When Sergio Leone offers him to play the big villain of “Once Upon a Time in the West”, Henry Fonda hesitates, he who has most of the time interpreted honest and courageous characters in the cinema. The actor can nevertheless count on the advice of his friend Eli Wallach, who convinces him to accept.
Once upon a Time in the West : a murderous construction
After making Clint Eastwood a star with For a fistful of dollars, and for a few more dollars and The good, the bad and the uglySergio Leone opened his second trilogy in 1968 with Once upon a Time in the West. Based on a story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and the filmmaker himself, who is also surrounded by Sergio Donati for writing the script, the feature film tells the bloody construction of the railroad at Flagstone.
In this fictional town, tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) calls on the fearsome Frank (Henry Fonda) and his men to get rid of anyone who might harm or oppose his business. Having come to settle down and start a new life, Jill McBrain (Claudia Cardinale) discovers with despair that her husband Brett (Frank Wolff) and his children have been coldly executed. Frank suggests that these murders were committed by bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his gang.
At the same time, an enigmatic individual who calls himself Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives in the vicinity and immediately stands out for his handling of the trigger. Teaming up with Cheyenne, he intends to get revenge on Frank and free Flagstone from his grasp. The cast of this cult western also includes Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock, the three killers who wait at the station in the unforgettable opening scene of the cult western, which also benefits from the superb soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.
An unprecedented role for Henry Fonda
When Sergio Leone offers Henry Fonda to play the ruthless Frank in Once upon a Time in the Westthe actor is in his 60s and still has represented benevolence, integrity and bravery in film. Terms the opposite of the villain of the western. The actor was for example the young lawyer Abraham Lincoln in Towards his destinythe hero driven from his lands during the Great Depression of the drama Grapes of WrathSheriff Wyatt Earp in The Infernal Pursuit or even the juror who opposes all the others by voting not guilty in Twelve angry men.
Henry Fonda therefore hesitates to accept the role, a thousand leagues from those he is used to interpreting. He seeks advice from Eli Wallach who tells him not to miss a collaboration with Sergio Leone, assuring him thatit will be one of the best experiences of his career. Convinced, the actor ends up accepting.
Shock the audience
When he arrives on the set, Henry Fonda wears brown contact lenses, believing that her blue eyes might detract from her character’s creepy side. He also grows a mustache and a goatee, drawing inspiration in particular from the appearance of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. But the director asks him to shave and remove his lenses, which leaves the actor wary.
The actor understands the will of the director by discovering the sequence during which Frank appears for the first time. During this scene where Frank and his men are about to carry out a massacre, a circular movement of the camera approaches the killer, seen from behind with his long coat, to reveal his face and stop on his piercing gaze . Unforgettable images, which Sergio Leone thinks about being sure audiences will be shocked to see Henry Fonda as the villainwhich is undoubtedly one of the most memorable in the history of the western.