Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West

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This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy 

Monsters may be scary, serial killers chilling, demented authority figures frightful, but there’s something especially disturbing about a comfortably familiar and otherwise wholly decent person gone horribly bad. It’s unexpected, it’s not quite comprehensible, it throws all you think you know into question, and it was all these things that Sergio Leone brought to Once Upon a Time in the West when he cast Henry Fonda as Frank. You’d have a hard time finding someone in film whose screen persona was more of a fair, righteous, reasonable, upright, dependably dependable man than Fonda. Whether he was meek and mild, a stunned innocent, or possessed of passion, he was mostly a hero and good guy. Though he could very capably play anything on the scale of analytic to arrogant, be cool and even cruel, reserved and insensitive, never did he venture into this sort of blackhearted ruthlessness and cold blooded evil. In Leone’s masterpiece, Fonda was so bad, and so good at being bad that when you place Frank on a scale to see how he balances against all of Fonda’s powerfully memorable good guy roles, he’s not only counterweight enough but, depending who you ask, might even tip the whole contraption toward the dark side. Put Fonda as Frank  against all the other movie villains and I think that one goes to him too. This destroyer of children, user of women, abuser of the weak and crippled, this stalker and gunman is one of the movies’ worst bad men.

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Once Upon a Time in the West has been accused (by Roger Ebert, to name one) of taking its sweet time telling the story, but I have no such complaints; it’s one of my favourite westerns, tops to me in any genre for that matter. Epic is an overused word these days, but in this case there’s none that fits better. For its length and detail it certainly wastes no time introducing and defining its players. True to the operatic design and style of the movie, Fonda like all the main characters gets his own theme (amped guitar in his case), unsettling with an edge which befits a villain with a modern twist on tradition and gets your attention fast. And in one of the movie’s many signature and unforgettable character moments, Fonda gets the most shocking scene of his career, and western genre one of the best villain intros, in the way he appears at the home of people who inconveniently own land coveted by a railway baron.

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The family are obstacles to “progress” and so they are massacred by Fonda’s band of unseen killers. They only emerge from the dust and brush to approach the young boy that remains, frozen by fear. The gang, tall, lean, clad in dusters, are initially indistinguishable from each other, but it’s soon clear who their leader is, for the group pauses and parts, looking back to let one member step to the fore. That figure approaches the boy, and when it’s only the two of them in the frame, the camera slowly tracks around to reveal this killer is Henry Fonda, those baby blues of his staring at the boy before gunning him down with a smirk, just because he’s had the misfortune of hearing the name Frank.

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If you allow me one Captain Obvious moment I’ll use it to say that those piercing eyes are a huge part of Fonda’s impact in this movie. Those ice blue electric eyes, luminous beneath the dark shadow vast by his wide brim, standing out in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly orange desert, the red hair of the family he was sent to exterminate, and the brown sunburnt dust caked skin of most of the characters. Hard to believe those creepy peepers weren’t even a consideration in Fonda’s vision of his “S.O.B.” character.* In preparing for the role (which Eli Wallach talked him into taking, thank you Eli), he assumed that dark and dastardly would work better, so he planned to wear brown contacts and an elaborate mustache. When he arrived to the shoot Leone said NO. He wanted Fonda with those eyes. Those thousand yard lasers glinting like his clean and polished gun, can see you hiding from a mile away, measure you up, give you hope of escape or mercy then decide your life’s not worth a speck. No amount of cosmetics or CGI can make something like that.

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As a hired gun, Frank is just a tool, a sharp edged instrument serving the purposes of employer and new class of villain, the railway man Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). But ironically it’s in the scenes with Ferzetti that Fonda really puts across that he’s something more than an inhuman killing machine. He conveys a cunning, derisive, suspicious wisdom in lines like “How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.” Frank recognizes society’s new direction, the new model of villainy which Morton represents, powers using the force of money as a weapon, and sees it will doom the gunslinger type to obsolescence. He would move up to that higher level but sees that he’s a dying breed, “an ancient race,” and accepts his position.

