I’ve been eager to do a tribute to Italian film composer Ennio Morricone for some time now. Upon watching EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC on VHS last month, it struck me how much a part of the cinematic landscape Morricone was in my peak moviegoing years, particularly the 1970s. So today, on the occasion of the maestro’s 84th birthday, I want to recount highlights of my long relationship with the music of one of my favorite film composers.
My first exposure to Morricone’s music came when bandleader Hugo Montenegro recorded a Top 40 version of Morricone’s theme for the Italian western, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, in 1967. (When Montenegro died in 1981, several obits mistakenly credited him with the composition of that tune.) It would be a couple of years before I heard Morricone’s actual arrangement of it in my first screening of the film. Before that, the first Morricone film I saw in theaters was ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Sergio Leone’s fourth Italian western and the first to follow the famed “Dollars” trilogy which starred Clint Eastwood as “the Man with No Name.” It was July 21, 1969 at the Kent Theater in the Bronx and it was the second Italian western I was exposed to. (The first, THE UGLY ONES, seen four months earlier, did not have a score by Morricone.) I already knew that Morricone had brought something different to the western with his scores, but nothing had prepared me for that moment when his jangling electric guitars blared out of nowhere, the first notes in the film, 22 minutes in, signaling the emergence of a pack of killers from the dust-covered bushes of the Southwest landscape after they’ve slaughtered in cold blood all but one of the McBain family. As the killers approach the one member they missed, a little boy, the camera circles around to focus on a closeup of the head of the gang, none other than blue-eyed Young Mr. Lincoln himself, Henry Fonda!!! Wow. When one of the gang asks, “What do we do about him, Frank?” Fonda responds, “Well, now that you’ve called me by name…” before finishing the job on the poor kid. This wasn’t one of my father’s westerns.
Later, as Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) leaves the train station, worried because no one has met her, she rides in a wagon out into John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, as the most lyrical of full-bodied orchestral scores, with wordless vocal accompaniment, celebrates the soaring spirit of the open west. Beautiful.
Still later, we hear the haunting harmonica theme associated with a nameless character dubbed “Harmonica,” played by Charles Bronson, who is stalking Fonda’s Frank for reasons kept mysterious for much of the film but revealed during the breathtaking final showdown between the two men, punctuated by a heart-wrenching flashback to Bronson’s youth. The combination of such distinct camera moves and such unusual instrumental arrangements made me excited about the art of film in a way I hadn’t quite experienced before.
A couple of months later, I went to see another Italian western scored by Morricone, Giulio Petroni’s DEATH RIDES A HORSE, my first Italian western with Lee Van Cleef, Eastwood’s co-star in two of the “Dollars” trilogy. (A key theme from this score would later be used to great effect on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL, VOL. 1.)
On October 8, 1969, I finally saw one of the “Dollars” trilogy, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, on a double bill with Eastwood’s first post-Leone Hollywood film, HANG ‘EM HIGH. It was great to finally hear THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY theme music played in its original arrangement over that incredible explosive credits sequence. What raw power it had, compared to Montenegro’s watered-down radio recording. (One of the components missing from the pop record was the yell or cry of anguish that’s turned by Morricone into a key instrumental element. I’m still not sure how he achieved that.)
There’s so much great music in the film, but if I had to pick a favorite combination of image and music, it would be the scene late in the film when Tuco (Eli Wallach) finally reaches the cemetery where the money was hidden and runs frantically through it searching for the particular grave, with the camera’s telephoto lens following him closely throughout the action, while the music propels him, a combination of brass and wordless choral arrangements.
The following year, exactly seven months later, on May 8, 1970, I finally caught the first two in the trilogy, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, both containing great scores and each offering unique sounds. Morricone may have repeated himself a lot in his long, prolific career, but not in the films he did for Leone. So, within a year I’d seen Leone’s first four Italian westerns all with Morricone scores (he would do two more for Leone).
A week later, on May 15, I saw my first Italian western by Sergio Corbucci, THE MERCENARY, and it also had a score by Morricone. Corbucci was Leone’s contemporary and, many would argue, the second best director of Italian westerns. He’s best known for DJANGO (1966), which, like THE MERCENARY, starred Franco Nero (who’s making an appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming DJANGO UNCHAINED). The film was about a trio of characters at large in the Mexican Revolution, with Polish mercenary Franco Nero charging Mexican rebel Tony Musante lots of money for his services, while villain Jack Palance is in continual pursuit. It was certainly one of the best non-Leone Italian westerns that season and Morricone’s score was a significant element.
