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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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