This week on Staff Selects we honor the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone whose worked stretched from Leone to Carpenter to Pasolini to Tarantino and to hundreds of others in between.
There are six cinematic musical scores that will go down in history as instantly recognisable: The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Psycho, and The Dollars Trilogy. For each listed, their success and significance would not be half as popular without their respectively timeless scores. Just like the first and third entries of the eponymous trilogy, For a Few Dollars More starts with one of Sergio Leone’s majestically wide establishing shots set to Morricone’s forever iconic galloping twang. Filled to the brim with endlessly memorable sound bites and unique themes, perfect for whistling whenever. The west may have been won by modernity—and conquered by the invader white man—but its defining sound and legacy was brilliantly crafted by the recently departed legendary composer, Ennio Morricone. The blaring horns, the whooshing whips, the lonely whistles, beating drums, fiddling guitar, choir chants, all instantly transport you to the romanticised spaghetti flavoured westerns of my childhood. Such a dramatic tonal shift and adrenaline-inducing score and fistful of leitmotifs to set this burgeoning western apart. Few filmmaker/composer duos can introduce their characters with such swagger, capturing the essence of their capability with little to no speech; granted each role is perfectly cast with respectively created and cemented legends Clint Eastwood and Lee van Cleef, and to a slightly lesser degree, returning maniacally weed-smoking Gian Maria Volonté. Fun fact, it’s also the film that got Klaus Kinski more mainstream attraction and his massive role in Doctor Zhivago. The first 23 minutes of the film establish all our players with their own signature iconography, allowing the following masterfully-paced 100 minutes straight to a bounty hunting free-for-all between three complex parties. For a film that is over two-hours, it sure flies by like a wool hat in the air. And did I mention it was all made for $600,000?
Oh, to be able to transport back to 1967 US, where Leone’s entire trilogy was released back to back—on account of exportation issues risen from copyright problems with aforementioned Yojimbo. Fellow westerns aficionados will acknowledge the abundance of similarities this superior sequel has to Hollywood westerns (such as 1954’s Vera Cruz), similar to how A Fistful of Dollars was a feature homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone now comfortable actually placing his real name on his film introduces his vision of a western: the rest is history. Regardless of not being quite as cinematic and overlong as it’s follow-up, Dollars More is absolutely a massive step up in scale from its predecessor, with a more elaborately tense operatic score, a lived-in cast, painterly direction, and interwoven narrative from Leone’s third—out of only seven total—film. Many claim the likes of John Wayne and John Ford to be king in terms of the western, but for me, it has and always will be Leone’s crew, which is elevated from pure gold to immortalised platinum by Morricone’s unique sound. It’s always been a dream of mine to make a pilgrimage to Almería, Spain, where most of these westerns were filmed. I have all the more reason to get that horseback ride set to Morricone’s score, now. Addio Maestro, forse puoi insegnare al coro angelico una cosa o due. [Lee]
A film’s score often accentuates its beauty, but in the case of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s graphic, controversial satire of fascism Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Ennio Morricone’s stunning score, along with some striking cinematographic work, elevates the film to its twisted beauty. Where there is ugliness, the sequences of brutal assault and torture, plus plenty of literal shit, there is also light wrought from sound, a gentle score that shows the beauty of the world that could exist without this abuse of power. Unlike most of Morricone’s scores, in particular Once Upon a Time in America, the score does not heighten the film in a way that creates its magic, but is almost unnoticeable as the shocking imagery commands our attention. The torture of the youth in the film is contrasted by this swelling, beautiful music that is like the joy that is robbed from them, and would be a treat on rewatch, if one could ever stomach it. While not the flashiest, it’s certainly the most contrasting with the subject matter, and for a composer known for Sergio Leone and giallo collaborations, it feels contradictorily peaceful. [Sarah]
Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life
Though perhaps known best for his collaborations with Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone’s collaborations with legendary Italian directors did not stop there, having created a number of scores for Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, made up of Il Decameron (The Decameron), Il racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales), and Il fiore delle Mille e una Notte (Arabian Nights), saw the director adapting a number of classic works of literature into film. Each film takes place in a different country, in a different century, and is comprised of numerous unconnected stories that are often humorous and borderline obscene critiques of modern society. Taken alone, each film is amusing and offers some interesting commentary, but together they are a beautiful testament to the human artistic spirit and its ability to be universal and timeless through specificity. Some of the most important elements tying the three films together given the lack of narrative connectivity even within the films, are Ennio Morricone’s scores. Effortlessly evoking every distinct time and place in a way few other composers could, Morricone also managed to sneak enough of the same cues into every score that connections to past scenes would be made. There is no single score that wouldn’t qualify Morricone as one of the foremost composers in film history but the range exhibited throughout the trilogy is a breathtaking testament to the full extent of his genius. [Henry Baime]
Maestro Morricone and John Carpenter made for such a magical collaboration, you would think that The Thing was crafted with the score in mind and not the other way around. It is unconventionally dialed back when compared to his other works, the low synth striking underneath the frigid cold of the arctic research station. Despite Morricone’s best efforts, his score went largely unused in the final cut of the film. What remains, however, is one of his best. The subtlety is key here, as with most aspects of The Thing. The score rarely sets the scene, but accentuates every moment it applies to perfectly.
One of the most iconic tracks from the soundtrack for the film is a Jaws esque escalating tune known as “Bestiality.” Despite being the best song Morricone composed for the film, it does not appear in The Thing, as he and Carpenter frequently clashed over how much music should be in the film. This was a blessing in disguise, however, as Tarantino later used the song in a climactic moment in his own one-location arctic thriller The Hateful Eight. Like the shapeshifting alien, Morricone’s score took on more forms than anyone anticipated. The Maestro’s rare foray into the horror genre is certainly an appreciated one from me. [Jen]
Staff Selects a fistful of dollars akira kurosawa arabian nights clint eastwood doctor zhivago dollars trilogy ennio morricone for a few dollars more gian maria volonte indiana jones john carpenter john ford john wayne klaus kinski lee van cleef once upon a time in america pier paolo pasolini psycho salo or the 120 days of sodom sergio leone star wars the canterbury tales the decameron the godfather the thing vera cruz yojimbo