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