Henry King’s Prince of Foxes is a serviceable historical drama, but the presence of screen legend Orson Welles among its cast overwhelms everything in his path. When Welles is on screen, it is riveting stuff. When he is not, there is a temptation to wait until he returns.
The film stars romantic idol Tyrone Power as Andrea Orsini, an Italian noble in the service of notorious power broker Cesare Borgia (Welles). When Orsini is appointed as Borgia’s ambassador to Citta del Monte, it is with an eye to prepare it for invasion. Unknown to Borgia, however, Orsini’s allegiance is beginning to shift – and he hides a terrible secret.
Prior to World War II, Tyrone Power was one of Hollywood’s leading swashbucklers. After the war – during which Power piloted cargo planes for the US military – he had tired of historical melodrama and was far more invested in serious drama and theatre. You can sort of sense it in Prince of Foxes. By no means is Power phoning it in as such, but the spark that fuelled classics like The Mark of Zorro (1940) has dimmed considerably.
It is not for a lack of material. Milton Krims’ screenplay loosely adapts Samuel Shellaburger’s novel, packing it with all the intrigue, politicking, and betrayal one would expect from Renaissance Italy. Historical accuracy is, rather predictably, not a key concern, and 20th Century Fox had the novel’s villain Rodrigo Borgia (aka Pope Alexander VI) quietly excised in favour of his son Cesare. In return the Vatican granted Fox permission to shoot inside a number of genuine Catholic buildings across Italy. The Italian buildings and locations used throughout Prince of Foxes give it a wonderful sense of authenticity and beauty. Sadly, due to the expense involved, the studio elected to save costs elsewhere by shooting in black and white. Potentially one of Fox’s best-looking films of the decade wound up partly squandering the Italian vistas as a result.
In the end, however, it really is Orson Welles who sets the film ablaze with his showy, scenery-chewing turn as Cesare Borgia. He clearly relishes playing the villain, and does so with a Shakespearean intensity and an almost pantomime-like sense of casual cruelty. It is the 1940s equivalent of casting Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) – the antagonist is acting so vigorously that he almost seems to be from a different movie.
Elsewhere the film acquits itself well. Alfred Newman’s orchestral score swells as one would expect. Vittorio Nino Novarese’s Oscar-nominated costume designs are very attractive. Wanda Hendrix swoons appropriately for her role and genre. Everett Sloane is a small highlight, playing assassin-turned-sidekick Mario Belli with enthusiasm and charm. Tyrone Power, perhaps tired of the genre, still presents a strong presence and a likeable lead. The film may sit towards the end of this phase of his career, but he still sells it like a pro.