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Ennio Morricone Retrospective

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked back through Ennio Morricone’s catalog of film scores. He was a prolific composer, scoring literally hundreds of films in a career that spanned six decades. The episode examined Morricone’s collaborations with notable filmmakers.

Background

Film composer Ennio Morricone was born in Rome in 1928. Allegedly, he began writing music at age six and continued throughout his life. Morricone studied at the Conservatory of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia with an emphasis on the trumpet. He was part of the avant-garde Italian music scene in the 1960s and Morricone picked up work playing in a jazz band and arranging pop songs for Italy’s national broadcasting company while also writing his own classical music. Morricone later worked as a studio arranger and he composed songs for Italian pop acts.

Morricone’s first credited film score was the 1961 World War II picture The Fascist. That began a prolific career as a film composer. In the 1960s and 70s, Morricone composed music for between ten and twenty films each year. He bounced around between all different genres including comedies, melodramas, and horror but Morricone distinguished himself with his music for spaghetti westerns, which were Italian films about adventures in the American Old West. He not only participated in this subgenre but was also one of the primary architects of it. One of the important early spaghetti western titles was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars for which Morricone provided the score. His music to that film and its two sequels, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, established the sound of the spaghetti western.

When the Dollars trilogy was released in the United States, Morricone attracted the attention of Hollywood. His first score for an American film was John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. For the next half a century, Morricone continued to score multiple movies each year and he alternated between Italian and American films. His filmography included titles as diverse as Navajo Joe, Once Upon a Time in America, 1990’s Hamlet, The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom, Orca, 1982’s The Thing, and The Hateful Eight. In the course of his career Morricone worked with a range of high profile directors including Mike Nichols, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Terrence Malick, Lucio Fulci, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, Samuel Fuller, and Roland Joffe.

Morricone’s final completed score for a feature film was the 2016 romance Correspondence for longtime collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore. Morricone passed away in July 2020 at the age of 91.

Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (also referred to as the Man with No Name trilogy), which began with A Fistful of Dollars, continued with For a Few Dollars More, and concluded with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, established both Leone and Ennio Morricone in film history. The look of the movies was perfectly complemented by Morricone’s scores and the filmmaker and the composer got each other’s sensibility. Leone didn’t direct that many movies but Morricone scored most of them. They formed a director-composer partnership that is comparable to Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann or John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Aside from the Dollars trilogy, Morricone also provided music for 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West and 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America. The former was a western while the latter title was a gangster movie set in Prohibition-era Manhattan. Once Upon a Time in America was originally three hours and forty-nine minutes but the version released in 1984 was only two hours and nineteen minutes and it failed to make an impact. The full version of Once Upon a Time in America has been restored and is now regarded as a masterpiece.

Terrence Malick

Ennio Morricone was frequently enlisted to compose music for westerns even as the genre faded away in the 1970s. Whether by choice or by circumstance, Morricone worked on a few projects that reimagined the western genre. The Dollars trilogy had done that and 1978’s Days of Heaven did so as well. The sophomore feature of Terrence Malick, Days of Heaven was a drama set on a farm in the early twentieth century. Morricone earned his first Academy Award nomination for his score to this film.

Pier Paolo Pasolini

One of the most interesting Italian filmmakers working in the 1970s (and maybe ever) was Pier Paolo Pasolini. He was a renaissance man who was a poet and an intellectual as well as a filmmaker. He was also outspoken on political matters. Pasolini was a Communist and he was an out-of-the closet homosexual at a time when that was dangerous. Ennio Morricone collaborated with Pasolini on some of the filmmaker’s most outrageous work. Between 1971 and 1974 Pasolini created what is now referred to as his Trilogy of Life, consisting of adaptations of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights. The movies were sexually explicit and had a lewd sense of humor but they were ultimately life affirming. In 1975, Morricone provided music for Pasolini’s Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom. An adaptation of Marquis de Sade’s opus, Salo was a grisly tale of young people being tortured by fascists and it is frequently cited as one of the most disturbing films ever made. Pasolini was murdered under mysterious circumstances before the movie was released. In 2014, filmmaker Abel Ferrera directed a movie about Pasolini and his untimely death and Ennio Morricone provided music for that picture as well.

Gillo Pontecorvo

Along with Pier Paolo Pasolini, composer Ennio Morricone worked with another provocative Italian filmmaker, Gillo Pontecorvo. Their first feature film together was Battle of the Algiers. The movie is about Algerians fighting for independence from French colonial control and it had a realistic style that was novel at the time. Pontecorvo and Morricone shared musical credit on the film. The two of them collaborated again on 1969’s Burn! and 1979’s Ogro.

Samuel Fuller

In the 1980s, Ennio Morricone scored a lot of thrillers and filmmaker Samuel Fuller is one of the distinguished directors he collaborated with during this period. Perhaps not as popularly known as he should be, Samuel Fuller’s career spanned nearly five decades and included numerous writing and directing credits. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Quentin Tarantino have cited him as an influence. Fuller and Morricone worked on several films together including the controversial 1982 picture White Dog as well as 1984’s Thieves After Dark.

Horror Directors and Giallo Films

Ennio Morricone has an important place in the Italian horror cinema of the 1970s and 80s. That time period saw the rise of the giallo subgenre, which combined elements of slasher films, detective stories, and psychological thrillers. Morricone was one of the major musical contributors to the giallo subgenre and he worked with several of Italian horror cinema’s major directors of the 1970s and 80s. Among them was Dario Argento. Morricone scored Argento’s directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as well as The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Stendahl Syndrome, and 1988’s The Phantom of the Opera.