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A villain this epic deserves a hero fit to dispense justice of the most poetic order, which is exactly what we get in Charles Bronson’s Harmonica. Though we don’t fully comprehend Harmonica’s motivation and history with Fonda until the very end, we know he is some figure seeking revenge, some mysterious creature born of Fonda’s cruelty and past sins, a man with many names, all Frank’s victims finally, inevitably catching up to him for a final “appointment.” We need not know the exact reason for the showdown to expect it will be epic. And when it comes it takes almost 9 minutes for the two to circle, position, stare, flez and ready trigger fingers and measure each other up. Right before the fatal shot, we discover in flashback how a much younger (and creepier) Fonda posed the boy Bronson so that his brother’s life rested literally on his shoulders, dependent on him playing the instrument whose name defined his life thereafter. As clear and sharp as Fonda’s vision has been, retribution is something he either never saw coming or chose to deny would call on him, and only realizes at the very end who it is that’s ended him.

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Frank may have been finished by Harmonica, and in that setting he may have faded anyway as men like Morton took over, but Fonda’s Frank lives on to all who have been impressed with Once Upon a Time in the West; he stays with you, living rent-free, chilling a little corner of your movie memory, staring down and smirking in the general direction of other movie villains who try to take residence there.

*Fonda talks about his “baby blues” and preparing for the role in this interview http://youtu.be/cHI6Hl7FUqA

**images mostly from this tumblr

***while writing this post I played my harmonica

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings,Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Me, Kristina of Speakeasy  — see all the movie baddies at any of these three and by visiting this hub at my own blog

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34 thoughts on “Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West”

  1. Excellent. That’s superb overview of a sweeping epic, cleverly focusing on one of its most memorable characters.

    1. Thank you! In some ways it’s tougher to write about top favourites since there’s so much to say, so I hoped to do justice. He’s so great there and every time I watch the movie I like it more and see more in it. Could go on….

      1. Agree with all you say there. I think you’re right to concentrate (mainly) on one aspect of such a movie – it adds more depth to the piece and makes it more interesting to read.

  2. Bravo! Just makes me want to watch it again. Such a great baddie. Great job in pointing out how he isn’t just a total outlaw. He starts to think there’s more to this and starts dreaminig bigger. Beyond the guns. But in the end he’s just a cruel S.O.B. Thanks for that youtube link, I hadn’t seen that clip and it’s great. AS you know if forced to pick a fave western I usually name 3 and this is one.

    1. loved to see Fonda talking about it, that quote at the end of the interview is priceless. I always seem to discover something new abut this movie every time i think about it or watch it again, and agree it really is an amazing work. thanks!

  3. It’s always great to see one of those actors with the “good guy” label turn to the dark side. It makes you think that, in some ways, actors like Fonda and Jimmy Stewart were almost wasted in the “Golden Age” where studios were so reluctant to have stars expand their range.

    1. yes people really got pigeonholed and if they managed a different role, it was only after a struggle, whether it was good guys playing bad or pretty boys wanting something meaty to play. Good thing they managed to make movies like this to show off other sides of their talent. Excellent casting by Leone. Thanks for stopping by to read these and comment, much appreciated

  4. I think Leone has a knack for creating pretty amazing bad guys in his movies, and Frank is up there with Ramon and Indio (portrayed by the unparalleled Gian Maria Volonte’). Very nice analysis of the character.

    1. very much so, they are depicted in a kind of shorthand, very brief but hard hitting moments that you remember. and casting is such a huge part of it, no wonder he wanted Fonda for this. Thanks for reading!

  5. I adore Henry Fonda’s performance in this film. A brilliant choice to cast him against type. He pulls off the villainous character incredibly well.

    1. Yes absolutely Leone knew what he was doing when he sought Fonda for those years, Thank goodness he finally got him, and that we got this performance, it’s a tough one to beat in any genre. Thank you !

  6. I was stunned when I first saw him in this; much like Jimmy Stewart, many folks don’t credit him with this kind of grit! 🙂 That a Fonda could face a Bronson and be an equal badass is an exquisite miracle. This is some great choice for a great villain!

    1. agreed on those nice men being so amazingly good as villains, and it’s not just the surprise of different casting that sells it, I mean they truly have it in them to pull off these roles and scare you. The casting all around here was just perfection. Thanks for reading!