Over the next four years, the Morricone films I’d see in theaters included:
Don Siegel’s TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, the first fully American film Morricone scored and one which also starred Clint Eastwood;
Phil Karlson’s HORNETS’ NEST, a U.S.-Italian WWII movie with Rock Hudson;
Henri Verneuil’s THE SICILIAN CLAN, a French caper thriller starring Alain Delon and Jean Gabin;
Leone’s final western, DUCK, YOU SUCKER, with James Coburn and Rod Steiger;
Verneuil’s THE BURGLARS, a French caper/car chase comedy thriller with Jean-Paul Belmondo;
Sergio Corbucci’s COMPANEROS, a follow-up to THE MERCENARY;
Tonino Valerii’s Italian western comedy, MY NAME IS NOBODY, “presented” by Leone and starring Henry Fonda and Terence Hill.
I’d also make return visits to see the Leone “Dollars” trilogy every time any of them came back to theaters (which was often back then—United Artists made a lot of money circulating these and the James Bond films into neighborhood theaters in those years).
Later in the 1970s, I saw the following Morricone films in theaters: 1900, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, ORCA, and DAYS OF HEAVEN. As neighborhood theaters closed down, the opportunities for discovering little-noticed European genre films shifted to TV and I had to content myself with Morricone’s more high-profile projects in theaters. In 1983, I managed to catch a 42nd Street double bill of two Morricone films: John Carpenter’s THE THING and Tony Anthony’s 3-D extravaganza, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS.
Meanwhile, on TV, local stations played lots of Italian genre films, all dubbed in English, many of which had bypassed theaters in the U.S. With a photocopied list of Morricone’s credits acquired from the public library (in the pre-IMDB era), I made sure I knew which of these films had scores by Morricone. Some of them were Italian westerns I’d missed in theaters, e.g. THE BIG GUNDOWN, GUNS FOR SAN SEBASTIAN, NAVAJO JOE, THE HELLBENDERS, THE FIVE MAN ARMY and BLOOD AND GUNS (aka TEPEPA). There was the spy spoof, MATCHLESS, starring Patrick O’Neal, and the caper comedies, A FINE PAIR, starring Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale, and Mario Bava’s DANGER: DIABOLIK, starring John Phillip Law. There was the war drama DIRTY HEROES; and crime thrillers like THE FAMILY (VIOLENT CITY), starring Charles Bronson; MACHINE GUN MCCAIN, starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk; and THE MASTER TOUCH (UN UOMO DA RISPETTARE), starring Kirk Douglas. There were “giallo” thrillers by Dario Argento (BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, CAT O’ NINE TAILS) and the occult thriller HOLOCAUST 2000, starring Kirk Douglas. There was Giuliano Montaldo’s political drama, SACCO AND VANZETTI, with theme songs sung by Joan Baez, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s equally political BURN!, starring Marlon Brando. Those are just a few. And to compensate for lack of the necessary soundtrack albums, I had a cassette tape recorder that I used to record directly off the TV speaker during scenes when there was music.
Morricone used the full range of available instruments and percussive sounds in ways I hadn’t heard from any other composers. He added a wide range of unorthodox musical tools to the orchestra including the jew’s harp and the panpipe, not to mention the harmonica and the organ, depending on how the scene could best be enhanced. Even though he had many imitators, especially among other composers of Italian westerns, you could always tell when you were listening to Morricone. Which is surprising when you consider that he scored over 500 films over the course of 50 years. Not all of his scores could be as intricate as the ones he did for Leone. Some were really short, consisting of a handful of musical cues repeated over and over. Some sounded dashed off. But they were all interesting to listen to. And the best took you into completely new emotional spaces.
For me, Morricone’s scores from this period crystallize the sheer range of dynamic, creative power found in mid-range international genre filmmaking back then, in that part of the spectrum between blockbusters on one end and outright exploitation on the other. Just look at the range of directors Morricone worked with in the 1960s and 70’s. In Italy alone he composed scores for what amounts to a Who’s Who of late postwar and new wave Italian cinema, both arthouse and genre: Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Elio Petri, Gillo Pontecorvo, Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Mauro Bolognini, Marco Bellocchio, Giuliano Montaldo, Giulio Petroni, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Luigi Zampa, Carlo Lizzani, Duccio Tessari, Michele Lupo, Alberto De Martino, Damiano Damiani, Umberto Lenzi, the Taviani Brothers and a host more. French directors in his filmography include Henri Verneuil, Edouard Molinaro, Georges Lautner, and Robert Enrico. Hollywood-based directors who hired him during this period include: Don Siegel, Phil Karlson, Edward Dmytryk, Terrence Malick, Terence Young, and John Boorman, among others. (Later on, he would add John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Roland Joffe, William Friedkin, Oliver Stone, Wolfgang Petersen, Barry Levinson, Mike Nichols, and Warren Beatty to this list.)
