Jul 7, 2020

Ennio Morricone (1928 - 2020)

Ennio Morricone was, for my money, the greatest film composer. Perhaps I'm biased, but he was certainly the most meaningful to me, because my cinematic education began with Sergio Leone. It was only upon viewing Leone's films, that I first paid attention to what a director could do. By extension, Lee Van Cleef was the first actor I ever cared about, and Ennio Morricone was the first film composer whose work I really explored. So enamoured was I of his work in Leone's "Dollars" trilogy (starring Clint Eastwood in his breakthrough role as The Man With No Name), that when the films aired on TV (in those pre-VCR days) I would hold my little Radio Shack tape recorder up to the big wooden box (with one little speaker) to record Morricone's music. In many ways, he was the soundtrack to my early cinephile days.

Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone were one of cinema's greatest director-composer teams, right up there with Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. One cannot think of the extreme closeups or the rugged vistas in Leone's spaghetti westerns, without recalling Morricone's distinctive tones. And vice versa, one's first thought of Morricone is perhaps his work with Leone. Yes, his name is synonymous with the spaghetti western genre (having composed for several other films than Leone's), but as his hundreds of credits evidence, Ennio Morricone was so versatile. Comedies, thrillers, historical epics, etc., had the fortune of being graced with the prolific composer. While his work was diverse, it was also distinctive for its unusual instrumentations that were novel to orchestral scores (guitars, harps, voice, reeds), or at least distinctive in how he used them:  he could be easily adept at rock, psychedelia or electronics, as attested by his work in giallo films or John Carpenter's The Thing. It is rather fitting that his soundtrack for Leone's masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West was included in a book of the best rock records of all time, for its guitar stings and harmonica solos (the latter presages Supertramp's "School" on the Crime Of The Century album.)

It was often said that the best film music was that which you didn't notice. Morricone on the other hand refuted that theory. Heard without the intended accompanying visuals, his music is cinema for the ears, that could elicit excitement, melancholy, humour or pathos in equal measure. No wonder his work is so collectable (as some Morricone fans have soundtrack albums well into the triple digits): they are mini movies unto themselves. 

His sounds could bring the unfilmable to the viewer, adding psychological layers to characterization. Take the moment in Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West which is simply Morton staring at a painting of a seashore. Morricone elevates this moment to great tragedy, and we end up feeling pity for the villain and his unrealized dreams! As in life, there is no simple division between good and evil. 

Although decades have passed since those Radio Shack days, I admittedly still return time and again to his work with Leone and other westerns. However, he left an incredible legacy of hundreds of soundtracks for numerous genres that are still there to explore, and will endure long after we all have gone to Sad Hill. (Just weeks ago, I heard for the first time his thrilling work for Veruschka: Poetry Of A Woman.)

Thank you, Maestro.

Here is a selected filmography of his massive résumé. (I'm sure I've neglected a favourite of yours, but this is just a sample.)

1964: A Fistful Of Dollars; Before The Revolution. 1965: Nightmare Castle; Fists In The Pocket; For A Few Dollars More; The Return Of Ringo. 1966: The Bible: In The Beginning; The Battle Of Algiers; The Good, The Bad And The Ugly; The Big Gundown. 1968: Danger: Diabolik; The Mercenary; Death Rides A Horse; Teorema; Partner; Once Upon A Time In The West. 1970: Burn!; The Red Tent; Two Mules For Sister Sara. 1971: Duck, You Sucker; Cold Eyes Of Fear; The Cat O Nine Tails; A Lizard In A Woman's Skin; Sacco & Vanzetti. 1973: My Name Is Nobody; Massacre In Rome. 1974: Allonsanfan; Arabian Nights. 1975: Salo or the 120 Days Of Sodom. 1976: 1900. 1977: Orca; Exorcist II: The Heretic. 1978: Days Of Heaven; La Cage Aux Folles. 1979: Luna. 1980: Windows. 1981: So Fine. 1982: White Dog ; The Thing. 1983: Thieves After Dark. 1984: Once Upon A Time In America. 1986: The Mission. 1987: The Untouchables. 1988: Frantic; Cinema Paradiso. 1989: Casualties Of War. 1990: Hamlet; Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. 1991: Bugsy. 1992: City Of Joy. 1993: In The Line Of Fire. 1994: Wolf; A Pure Formality. 1995: The Starmaker. 1996: The Stendahl Syndrome. 1997: U Turn. 1998: The Legend Of 1900; Bulworth. 2000: Malena. 2002: Ripley's Game. 2015: The Hateful Eight.

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