Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Prince of Foxes (1949)

Prince of Foxes is a 1949 20th Century-Fox historical epic that doesn’t deliver quite the kind of swashbuckling thrills that Tyrone Power’s presence in the leading role might lead one to expect. Fortunately the movie has other virtues, most notably Orson Welles in full flight as Cesare Borgia.

The setting is Italy around 1500. Cesare Borgia is doing what you’d expect Cesare Borgia to be doing - hatching nefarious plots to extend his power. His latest idea is to marry his sister Lucrezia to Alfonso d’Este, the son of the Duke of Ferrara. Lucrezia is already married but that obstacle is easily disposed of. That particular husband has served his purpose and has met the fate that usually met those who were no longer of use to the Borgias. To arrange the marriage of Lucrezia to Alfonso Cesare dispatches one of his most useful followers, Andrea Orsini (Tyrone Power). Orsini is exactly the right sort of man for such a mission - young, handsome, charming, cunning and utterly without any moral scruples. Orsini is ambitious, an ambition fueled by a well-kept secret. He is not the nobleman he pretends to be but a peasant who initially hoped to study to be a painter. Finding that there were other more lucrative careers open to a man with an agile mind, a ready wit and a willingness to advance himself he had re-invented himself as Andrea Orsini.

Before reaching Ferrara he almost falls victim to an assassin employed by the Duke of Ferrara, Mario Belli (Everett Sloane). Orsini could easily have killed Belli but he takes a liking to his would-be murderer, recognising Belli as a kindred spirit, an unscrupulous adventurer but a man likely to be a useful ally.

His mission successfully completed he is given another similar task. The almost impregnable castle of Città del Monte blocks the route to be taken his armies on his next campaign. The elderly count of Città del Monte (played by Felix Aylmer) needs to be persuaded to agree to this, or disposed of if he refuses. The count has a young and pretty wife, Camilla (Wandra Hendrix), who has already caught Orsini’s eye.

At this point Orsini starts to undergo a sea change. He falls in love with Camilla (something he has never done before) and he comes to like and admire the elderly count. Orsini begins to realise that maybe ambition isn’t everything, that perhaps honour is something worthwhile. It had never occurred to Orsini that he might have finer feelings but now he discovers that he has them to an extent that is going to cause him to re-evaluate his willingness to serve Cesare Borgia. The difficulty with that is that men who betray Cesare Borgia tend to have rather short life expectancies.

Prince of Foxes is a little slow-moving, or at least the first half of the film is. There are some fine battle scenes but the movie gives Tyrone Power fewer opportunities to strut his swashbuckling stuff than you might expect.

As I indicated earlier there are compensations. The movie was filmed in Italy and there’s a great deal of very impressive location shooting. Power tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Zanuck to make the movie in Technicolor. The black-and-white cinematography by Leon Shamroy is however exceptionally beautiful.

Henry King was the kind of director who made the golden age of Hollywood golden, a fine craftsman who could be relied upon to turn out well-made good-looking and thoroughly entertaining movies such as this.

Tyrone Power was particularly good at playing complex heroes and does a fine job. Everett Sloane is enormous fun as the amiable rogue Belli. Felix Aylmer, as always, is able to convey dignity without any hint of dullness. Wandra Hendrix looks stunning and makes an acceptable heroine.

The real drawcard here is Orson Welles. Welles is in magnificent form delivering a bravura performance that exquisitely combines charm, menace, sadism, black humour and megalomania. His Cesare Borgia has the fascination of a cobra, with fewer moral scruples.

This is one of five movies included in Fox’s Tyrone Power Collection. This set is an absolute must-have for swashbuckler fans. Prince of Foxes boasts a very handsome transfer.

Prince of Foxes might have benefited from giving Tyrone Power a few more sword-fights but this movie still has plenty going for it - gorgeous locations, lovely cinematography, some fine battle scenes and most of all an outrageously extravagant villain played by Orson Welles at full throttle. Highly recommended.

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