Morricone wasn’t the first composer I followed. Those would be Jerry Goldsmith, thanks to the theme from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and the scores for THE SATAN BUG, OUR MAN FLINT, IN LIKE FLINT and PLANET OF THE APES, and Elmer Bernstein, thanks to THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, and TRUE GRIT. But Morricone was the first composer I actively collected. I believe ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was the first Morricone soundtrack I bought, followed by A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and various compilation albums featuring themes from many different Italian films, some of which I’d never heard of. The albums were generally expensive, many being Italian imports, so I had to wait for bargains or until I had more discretionary income. But I gradually built up my collection. (I also actively collected Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rosza in the 1970s, but they had fewer albums available back then and their new scores were few and far between. I saw fewer of their films in theaters and had to rely on TV showings for most of them.)
At some point I began collecting Morricone scores for films I knew nothing about. One of my favorite Morricone blind buys is CACCIATORI DI NAVI (SHIP HUNTERS), a 1991 film I still know little about. I love the way its score mixes woodwinds, string sections, panpipe and organ for maximum effect. It stars Michael Brandon, Perry King and Fabio Testi and was shot in the Brazilian Amazon.
There were a series of albums under the heading, The Ennio Morricone Songbook, put out by a German label in the late 1990s, which compiled various songs derived from Morricone soundtracks or created with lyrics added after the fact. Many were in French. My favorite album in the series was Vol. 3: The 70’s.
Here’s a link to my Amazon.com review of this album:
In the 1990s, I began finding Morricone films, many previously unseen, in used video bins and and among the wares of dealers in rare videos at fan conventions and loaded up on titles on VHS like BALLAD OF DEATH VALLEY (A PISTOL FOR RINGO), BLOOD AND GUNS (TEPEPA), BLOOD AT SUNDOWN (THE RETURN OF RINGO), BLOOD IN THE STREETS, THE CAT (IL GATTO), DIRTY HEROES, DON’T TURN THE OTHER CHEEK, FACE TO FACE, THE FAMILY (VIOLENT CITY), A GENIUS, TWO PARTNERS AND A DUPE, THE GRAND SILENCE, NIGHT FLIGHT FROM MOSCOW, and Morricone’s very first Italian western, GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS (1963). A few years ago, hungry for a new Morricone experience, I put in NIGHT FLIGHT FROM MOSCOW (aka THE SERPENT, 1973), an international spy drama starring Yul Brynner, Dirk Bogarde and Henry Fonda, and directed by Henri Verneuil. It’s actually a pretty good movie, but I was annoyed to find that there was virtually no music in it until one cue near the very end. How disappointing. No wonder he managed to compose eleven scores in 1973!
Morricone is still actively composing, although little of his recent work has made it to the U.S. The last credit of his I’ve seen is Lilana Cavani’s RIPLEY’S GAME (2002), which played here on cable. Tarantino tried to hire him to score INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS in 2009, but reportedly wouldn’t give him enough time. I last heard that he was to score Tarantino’s new film, DJANGO UNCHAINED, but it’s not listed in Morricone’s IMDB filmography. Tarantino has, of course, used plenty of earlier Morricone cues in some of his films.
I still have Morricone films that I haven’t yet viewed. To prepare for this write-up, I pulled out BLOOD IN THE STREETS (aka REVOLVER, 1973), a crime thriller directed by Sergio Sollima (THE FAMILY, THE BIG GUNDOWN) and watched it, although it took quite a bit of patience. It’s a talky one and is about a crime operation that involves kidnapping the wife of a Milan prison warden (Oliver Reed) to force him to release an imprisoned petty criminal (Fabio Testi) for reasons that are never adequately explained by the script. I’d heard the music from it on various Morricone compilation albums over the years and, as it turns out, what I’d heard seems to be all the music that was composed for the film, two basic themes, one soft and mournful, one a more pulse-pounding action piece, that are then used over and over again. (The softer theme is performed in the film as a song by one of the cast members, Daniel Beretta, which is on the Ennio Morricone songbook album I cited above.)
I then watched FACE TO FACE (1967), also directed by Sollima, and starring the formidable Spaghetti western trio of Gian Maria Volonte, Tomas Milian and William Berger. It tells the tale of a Boston professor (Volonte) who goes out west for his health (in the middle of the Civil War!) and becomes enthralled with the life of an outlaw after being taken hostage by a fugitive gang leader (Milian) and winds up running the gang with a ruthlessness that appalls everyone else, including the Pinkerton man (Berger) who’s infiltrated the gang. It’s got one of the best scripts I’ve ever noticed in an Italian western outside of the Leone films and I was quite impressed with it. The Morricone score is not as extensive as in the Leones or in the other Sollimas he did (e.g. THE BIG GUNDOWN, VIOLENT CITY), but it’s effective nonetheless.
I also have in my unseen Morricone pile IL GATTO (THE CAT), a 1977 comedy directed by Luigi Comencini and produced by Leone.
In addition to the aforementioned EXORCIST II, BLOOD IN THE STREETS and FACE TO FACE, the other Morricone films I’ve watched this year are: A FINE PAIR, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, and RIPLEY’S GAME. Here’s a link to my IMDB review of A FINE PAIR: