Shot on location in Italy, Henry King’s Prince of Foxes (1949) is a lavish, visually resplendent ‘would-be epic’ that tragically only comes to life in fits and sparks. Based on the novel by Samuel Shellabarger, the film tells the story of greedily ambitious Cesare Borgia (Orson Welles); a 1500 AD conqueror who is set to devour the whole of Italy, one province at a time. Cesare has been exploiting his sister, Angela’s (Marina Berti) beauty to rack up husbands who are shortly thereafter poisoned, seceding all lands and titles to the Borgia family.
Also to his purpose, Cesare sends his most trusted co-conspirator, Andrea Orsini (Tyrone Power) to conquer Citte del Monte; the rich and fertile lands and kingdom belonging to Count Marc Antonio Verano (Felix Aylmer) and his much younger wife, Camilla (Wanda Hendrix).
Andrea’s self-appointed importance as a lady’s man, presupposes that Camilla will be just as easily swayed by his charm and good looks and thereafter betray her husband. Andrea’s mother (Katina Paxinou) is horrified when she learns of Andrea’s latest quest. She rightfully perceives her son as a dupe, dependent on Cesare’s every whim and command for his livelihood. But Andrea also holds a deeper dark secret – he has not been born to noble blood as Cesare supposes.
However, what Andrea discovers upon his arrival in Citte del Monte is a Count who desires nothing but peace, and a woman who is as loyal to her husband as he remains to his country. The experience is humbling, and Andrea turns coat to rise up against Cesare in a fight to the death. But will Andrea’s fair weather confidant, Mario Belli (Everett Sloane) – a man who began by plotting to assassinate Andrea, feel the same way about Andrea’s new found loyalty?
Sumptuously photographed by Leon Shamroy, with confounding and gargantuan sets designed by Thomas Little, and with a lush orchestral score by Alfred Newman, Prince of Foxes has everything going for it except narrative cohesion to keep the action and dialogue portions in perfect harmony. As Cesare, Orson Welles is obviously in his element and having a good time being master of all he surveys. But the narrative, jettisons his involvement with the story about midway through to focus on Orsini’s growing affection for the Count.
Alright, I’ll say it – the allure of Ty’ Power in period garb escapes this critic. He is ill served by breast plates, capes and spandex – appearing effeminate and not terribly engaged with his material as the lady’s man, in a way that Errol Flynn seemed all too readily and easily to assimilate into while retaining an air of devilish handsome and manly grace in similar fare over at Warner Bros. The appearance of Everett Sloane in similar attire is woefully laughable to say the least. Prince of Foxes is regarded as one of the best of this sort of cloak and dagger faux history epics. It is – but that isn’t saying much for the genre on the whole.
Fox Home Video’s DVD is impressively mastered. The B&W image is, for the most part, solid and nicely contrasted. The gray scale is well delineated, sharp without appearing digitally enhanced. Occasionally, age related artifacts are thicker than expected. There is also a hint of edge enhancement and pixelization, but neither will terribly distract. The audio has been rechanneled to stereo. The original mono is also available.
Extras include an isolated score (actually a score and effects track that rather defeats the purpose, since you hear everything from chains being dragged across a floor to swords clashing over the musical score, wholly ruining one’s appreciation for just the score). There’s also a stills and advertising gallery and a brief Movietones newsreel covering Power’s wedding to Linda Christian in Rome. The original theatrical trailer is actually the Italian trailer for the film, minus any narration.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)