Few westerns are wholly original. They borrow, grab and steal from those around them. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Tell that to Sergio Leone, who flatters all he can with Once Upon a Time in the West, yet another epic spaghetti western that finds comfort in the films that laid the foundations of the genre. Nothing wrong with being inspired or moved by art, if anything, Leone applies these works to his film because he is infatuated with the influence they have and the hold these Hollywood westerns have on his mind. He pulls Henry Fonda into the spaghetti genre, reverses the typical meanings of the strongest John Ford or Howard Hawks films, and fashions out a film equally respectful and filled with venom for the glory days of the popular western genre.
He is not a man of tropes. Leone fashioned out many typecast ideas that would be copied and coddled over the years, but he himself was always innovating. There is a far slower pace to Once Upon a Time in the West than should be expected of the spaghetti western genre. It broods on the landscape, the intentions of rugged cowboys and bandits displayed in plain horror, but hidden behind an exterior that presents a tense, unmoved pair of arrogant eyes. Frank (Fonda) captures this perfectly. The immoral man believes he can do what he wants and when he likes, for this is the old west, and there are no rules for hired hands. Once Upon a Time in the West is wholly built on the horrid actions of Frank. He sends killers after the harmonica-playing hero, played by Charles Bronson, frames his cold-blooded murders on Cheyenne (Jason Robards), and, in general, is just a nasty piece of work.
Fonda was indefinable as a western star. He played anguished, notoriety-hungry generals under the guidance of Ford, broken heroes in My Name is Nobody, and here, he has perhaps his most definitive, villainous work. Once Upon a Time in the West offers him the opportunity to play a role he rarely encountered. Truly villainous, irredeemable, and contemptuous. Leone strikes the right chords in the build-up to create an immoral character, and Fonda graces the screen with delightful venom. He counters the anti-hero antithesis we have seen before in the genre, with the likes of Lee Van Cleef by removing any form of redeemable quality. He is beyond salvaging as a hero or even someone who can make the right choice or decision.
Much of that comes down to the characters that surround Frank. Cheyenne and Harmonica are not perfect, but at least they are not dastardly or cunning. They are there to help, and it feels like they begrudge the work Frank has set out before him. Frank is running the show, his gang a strong force to be reckoned with. Leone lingers on their faces from time to time and wonders whether or not they would have an issue with Frank’s dastardly ways if they were part of his posse. The Hollywood western that Leone picks apart here was so defined by heroic characters doing the right thing. When did John Wayne offer us a truly black-hearted villain? Rarely, if ever. His films were black and white, The Duke was an in-and-out hero, the antagonist irredeemable through his actions and the consequences of them. Just look at Fort Apache, where Fonda played the villain hungry for glory, and Wayne swagged his way through, rallying the troops with his heroic efforts. Leone isn’t so much in awe of that as he is confused by the semantics of it. He does well to pick them apart throughout Once Upon a Time in the West.