Monday, February 18, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Prince of Foxes (1949)

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.

Update: PRINCE OF FOXES is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.


Blogger dfordoom said...

I'm liking Tyrone Power more and more. I really want to see this one.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

I love this movie, it's so grand, the hills & castle scenery is something else, though I agree it would have been much more stunning in colour. Another of those charming/ calculating roles for Tyrone, he did them so well. If I recall, Wanda was sick for most of her time in Italy. Nice review

2:25 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I'm so fond of King's "Americana" pictures that I'm prone to overlook his epics. You make a strong case for adding this to my must-see list.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

Maybe Fox filmed in Italy because they couldn't take their profits out of Italy. That's a common story all over Europe after the War. And because they chose to film in italy, the logistics of Technicolor, were just not possible in Italy in the late 40's. Cinecitta had been bombed during the war *and* it was government run. I can't think of better reasons why color technology would be a problem at that time.

I have not seen this film since I was a kid, and it was on an old B/W TV with scratchy reception. Power looks fantastic under no matter what.

9:23 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

Wouldn't this have been great in technicolor? All that great scenery! Just love Orson Welles and Tyrone Power in this one.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

So glad to know so many of you have enjoyed this as well. The castle and the interiors of the halls and chapels are really spectacular, in service of a good, well-acted story. Caftan Woman, I'd love to know what you think of it.

Crocheted Lace, I was interested to note that this was filmed in Italy relatively soon after the war. I know that Disney had to shoot a few films in England in the early '50s because their funds were tied up there but don't know if that was an aspect of Fox's decision. It seems strange to me that, having decided to film there so extensively, Fox wouldn't have shipped over Technicolor equipment for their production if needed, but perhaps that would be easier said than done in that era?

Best wishes,

10:12 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

This film comes from an interesting and well researched novel by Samuel Shellabarger. Popular in the forties and fifties. The production is good. Black and white works well for the tone of the material. And there are a pair of excellent performances. Welles and Sloane. Power is ok. The rest, Hendrix and Aylmer especially, dull, dull.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

Maybe because if Fox shipped over very valuable equipment, they would have had to pay enormous customs fee to get it into the country or because they would have had a hard time getting it back out of the country. Bureaucracy aside, it wouldn't just be the technicolor cameras, it's the support equipment, very large lighting requirments, reliability of electrical supply, and ability to develop the film during production. Somehow I think post war Italian infrastructure could not handle technicolor requirements. (Italian neo-realism was born of necessity - they had a hard time lighting studios, so they went out doors.)

Most studios had ticket revenues tied up in Europe and faced the same issues of filming there to use up funds. That's why Robert Taylor made those color epics like Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward, and Knights of the Round Table in England

1:47 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Interesting points about the infrastructure, Crocheted Lace. Disney was able to make a film like TREASURE ISLAND (1950) in Technicolor in Britain but perhaps there would have been more challenges along the lines of the possibilities you suggest in Italy.

I tried Fred Guiles' otherwise excellent biography of Tyrone Power for info but unfortunately there's a big hole where info on this movie should be, instead focusing on his marriage to Linda Christian in Italy while he was over there in '49.

Best wishes,

2:19 PM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

I've never seen this film - and, incredibly, have never even heard of it! Thanks for reviewing and drawing attention to it. :)

7:34 PM  
Blogger The Lady Eve said...

Laura, Could the timing be more perfect?! I just received "The Tyrone Power Collection" from Amazon. I haven't seen "Prince of Foxes" for years (and years) and remember little about it. Thanks to your fine review I now have a good idea of what to expect and what to look out for.

4:41 PM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

Don't compare Britain to Italy as far as post war infrastructure. Italy was an invaded and conquered country. Italy had more to recover from, including the biggest movie studio being a refugee center for a few years after the war.

7:22 PM  

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