PRINCE OF FOXES is a sweeping historical epic set in Renaissance Italy, distinguished by stunning location photography. It's an excellent film...alas, if only it had been filmed in Technicolor!
Orson Welles stars as power-mad Cesar Borgia, with Tyrone Power as one of his lieutenants, Andrea Orsini. The social-climbing Orsini is happy to comply when Borgia sends him to assess a small state ruled by Count Verano (Felix Aylmer) which Borgia hopes to take over. However, Orsini develops such respect for the ethical Verano and his young wife, Madonna Camilla (Wanda Hendrix), that when Borgia's troops approach, a reformed Orsini abandons his commitment to Borgia and pledges to fight on behalf of Verano and his people instead.
With its extensive Italian location shooting and gorgeous costumes by Vittorio Nino Novarese, this is surely one of the most visually sumptuous films of the '40s. Given all the effort that was made to shoot the movie in authentic locations all over Italy, it's truly baffling that 20th Century-Fox didn't shoot this film in Technicolor -- all the more so as one of the greatest Technicolor cinematographers of all time, Leon Shamroy, filmed the movie. It's incredibly rare that I'm not satisfied with a black and white film, but this was an unusual case where I found myself constantly trying to imagine how the settings must have looked in color.
I suspect this film may have been somewhat overlooked over the years due to the lack of color, and if so it's really too bad, as the film also offers several interesting performances. Welles, of course, is perfectly cast as the cynical, arrogant Borgia; he's absent from the screen for a lengthy section of the film, but his larger-than-life personality looms over the action. We know that when he returns to the screen, life will become very difficult for those who oppose him.
I felt this was one of Power's finest, most multi-faceted performances as a man working out many internal conflicts. Orsini, who was born a peasant, is revealed as a bit of a calculating con man who is only too happy to gain power in the service of Borgia. Orsini has interesting quirks, starting with his willingness to spare the life of Belli (Everett Sloane), who attempts to assassinate him; instead they forge an unusual partnership. (Belli's changing allegiances form a key aspect of the story and ultimately turn the scene in the film which is hardest to watch into a rather fascinating sequence.) Orsini proves himself capable of recognizing that the Count is a better man than the despotic Borgia and that he offers a better way of life, and Orsini also learns that freedom and good for all the people is more important than personal gain.
Orsini reveals a more sensitive side via his painting; he may be a grasping soldier-politican, but he also sees and creates beauty. He is honorable enough not to attempt to breach the relationship between Madonna Camilla and her husband, despite his growing love for the brave and beautiful young woman. Count Verano and his wife were married in order to provide her with protection, and although they have more of a father-daughter relationship than a true marriage, they treat one another with deep respect. The Count's final blessing to his wife and Orsini is a memorable moment.
I've read a few disparaging reviews of Wanda Hendrix's performance online, saying she was out of place in the film, but I liked her very much and thought she made a beautiful Renaissance noblewoman. I especially loved the scene where she tells Borgia's emissaries to, in essence, take a flying leap, and the flash of admiration in Orsini's eyes. Hendrix was something of a chameleon; for proof one has only to see her role as a young Mexican girl in RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947) or her part as a more modern Italian girl in CAPTAIN CAREY, U.S.A. (1950). In 1950 she also starred in my favorite Joel McCrea Western, SADDLE TRAMP.
The cast also includes Katina Paxinou as Orsini's peasant mother, Marina Berti as Angela Borgia, James Carney as Alphonso D'Este, and Joop Van Hulzen as Duke Ercole D'Este.
PRINCE OF FOXES was directed by Henry King, who had directed Power in the swashbucklers THE BLACK SWAN (1942) and CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE (1947). It's interesting King worked with ease on both historical epics and more intimate Americana such as MARGIE (1946) and I'D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN (1951).
The screenplay by Milton Krims is based on the book by Samuel Shellabarger, who also wrote CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE. The movie runs 107 minutes.
PRINCE OF FOXES is available on DVD in the five-film Tyrone Power Collection. Extras included the ability to listen to Alfred Newman's superb score as an isolated music track. The DVD is not available from Netflix (it's in the dreaded "Saved" section which means they haven't bothered to replace their inventory when needed), but it is available for rental from ClassicFlix.