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A Fonda-ness for Westerns

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

The lanky, laconic Henry Fonda starred in just as many John Ford Westerns as his colleague John Wayne, but he's more remembered for his well-spoken, upright heroes than for his cowboys. Still, if it weren't for his brilliant performance in Young Mr. Lincoln, John Ford might never have envisioned him for Wyatt Earp.

My Darling Clementine (1946, Fox)
This Wyatt Earp story may be John Ford's most achingly beautiful Western. Earp (Henry Fonda) and his two brothers settle in tombstone after cattle rustlers murder their fourth and youngest brother. There he meets Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and enters into a love triangle with Doc's girlfriend Clementine (Cathy Downs). Shot mostly in interiors, Ford gives the film a deep-focus luster -- the few outdoor scenes are just as lovely -- and tones down the action while focusing on the central characters. It's a kindred spirit to Ford's very romantic The Quiet Man. Fox's beautiful transfer is nearly perfect, marred by only a few lines and flaws. The disc comes with producer Darryl Zanuck's theatrical release cut as well as Ford's preferred version, plus a documentary that explains the difference between the two, and a commentary track by Earp's grandson!

Ford cast Fonda as a villain only once, in Fort Apache, but Fonda was never quite as ruthless and low-down as he was in Sergio Leone's 1969 epic.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969, Paramount)
Italian master Sergio Leone followed up his Clint Eastwood Man with No Name/Dollars trilogy with this even bigger, bolder film. Beginning with its stunning, nearly silent ten-minute opening sequence, the film follows a nameless hero known as Harmonica (Charles Bronson) on the trail of a cold-blooded low-down dirty dog (Henry Fonda) -- so damn mean he kicks the crutches out from under a crippled man. At the same time, a former prostitute (Claudia Cardinale) turns up just as her new husband and his family are brutally murdered. Jason Robards plays the trash-talking gunfighter who is wrongly accused of the slaughter. As with his other films, Leone concentrates on only the biggest, most operatic moments, and escalates the very smallest gestures -- such as the lighting of a match -- to huge career-making moments. The 165-minute feature doesn't always make perfect sense, but it's a thrill to just sit back and enjoy the scenery.

The great Woody Strode appears in the opening scene along with Jack Elam, future directors Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci co-wrote the screenplay and Ennio Morricone provides yet another breathtaking score based around Bronson's harmonica. Paramount's superb disc comes with an informative commentary track and a second disc full of featurettes and other goodies.

1969 was a good year for Westerns. But, strangely enough, this film and The Wild Bunch were ignored in favor of the much tamer and much more cuddly Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Only two years later, Henry's son Peter directed and starred in a kind of arty Western that only could have been made in the early 70s and in the wake of Easy Rider.

The Hired Hand: Collector's Edition (1971, Universal/Sundance Channel)
Photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, this stunningly beautiful Western is one of the great, underrated films of the 70s. Peter Fonda and Warren Oates play a couple of drifters who ride around until Fonda finally decides after seven years to go back home to his wife. As director, Fonda concentrates on rhythms and moods more so than on plot, and the lovely cinematography certainly helps. The film comes in a beautiful, restored transfer and comes with a new commentary track by Fonda. (No subtitles.) The second disc comes with a feature-length making-of documentary, deleted scenes, cast and crew bios, advertising materials, production notes, and comments from Martin Scorsese.

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