Retreating back into the drawing room after the sulfurous desert air of Cleopatra, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's contemporary revamp of Volpone is a prime example of an auteur growing aware of the thematic contours of his work without enriching or expanding on any of them. More self-conscious than self-reflexive, the movie shifts the usual Mankiewicz stand-in, the serenely venomous raisonneur (epitomized by George Sander's acid-pen in All About Eve), from sideline commentator to center-stage manipulator -- in fact, Rex Harrison's Cecil Fox, a cunning millionaire who constructs an elaborate charade from Ben Jonson's original play, is an almost nudging directorial self-portrait. Baiting three former mistresses (tough-broad Susan Hayward, Euro royalty Capucine, and Hollywood bunny Eddie Adams) with the glittering hook of inheritance, Harrison feigns illness with the help of his own Mosca (out-of-work perf Cliff Robertson) and, basically, orchestrates the mise-en-scène around all his verbose marionettes. The joke turns risky as Hayward turns up dead and demure nurse (and designated "voice of morality") Maggie Smith takes up snooping around Harrison's Venetian palazzo. The foregrounding of plot mechanics and the insistent artificiality (characters discuss the "script" and yearn for a dissolve) suggest faux-Pirandellian games linked to the clock motifs, although the execution is hardly Swiss-quality -- Mankiewicz, still mistrusting viewer as much as camera, dispenses info through windy voice-overs. As in the even more coagulated Sleuth, the filmmaker's autumnal self-recognition coarsens rather than refines his sensibilities, so that even Gianni Di Venanzo's lustrous cinematography has to give way to the synthetic cleverness of chatter. From Frederick Knott's play Mr. Fox of Venice. With Adolfo Celi.
--- Fernando F. Croce