asphalt Jungle; The Maltese Falcon; Beat the Devil; Fat City (a fantastic boxing film, which was clearly a labor of love from the former boxer turned director); The Dead; and the two films I reviewed here. However, Huston never thought of himself as an auteur: "I'm not aware of myself as a director having a style. I don't recognize it. I see no remote similarity, for example, between The Red Badge of Courage and Moulin Rouge…. I admire directors like Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, whose every picture is in some way connected with their private lives, but that's never been my approach.'' (Quote taken from

I would argue that it's not just the literary thread that runs through most of his films that defines him as an auteur, but it's the very thing he draws attention to in the quote above; the idea that his films really have no underlying similarities, no personal imprint from his personal life. He wasn't flashy, sure, but he was versatile. His films are always perfectly framed and shot, and masterfully crafted to the point where it isn't noticeable; however, Huston was very conscious of how he framed his characters. Like a master painter he wanted to allow the mise-en-scene to do the talking for him. He didn't need to draw a lot of attention to his intentions with flash or an overt-elan, but that doesn't mean it isn't there, and if you watch any of Huston's films, pay special attention to the way he frames his characters in every shot. Even if Huston's approach was never to make films like Fellini or Bergman he still left a personal mark on the medium because of the obvious passion and love he had for his source material. Huston was a great lover of literature and art, and these can be clearly seen in how he adapts the work he love to the screen, and then in how he frames the work for everyone to see. 

Huston's films are different, and in some cases wildly different in tone (compare Prizzi's Honor with The Dead), and that is due to how true he remains to the source material that he loves to adapt. If there's an underlying theme between the work he loves to adapt, then it's the idea of the quest – either personal or communal – to better understand one's relation to their world, and sometimes, to God, and how they can negotiate that understanding in a context that isn't always made clear. Whether it is Charley's dilemma to kill his wife, Irene, in Prizzi's Honor; or, the Consol's decision to remain in his personal hell and further alienate himself from a wife and half-brother who want to do nothing but help him. That seems to me to be Huston's auteuristic mark on the medium, and it's one that is clearly his. He's too modest in the quote above; John Huston was definitely an auteur.


  1. I love Prizzi's Honor. Pre-Sopranos, pre-Grosse Point Blank, it gave us a dark look the killers we glamorize and made them ordinary schlubs. I still crack up when Nicholson washes himself off in the sink after that quickie with Angelica Huston. What other movie depicts sex as mundanely?

    I'll have to see Under the Volcano. Huston was a fantastic director, always winking from behind the camera.

  2. Nice writeup here -- can't really provide a comment since I've not seen either film and have only seen two Huston films in total.

    However, that picture of Hugo Stiglitz is great. Poor guy added on a few pounds since NIGHTMARE CITY, huh.

  3. I don't know if there was an actor I'd like to get drunk with more then Albert Finney-- he also is a great drinker in SATURDAY NIGHT SUNDAY MORNING... maybe only Oliver Reed touches him?

    Did you watch the doc on that UNDER THE VOLCANO edition? It's one of my favorite docs I've ever seen.

    love the Hugo reference, I need to see NIGHTMARE CITY bad.

  4. Tommy:

    You're so right about the dark look into the gangster lifestyle. That's why I love the beginning of the film so much. You can't watch a movie about the mob that opens with a wedding scene without thinking about THE GODFATHER, and here you can tell Huston is having some fun with the way Coppola's film somewhat romanticizes the mob in his film.

    PRIZZI was a great movie (one I hadn't seen before) and I'm glad I finally got around to watching it.

  5. Troy:

    Yeah, you should definitely see UNDER THE VOLCANO and PRIZZI'S HONOR...but FAT CITY and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING are also great later-era Huston films.

    Oh, and I knew you would love that pic of Hugo.

  6. Jamie:

    I haven't watched the doc yet. I'll make sure to do that sometime soon. And yes, you definitely need to see NIGHTMARE CITY.

  7. I haven't seen either of these movies as yet but enjoyed your review a lot and will hope to see them soon - Under the Volcano in particular sounds amazing from your account of it. I was a bit disappointed by Huston's early 1970s movie 'The Mackintosh Man', but clearly he did make many great movies in the later years of his career. Judy

  8. Whoa. I certainly did not recognize Stiglitz in that brief cameo. I wonder if Huston was even aware that he had just cast one of the most popular foreign B-movie actors of his era in that small part?

    I'm very fond of both films, although I prefer Under the Volcano because it's so much more of a radical film; as you so well put it here, Kevin, Huston really plunges you into Geoffrey Firmin's slowly bubbling Hell. Yvonne and Hugh are perhaps not as well detailed, although Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Andrews really give it their best.