Ennio Morricone also worked with Lucio Fulci. The director became a cult figure in the horror genre due to Fulci’s penchant for extremely gory set pieces and phantasmagoric stories told with moody atmosphere. Morricone provided the music for several of Fulci’s movies including 1971’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

In addition to working with Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, composer Ennio Morricone also worked with Mario Bava on 1968’s Danger: Diabolik. Although Bava is best known for his horror pictures, Danger: Diabolik was much lighter. It was based on an Italian comic strip and the movie was a comedic action film about an antihero who steals from organized crime.

John Carpenter

Filmmaker John Carpenter usually scored his own movies but while working on the 1982 remake of The Thing he was given a bigger budget than usual and brought in Ennio Morricone. The music for The Thing perfectly matched the movie’s creeping sense of doom without telegraphing the scares in advance. The film and its score were underappreciated in 1982. In fact, Morricone’s music for The Thing was nominated for a Razzie Award. But time has been kind to the movie. The Thing is now rightly recognized as a masterpiece of horror and science fiction and one of the best films of John Carpenter and Ennio Morricone’s filmographies.

Brian De Palma

Ennio Morricone worked with filmmaker Brian De Palma on three films. The first of these was 1987’s The Untouchables, about Eliot Ness and his squad of Prohibition agents who investigated Al Capone. The Untouchables score was nominated for an Academy Award. Morricone and De Palma paired again for the Vietnam combat film Casualties of War and De Palma’s science fiction picture Mission to Mars. The three movies are radically different stories with very different tones and Morricone adjusted his musical approach accordingly, making these three scores an example of the composer’s skill and range.

Mike Nichols

Ennio Morricone collaborated with filmmaker Mike Nichols on the 1994 picture Wolf. This is a strange movie is many respects, but especially due to the talents involved. Mike Nichols was best known for relationship dramas like The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, and Postcards from the Edge but Wolf was a werewolf picture starring Jack Nicholson. Morricone complemented this unusual film with a unique score. Werewolf stories are about mankind’s struggle with its own bestial nature and Morricone’s score reflected that with its suggestion of violence as well as its romance and sexuality. The Wolf soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy award.

Giuseppe Tornatore

One of Ennio Morricone regular collaborators was director Giuseppe Tornatore. Their first project together was 1988’s Cinema Paradiso. The movie was a coming of age story in a rural Italian town where the changes over time are gauged by the local movie theater. Cinema Paradiso was an international success and it featured one Morricone’s best loved scores. Morricone scored virtually everything Tonatore subsequently directed including Everybody’s Fine, A Pure Formality, The Legend of 1900, and Malena. The humor and tenderness of Tornatore’s films, especially Cinema Paradiso, was a reprieve from the darkness and violence of some of Morricone’s other collaborators.

Oliver Stone

Following his robust body of work in the 1970s and 80s, Ennio Morricone continued to work in the 1990s. While he wasn’t quite as prolific as he was in the 1970s and 80s, Morricone still scored between five and ten films a year throughout the 90s. One of the major American filmmakers of that decade was Oliver Stone. Having established himself in the 1980s, Stone made several of his boldest and most interesting films in the 90s. He paired with Morricone on his 1997 film U-Turn which was a neo-noir crime thriller. Morricone had a background in avant-garde music and his compositions for U-Turn harken back to Morricone’s western scores as well as the composer’s experience as a jazz musician.  

Roland Joffe

Ennio Morricone worked with director Roland Joffe on three films. The first of these was one of Morricone’s greatest scores: The Mission. The movie was about Spanish Jesuits proselytizing the indigenous people of eighteenth century South America. Morricone’s score to The Mission is now regarded as one of the greatest scores in the history of cinema and it earned Morricone an Academy Award nomination. Roland Joffe and Ennio Morricone worked together again on the World War II picture Fat Man and Little Boy, about the nuclear bombs dropped and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and City of Joy, an inspirational story set in the slums of Calcutta, India. Morricone was also hired to score Joffe’s infamous 1995 adaptation of The Scarlet Letter but his music was rejected.

Clint Eastwood

Ennio Morricone’s western music was closely associated with the career of Clint Eastwood, largely because of the impact of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Morricone scored several other films starring Eastwood including Two Mules for Sister Sara and In the Line of Fire. Eastwood became a director in his own right but he and Morricone never collaborated on new material, for which Morricone expressed regret. However, Eastwood repurposed Morricone’s music in his 2015 picture American Sniper. The funeral procession at the end of the film was accompanied by Morricone’s music to 1965’s The Return of Ringo.

Quentin Tarantino

Ennio Morricone continued to score films throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The composer’s older work was reintroduced to younger audiences through the films of Quentin Tarantino. Many of Tarantino’s movies are intertextual and often repurpose music from older films. Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino used quite a bit of Morricone’s music, drawing from films like Navajo Joe, Death Rides a Horse, and The Mercenary. Tarantino continued to use Morricone’s older scores for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Morricone composed a full original score for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, although that film also reused musical cues from Morricone’s scores to The Thing and The Exorcist II: The Heretic. The score from The Hateful Eight earned Morricone his sixth Academy Award nomination and his one and only win. At 87 years old, Morricone was the oldest winner of a competitive Oscar.

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