At Home With the Borgias

Bride of Vengeance.  Wotta title.  Doesn’t it start you thinking?  It starts me.  It starts me thinking of blood.  Lots of blood.  As well as knives.  And angry women—presumably those brides out for vengeance.  Against whom, and why?  Does it matter?  The title alone plucks at our imagination, with fancied scenarios of gore-clad newlyweds hot for revenge, wielding knives and other instruments, sharp or blunt.  Who cares?  It’s the horror implied.  The Angry Bride, maybe still in wedding gown and orange blossoms, gunning for retribution, reprisal, retaliation, score-settling, and whatever else the thesaurus can supply.  Damn, it’s almost Opera.  With blood, vengeance, and murder on the High Cs.

Weelll…the movie—and I’m talking a movie here, not some blood-and-thunder music drama—is not quite like that.  Though we do get blood, some anyway.  That’s because the Borgias are involved.  That’s promising, isn’t it?  I mean, the Bloody Borgias.  Just what haven’t they done?  It’s family dysfunction in High Renaissance style.

The Borgias were the Godfather before Cosa Nostra became a thing, and, as a family, they were not known for piety and restraint.  At least as history portrays them.  But they are History, capital-H and all, and BOV purports to be a historical re-telling of part of the Borgia lives and times.  Particularly of Lucretia, the title bride, who, in today’s imagination, is thought to be the most notorious of the lot.  So, is she our bloody, knife-wielding, revenge-raging bride?

Nnnoott really.  Even if the film’s title sounds like a C-Level horror film (directed by Ed Wood), the film’s not.  It’s historical melodrama at its most amusingly fictionalized and overwrought, with a script that conjures situations out of a mid-20th-century rom-com (the film was released in 1949), though it takes place in the 16th century.  Borgias or not, certain cinema conventions are to be observed.

Which is probably why, throughout the film, we get these odd moments of comedy, such as the look on Lucretia’s face when her husband dumps her on the bed on her wedding night before he rushes off to save a burning building.  I bet the real-life Lucretia would have understood the emergency.  But being this is middle-brow Hollywood, our Lucretia, played by Paulette Goddard as a haughty wench with a teasing allure, makes a pouty moue.  Had Paulette played this scene in a sheer pink nightie in a palatial Beverly Hills spread, instead of in a jeweled gown in a rococo Renaissance palace, she’d probably have played it the same way, with the same bit-into-a-lemon expression.  Indignant brides are indignant brides, no matter the time or place.

Not to worry, though; we do get the Bloody Borgia stuff, even if BOV doesn’t start out like that.  The initial scene, right under the credits, displays elegant medieval ladies in civilized postures as civilized music, Renaissance lutes and such, plays on the soundtrack.  All calm, decorous and proper; no blood, no menacing chords, no frightened eyes, no shadows, no lurking suggestions.  I mean, there’s even a strumming troubadour and lacy fretwork adorning the credits.  Gosh, it’s pretty.

We might be lulled—or disappointed—into thinking BOV will be some turgid When-Knighthood-Was-In-Flower costume pageant (and the costumes themselves are sumptuous and detailed, with just the right overdone frippery to give the film the look of a savage fairy tale).  But then an assassin, lurking suggestively in the shadows no less, unleashes an arrow from a crossbow at an unsuspecting courtier.  It’s at that point we realize we can settle down, relax, and enjoy the knives, the poisons, the blood, the palace intrigues, and the other Borgia-esque fun the film goes on to supply.

But the best parts of the film are the performances of John Lund and Macdonald Carey.

Did I really write that?  Yes, I did, and meant it.  In previous posts I wrote that Lund and Carey as actors were a blank and a bore, only now I’m taking that back.  In BOV they portray, respectively, the real-life Duke of Ferrara and Cesare Borgia, and wotta difference an historical era makes.  Put these guys in the 1940s and they’re oatmeal.  But stick ‘em in the 16th century, pimped up in Renaissance threads and perukes, and a kind of alchemical change happens.  Lund’s mustache and perked hat do wonders for his face (I earlier criticized him for squinting, but here he uses that squeezed look for comic effect; he looks like he’s about to sneeze), and Carey’s pageboy wig makes him look both blasé and threatening, a greasy thug with hair trimmed by a butcher knife.  Even the doublets, puffed sleeves, and curled slippers they wear enhance; our boys don’t look silly but in character.  The effect is one of masculine power.  If clothes make the man, then bring on those codpieces and tights.

And both guys do good things in their acting.  Lund’s Duke is a ‘Zorro’ character, a seeming dandy who’s yet soberly aware of the Borgiean threat, and Lund plays the Duke on such levels, speaking his lines with a wink and a grin to let us in on the joke.  Pressed to respond to a Borgia invitation, Lund picks up on the internal rhyme in his answer:  “Ignore the Borgia,” he says, with a swinging rhythmic stress I wish I could reproduce in print.  It’s hilarious, deliberately so, with Lund’s pronunciation indicating much about the duke’s sly, masked character (it’s also layered—you sense not only the Duke having fun but, on a meta level, also Lund).  Or there’s his reply to Cesare’s declaration that he must leave town tonight; “So so-OON?” he asks, his tone implying it’s not soon enough.  In all his scenes Lund deftly makes you aware of who and what this Duke is—witty, stylish, ironic, and very, very smart.  He may be playing games but he’s moving the game pieces with a rapier.

Carey’s role may be the more difficult one, as audiences would have already been aware who and what Cesare Borgia is and have come primed for heavy-handed menace.  But Carey’s Borgia is low-key and quiet (Carey’s own qualities as an actor), never raising his voice, never making an unnecessary gesture.  You sense, beneath his cool exterior, how everyone is a pawn in his game of Power (with a capital P that rhymes with B that stands for Borgia), ordering up a murder as he would a salad.  The only passion he lets slip is for sister Lucretia:  “Do I please you, my brother?” are her first words onscreen as she primps herself for his pleasure; and Carey’s responding, adoring gaze foregrounds all those lurking suggestions that you’ve ever heard about these Borgia siblings and says that, yes, it’s all shockingly, frisson-ingly true.

Carey and Goddard evoke this unsettling Borgian dynamic with long, lingering looks and touches, signaling their relationship’s dark undertones without stumbling over Production Code toes:  Their farewell scene on her wedding night to Lund—he discussing warfare, she vengeance (she believes the Duke killed her former husband)—is played with the caressing intimacy of lovers.  Carey’s best moment may be his final one, when, realizing his sister has betrayed him, shock, sorrow, love, resignation, and self-recognition compress all at once, like facets of a prism, into his features.  Yet he remains loyal to Lucretia, refusing to take his own revenge.  In such a way does this Borgia reveal a latent nobility.

No one, on its release, seemed to have had much love for BOV.  Per IMDB, Ray Milland was first offered the Duke’s role, but preferred to have his studio (Paramount) put him on suspension rather than accept it (he especially objected to that title).  But I liked the film.  It’s entertaining and droll, perfect for Saturday night and popcorn, helmed by Mitchell Leisen with a swift, sure hand.  The film gives us intrigue, romance, skulduggery, foppishness, humor, violence, nasty behavior, hints of incest, and tongue-in-cheek innuendo:  Watch it for how the Duke offers all and sundry a peek at his statue of “my big Jupiter,” Lund spinning the not-too-subtle line with winking mockery.  It ain’t art but it’s fun.  Even the Borgias might have been amused.

Bride of Vengeance is available for watching on YouTube Movies here, unfortunately for a price.  I’m sure Cesare would not be pleased…

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