The Killer In Love: Richard Condon’s Prizzi’s Honor Becomes A Movie
By Courtney Joyner
Agent-turned-producer John Foreman had the enormous success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid behind him and Richard Condon had become a literary titan with The Manchurian Candidate when the two decided to join forces to bring Prizzi’s Honor to the screen.
The 1982 novel was a best-seller, earning critical accolades for Condon’s sly treatment of the personal lives of the Mafia. After Francis Coppolla and Mario Puzo’s deification of the mob in The Godfather films, and the bloody grit of Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets, a cock-eyed approach to a crime story, that included a whirl-wind romance, appealed to Foreman’s sense of the absurd. His producing instincts told him that Prizzi’s would appeal to legendary director, and yarn-spinner, John Huston. He was right.
Released in 1985, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning one for Best Supporting Actress Anjelica Huston. It was honored at film festivals around the world, and Richard Condon earned the Writer’s Guild Award for Best Screenplay adaptation. But this road to success was as full of peaks and valleys as Mafia hitman’s Charley Partana’s own journey to find true love.
Ironically, Condon had explored the workings of the mob before, in his 1969 novel Mile High. His saga of Prohibition gangsters won over critics, but the book’s popularity was squashed by the near-simultaneous release of Puzo’s The Godfather. Ten years after The Manchurian Candidate the massive audience that Condon had rightfully earned was dwindling.
In 1979 writer/director William Richert adapted Condon’s Winter Kills into a fine, star-studded, film that was a box office disaster. Although Condon’s cutting prose was still lauded, it took Prizzi’s Honor to re-establish his general popularity.
Previously, Condon’s work had been adapted by others, but Foreman decided the Prizzi’s author should write the script himself, working with Huston collaborator Janet Roach. Foreman and Huston had just made The Macintosh Man starring Paul Newman, a failure that had dented everyone’s reputation, so if Prizzi’s Honor was going to be their last movie-hurrah, it had to be a glorious one.
Huston loved the script’s balancing between comedy and gangster-drama, likening it to his own Beat the Devil starring Humphrey Bogart. “Bogie would have been perfect for this,” the director said, choosing Jack Nicholson as the love-sick hitman who falls for the hit-woman contracted to kill him.
Kathleen Turner, fresh from Romancing the Stone, was the sleek, dangerous love of Charley’s life and to Huston’s eternal credit he cast daughter Angelica as Maerose Prizzi, the jealous daughter of Mafia chieftain William Hickey. Character giants John Randolph, Robert Loggia, and Laurence Tierney rounded out the note-perfect cast.
Prizzi’s Honor is an example of alchemy that’s all too rare when Hollywood takes on a novel and sometimes creates a catastrophe. Richard Condon knew he was working with talent that would honor his words as they were translated to celluloid by Huston, Foreman, and company. Like Charley Partana, Condon lucked out.