  7. Perfect villain choice!! Few have graced the screen with as much villainy as Fonda in this film. I like to watch this film right after “Firecreek” where Fonda plays another western villain, but a much different one, and with much different results. The two films really show his ability to act with his eyes and facial expressions. What a talent. What an actor. What a villain!

    1. that’s a great double feature, not just thematically but comparison like that really helps you see the different acting choices it takes to bring those characters to life.
      thanks so much for reading, and thanks for being part of this awesome event.

  8. You are so right about the contrast of Henry Fonda’s eyes against the dark brim of his hat. I’ve only ever seen the last half of this film, and it is SO unnerving to see Fonda as a bad guy. But he’s so good in that role! It was a brilliant casting choice.

    1. If only the last half then you don’t see the massacre, in which, as tough as it is, Fonda is just something to behold– I can only imagine the audience reaction back then seeing him intro’d like that. He refers to one (hilarious) reaction in that youtube interview I linked. Thanks for reading!

  9. I loved the analysis of how his baby blue eyes are important for the color pallete, I had never thought about it.
    Indeed, Fonda was very good at playing bad. As much as I like Once Upon a Time in the West, my favorite western is another with Fonda playing a guy not exactly bad, but stubborn: Fort Apache.
    Thanks for the comment and for co-hosting this great blogathon!
    Kisses!

    1. yes cool vs. heat/dry, the colors were like a painting. He was really great in Fort Apache, love that movie. He had a distance there that must have been the type of thing that made Leone want him so much for this. Thanks for reading, commenting, and taking part 🙂

  10. I’ve never seen this one, but your review makes it sound like I’ve been missing out. I like the slow-burning westerns the best, and how well you capture Fonda’s presence in it. That great description of his eyes reminded me of the sunglasses on Cool Hand Luke’s villain–can’t imagine the film without them. Leah

    1. highly recommended especially for Fonda fans, and you would like it then; it does unfurl slowly and stylishly, and as some have been known to say, it’s an opera. thanks for reading.

  11. I haven’t seen this movie yet, but this reminds me how much I liked him in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. He wasn’t a bad guy there but chosen for his good guy reputation. Similar to Jimmy Stewart with those brilliant blue eyes. When they played bad guys, not often, they were exciting for many reasons. Thanks for this terrific post about Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.

    1. Well thanks for checking this out, and also for taking part! I love him in the Wrong Man, he had that down, bewildered and also determined. Agree, Stewart could be intense too when needed, and I love seeing those different roles.

  12. Wonderful post! Who would’ve guessed that nice Mr Fonda could play bad so well? I like to think he had fun in this role; for me it’s one of his best. The youtube clip you included at the end is a gem, will have to give this one a re-watch, if only for those piercing eyes.

    1. thank you, I did read where Fonda said this was his fave role. I love in that interview, him quoting the reaction to his intro, ha. Yes watch it again, I did and will, always see something new and interesting. Thanks for reading and being part of the blogathon!

  13. Great post! I looooove Westerns, but was always a little put off by spaghetti Westerns (my dad loved them). They seemed to take place in an alternate universe (which they kind of did). But I do love Once Upon a Time in the West, and Fonda’s performance is a big reason why. It’s always a joy to see a a great actor do something outside the box, and you can’t get more outside the box than this for Fonda!

    1. yeah that sounds like me, I kinda liked them but didn’t really get into them until I was a bit older. And (not my original idea but) Once Upon is really an operatic structure, which is another thing that requires a bit of maturity to appreciate probably. Even now whenever I watch it I see something I missed before. Thanks for being here and taking part in this!

  14. One of my most favorite films ever. Probably the first Western that made me realize Westerns could be as great, as striking, as puzzling as other genres. And your description of Fonda–especially the ice-blue eyes under the shadow of the hat–is dead on. He is deliciously shocking in this film. And if you’ve talked more folks into watching it, you’ve done an exceptionally good deed. 😉 Thanks!

    1. well thank you. I always try to turn people on to westerns and this is a really good one to include for newbies to the genre, I agree. Especially if they’re coming from other classic movies then seeing Fonda like this is a bonus hook I would think. I mean I could write a whole essay about that opening scene! and I didn’t even get to Claudia, and and and…
      thanks for reading

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