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.
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.
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.
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.
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.