Sunday, 17 February 2013

Alternate Best Actor 1968: Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time In The West

Henry Fonda did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Frank in Once Upon a Time in The West.

Once Upon A Time In The West is in my opinion the greatest western ever made narrowly defeating Sergio Leone's previous film for that title. Anyway the film tells of a mysterious drifter named Harmonica (Charles Bronson) who with a bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) try to protect a widow (Claudia Cardinale) from a ruthless assassin who works for a railroad baron (Gabriele Ferzetti).

Henry Fonda who spent his long career usually playing the noble hero of films participates in one of the most extreme casting against types ever used in a film. Fonda not only plays a villain but he plays one of the lowest committed to film. In his first scene we initially witness three members of a family murdered by a mysterious gunmen leaving only the youngest boy of the family alive who is slowly approached by the men and it slowly pans around to reveal the face of their leader which is the face of Henry Fonda as Frank. Frank after seeing that the boy has heard his name only gives a slight smile before murdering the boy too.

This first scene of Frank is just incredible and leaves an undeniable impression. It of course is absolutely brilliant casting and direction to begin with, but Henry Fonda does more than merely being Henry Fonda. In this first scene which basically only shows his face Fonda changes his blue eyes and seasoned face from the man of warmth and love that we usually know to that of an uncompromising evil. His icy blue eyes are particularly striking here because Fonda shows not even the slightest remorse in them from his actions, and he only adds to this pure immorality by having that frightening smile that ever so slightly forms as he slowly about killing the last of the family he has massacred.

Henry Fonda does not reappear for quite some time and it is a testament to the power of his performance that he is not forgotten. He not only forgotten but through relatively limited screen time he actually makes Frank feel like he is one of the leading characters of the film. He makes his stamp in every one of his scenes no matter how much or how little he is in each one. Fonda is brilliant because of how straight arrowed he is in his approach as Frank. He keeps his voice and even his leading man style to a certain degree as Frank yet with all of the humanity removed. It is a truly compelling approach the way he does not reject his earlier performances really. Fonda instead he brings similar facets to his performance, but as a man without a soul.

The manner that he does everything brings to life the brutality of Frank marvelously. The way he goes about ordering deaths without a second the notice. He has moments that are just classic villain moments. He is excellent when Frank disposes of an informant by the way Frank moves almost like a machine as he does this. The absolute lack of hesitations in his portrayal is perfect for the role. One of my favorite moments of his has to be when we first see Frank after the massacre of the family and the rail road baron says it was not necessary. The casual manner that he sits the way he seems to be enjoying himself, and of course his delivery of the line "People scare better when they're dying" makes Frank an absolutely chilling character.

Of course Fonda does not just stop at being an unforgettable villain as Frank as he easily could have he gives even more texture to the part in a fascinating way. One particularly powerful moment that comes from this is when Frank asks what's Harmonica's name, but Harmonica only answers with the names of men Frank has killed. Fonda's reactions as Frank is brilliant because he again does not show remorse about the names but instead as he hears them it is almost like he is being haunted by the men as bring confronted with his crimes is not something Frank is usual to. Fonda shows it as something Frank barely knows what to do with as he leaves almost a confusion in his face that only adds to what Frank is.

Frank is given the chance to be more than a murderer in the film, and Fonda is given the chance to show Frank as more than just that. What is so special about his turn here is that Fonda's revelation about Frank is being brutal assassin is all he can be. Whether it is trying to be a business man with the rail road baron, or even trying to be romantic with the widow of the man he killed Fonda portrays it as entirely out of his element. Where the killing is something Fonda makes as second nature, but doing something a normal man would do is there is a general discomfort shown by Fonda. It is incredible the way that Fonda makes this absolutely work, and shows that the only thing Frank honestly knows is evil.

This is a performance by Fonda that is amazing in the way he turns everything on its head. He is Henry Fonda but as one of the most despicable possible. The affect of this is outstanding to say the least and he has such a visceral in his performance. Fonda being a traditional leading man usually has that charm that pops off the screen so is incredible to see him twist it to be used in such a manner as it is with Frank. He once again has something that pops of the screen but it is not charm this time. Fonda instead brings across the slick cruelty of Frank so easily. He oozes menace with such ease here that is something to watch. He makes Frank such an imposing villain with such an effortlessness, that is really the epitome of his talent.

18 comments:

RatedRStar said...

Fonda is quite underated I think, its quite surprising he only got 2 oscar chances in his entire career.

Mark said...

If OUTITW is your favorite Western, what's your favorite movie or movie you think is the greatest of all time?

Anonymous said...

I know this is off topic, but do you watch the Walking Dead, and if you do could you state your opinion on the actors in the show, (maybe even those whose characters have already passed)?

Louis Morgan said...

Mark: Well my favorite film is either Back to the Future or Amadeus (Theatrical Cut) I'm not sure which. Once Upon a Time in The West is one of my favorite films though.

Anonymous: I've never seen the Walking Dead.

dinasztie said...

Back to the Future rocks!!! :) Amadeus as well. :)

Anyway, Fonda is amazing here. It's so unlike his character and yet he pulls it off brilliantly.

Mark said...

Man, those are some great choices! Both those movies are awesome! Any how I actually keep a personal Top 20 just for fun. These are the top 10:

10. Saving Private Ryan
9. Apocalypse Now
8. Braveheart
7. The Departed
6. Terminator 2: Judgement Day
5. LOTR: The Return of the King
4. The Usual Suspects
3. Die Hard
2. Pulp Fiction
1. The Shawshank Redemption

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

My top 20 is something like this:

1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2. The Dark Knight
3. Fight Club
4. Ed Wood
5. The Godfather Part II
6. A Christmas Story
7. A Clockwork Orange
8. Goodfellas
9. The Shawshank Redemption
10. It's a Wonderful Life
11. The Tree of Life
12. Blue Velvet
13. The Proposition
14. The Return of the King
15. The Night of the Hunter
16. The Big Lebowski
17. The Bridge on the River Kwai
18. Memento
19. The Social Network
20. Traffic

Yeah, I know there's a lack of classics. Sorry.

RatedRStar said...

wow great list of films =D, my list of favorite films really isnt up to that par in terms of classics or even acclaimed films lol.

RatedRStar said...

20) The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
19)Laura
18)Clue
17)Hot Fuzz
16)Kiss Of The Spider Woman
15)Billy Budd
14)Arthur
13)20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
12)Back To The Future
11)Jaws
10)Lawrence Of Arabia
9)Children Of A Lesser God
8)Witness
7)The Collector (1965)
6)Notorious (1946)
5)Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)
4)Magnolia
3)In Bruges
2)La Belle Et La Bete
1)The Crying Game

RatedRStar said...

my list is quite strange lol.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

It's idiosyncratic, and that is a wonderful thing. I wish I had more diverse taste, but mine usually fall under "disturbing as fuck".

RatedRStar said...

whats urs Koook =).

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

It's posted right above yours.

Tanvir Bashar said...

Hey Louis I wud like to ask u why do u think Henry Fonda in once upon a time in the west was overall better performance than o toole in lion in winter just askin becuz I disagree

Louis Morgan said...

That technically are on the same level for me really.

Tanvir Bashar said...

Wat wud u say r Fonda's top ten best performances

Louis Morgan said...

1. Once Upon a Time in The West
2. 12 Angry Men
3. The Grapes of Wraith
4. On Golden Pond
5. Fail-Safe
6. Mister Roberts
7. The Ox-Bow Incident
8. The Best Man
9. Fort Apache
10. Sometimes a Great Notion

Tanvir Bashar said...

The only one performance u wud give a 5/5 for him is once upon a time