best film: Once Upon a Time in the West. Fonda was in three masterpieces but only one made the top 100 of all-time (#52). Most critics think it’s Leone’s masterpiece (I still have The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly a few slots ahead of it). Leone is the genius behind the film that makes all the right movies- but his two most important collaborators in this film are Ennio Morricone and Henry Fonda. Fonda’s “Frank” is one of the great screen villains. Fonda almost always played a man of virtue, so to see him here, with his steely glare— jaw-dropping– and he’s spectacular. The two other masterpieces from Fonda (and the guy seemed to do nothing but make great films) are The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine- both with Ford. They’re excellent films themselves (obviously there are only about 300 total Masterpieces in film history)—but they can’t touch the heights of Leone’s film.

best performance: Fonda’s Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath is far and away the best performance of 1940 and right there with the best performances of the decade (many have it there all-time—Premiere Magazine had it #51 all-time). Fonda’s moral virtue has never better been put on display and it absolutely never feels like a rich Hollywood actor portraying a poor farmer during the dust-bowl set depression. It’s absolutely an authentic performance. His monologue to his mother (Jane Darwell) at the end speaking directly from Steinbeck is revelatory filmmaking and screen acting.

stylistic innovations/traits: Fonda is in three masterpieces (excellent in all of them), 29 total archivable films (only 3 of them are supporting roles (Fedora, The Longest Day, How the West Was Won) and is truly terrific in 11 films that deserve to be in the top 10 of their respective years (going over a 31-year-span starting with Fritz Lang in a gangster film and ending with Sergio Leone in a western). Fonda was excellent at playing a man of moral high-standards and high stature (one of fiction’s great characters Tom Joad, presidents (including Linoln), the juror in !2 Angry Men). He takes that persona though that he’d built up over 30 years and completely flips it on its head to play the sadistic “Frank” in one of the great screen performances in Once Upon a Time in the West. It is masterful casting and acting. He’s like Cary Grant in that he’s nearly genre-less- he does screwball comedy (Lady Eve). He didn’t quite have Grant’s suaveness but Grant couldn’t do a western like Fonda could either. It’s a testament to his depth of filmography that great performances in top-10 level films like Jezebel and You Only Live Once aren’t qite good enough to make his top 10 performances of all-time.

directors worked with:   Ford (7) and although this wasn’t as many as Wayne – 12—and their collaboration isn’t quite as important- it’s closer than many film critics and historians think. Preminger (3), Lumet (2), and then once a piece with Hitchcock, Lane, Wyler, Anthony Mann, Preston Sturges, Leone and Wilder

Top 10 Performances:

  1. The Grapes of Wrath
  2. Once Upon a Time in the West
  3. My Darlene Clementine
  4. 12 Angry Men
  5. The Lady Eve
  6. Young Mr. Lincoln
  7. Fort Apache
  8. The Ox-Box Incident
  9. The Tin Star
  10. The Wrong Man


Archiveable films

1937- You Only Live Once
1938- Jeezebel
1939- Drums Along the Mohawk
1939- Jesse James
1939- Young Mr. Lincoln
1940- The Grapes of Wrath
1941- The Lady Eve
1943- The Ox-Box Incident
1946- My Darlene Clementine
1947- Daisy Kenyon
1947- The Fugitive
1948- Fort Apache
1955- Mister Roberts
1956- The Wrong Man
1956- War and Peace
1957- 12 Angry Men
1957- Tin Star
1959- Warlock
1962- Advise and Consent
1962- How the West Was Won
1962- The Longest Day
1964- Fail Safe
1964- The Best Man
1965- In Harm’s Way
1968- Firecreek
1968- Once Upon a Time in the West
1968- The Boston Strangler
1978- Fedora
1981- On Golden Pond