    As one of Huston's later works dealing with the spiritual undoing of one man, the film is more of a "flawed great film" when you compare it to Wise Blood, which was a masterwork; but next to Ray Milland in Wilder's The Lost Weekend, Finney's performance could very well be the best finest drunk performance in cinema. There are scenes of typical Hustonian comedy, as when Geoffrey passes out in the street and is awoken by the friendly English chap, or when he takes the ride in the upside-down car; but ultimately Huston has no choice but to slam us with a wholly powerfully climax we're totally not expecting. As he did with Sinful Davey, he includes a dwarf-sized man into the plot--but this time the dwarf is a menace, and not a friend to the protagonist. Most importantly, I have never forgotten Geoffrey's enraged speech to the fascist Nazi Mexicans who corner him in the bar: "If only you'd stop interfering--stop walking in your sleep! STOP SLEEPING WITH MY WIFE!" Then they gun him down, and he tumbles down the hill... underneath the volcano, so to speak. The film isn't perfect, like I said, but it's one of Huston's most twisted and surreal for sure.

    Even though I have affection for Prizzi's Honor as well, I don't know if I'm that big a fan of it. For my money, it's one of Huston's more overrated efforts. All those Oscar nominations would have been better suited to the superior films he made around this film; and his Best Director Oscar nomination seems like something the Academy handed to him out of tribute. If only they had known he would surprise them two years later with The Dead, which IS a fantastically directed picture, I'm sure they wouldn't have wasted that nomination on Prizzi's Honor. My main problem with the movie is that it feels like a self-parody of Huston's early noirs--without ever really improving on the genre. But it's finally Charley's dilemma over having to kill his wife and his fear of becoming an old, pathetic dinosaur like his mafia dons that keeps my affection for the film alive. Still, I don't consider it one of Huston's best movies, though I'm happy that others hold it in high esteem.

    This is by far one of the best pieces contributed to the blogathon, Kevin. You've gone to admirable pains to make a case for Huston as an auteur and you've done so by effortlessly regarding two excellent films from the end of his career. You've set a grand example for what this blogathon is all about.

  9. Nice work Kev.

    In a weird way I think its Hickey who really makes Prizzi.

    Its all so absurd. At whose bequest is this all happening? Not at the hands of some noble Brando. Or Dark Prince Pacino. Not even a workaday leader like Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas, or Tony Soprano.

    No its this 98 pound, muttering old man who looks like he's just this side of being a walking corpse

  10. "Now, the main purpose of this blogathon is to decide whether or not Huston is an auteur…well to (semi) quote Jake Cole of Not Just Movies (and his brilliant review of Wise Blood): show me another 70+ year old filmmaker who would be willing to make this kind of movie; a baroque, blacker than tar postmodern comedy. Prizzi's Honor is one of the auteur's (there, I officially said it) best films from his late era oeuvre, only surpassed by the film that preceded it, Under the Volcano."

    Well, I do think you answered that question my friend!

    I'll admit that neither of these two films were among my favorite Hustons, though I liked PRIZZI'S HONOR tolerably after repeat viewings. Huston does in large measure -as you contend- position the camera for the actors to strut their stuff, and they do indeed in both films. We had better mob films than PRIZZI'S HONOR, but there's a sardonic underpinning in this one that stands alone.

    Anyway, this is really some spectacular reviewing here. You took the ball here and carried it the full distance. Wow.

  11. Judy:

    Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the kind words and I'm glad you enjoyed the reviews.

  12. Adam:

    I need to see WISE BLOOD. O'Conner is one of my very favorite authors, so I'm really intrigued to see Huston's take. Thanks for the kind words in regard to the post. It was a lot of fun to write and (re)visit these later Huston films. I have FAT CITY on my Netflix Instant Queue and I can't wait to watch that one again. Huston is so subtle in his mastery that I often forget how great of a filmmaker he was.

    Thanks for hosting such a great blogathon. It was tremendous fun reading all of those entries. Good work.

    Thanks for stopping by and for letting me ramble about Huston for your project.

  13. Bryce:

    You're so right about Hickey. I remember a throwaway role he had in the very forgettable Billy Crystal movie FORGET PARIS, but he was freaking hilarious in it. He really was one of those actors that just lit up every scene of every movie he appeared in.

    Thanks for stoppin' by.

  14. Sam:

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yeah, I know that these two aren't necessarily the most popular of his films (although I think Janet Maslin and Roger Ebert pretty much say the same thing that I do here...or, rather, I am saying the same thing they did, haha), but I just find myself hypnotized by these films. They're kind of meandering -- maybe a little too long -- but I like their deliberate pacing, and there's just something about them that keeps me coming back to them more than any of his other later films.

    I will say that multiple viewings of PRIZZI'S HONOR warmed me to it, too.

    Thanks as always, Sam, for your support of this blog.