Twentieth Century Fox’s “Prince of Foxes” (1949), a lavish adventure tale set amidst the court intrigue of the Borgias in Renaissance Italy, is never as much fun as it should be. With Orson Welles as the scheming, sly Cesare Boriga, this should be delicious tale of decadence and villany as the Borgias set friend against friend, enemy against enemy, friend against enemy and everyone in between.
But it all comes off rather turgid, which is typical of the Twentieth Century Fox house style when it comes to swashbuckling adventures. Fox’s swashbucklers tended to come off rather lumpen and leaden as compared to say, their Warner Bros. counterparts. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but just compare the Elizabethan court intrigue in Warner’s “The Sea Hawk (1940) against “Prince of Foxes” and you’ll know what I mean.
Tyrone Power plays an ally of Cesare Borgia who is sent north to a province to keep an eye on one of Borgia’s opponents (Felix Aylmer, familiar to horror fans as Peter Cushing’s father in Hammer’s 1959 version of “The Mummy.” Power takes a liking to the old man and an even greater liking to his much younger wife (Wanda Hendrix), which leads him to re-consider his alliance with the Borgias.
Despite its turgid pace, there’s still a lot to recommend it. The sets and costumes are lincredibly lavish. The film was made on location in Venice and other Italian locations. It’s a shame the budget did not allow for color, but the black and white photography is truly exquisite, and almost has a documentary feel to it. A battle scene in a forest has a gritty realism to it, as does a castle siege complete with fiery catapults and the pouring of hot oil on the castle attackers.
Power is suitably dashing and was one of those actors who look completely natural in period costume. (No one like that today, unfortunately). Welles makes a marvelous Borgia, but the show is stolen by Everett Sloane, who participates in an eye gouging scene (first demonstrated by squeezing grapes) that is still cringe-inducing today. I can only imagine the effect it had on 1949 audiences.
And then there’s the exquisite musical score of Alfred Newman (Randy’s uncle). Even when the film is less than inspiring, Newman provides a majestic main title and a soaring love theme…they just don’t write them like that anymore.
The DVD transfer, part of a Tyrone Power swashbuckling collection, is gorgeous, really showcasing the film’s marvelous black and white photography. While not one of my favorites, there’s enough good things in it to merit re-visiting over the years.
Rating for “Prince of Foxes”: Two and a half stars.