Ennio Morricone, music & film

“My mule don’t like people laughing.
He gets the crazy idea that you’re laughing at him."

Last year the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone passed away at the age of 91. You might not recognize the name but I’ll wager you know his music.

He cut his teeth writing the soundtracks for “Spaghetti Westerns” with his school buddy, director Sergio Leone, and went on to a legendary career in Hollywood composing for directors such as Mike Nichols, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Quentin Tarantino, and Brian De Palma, with classic scores for films such as “Cinema Paradiso,” “The Mission,” and “The Hateful Eight” (picking up an Oscar and six nominations along the way). Leone had such trust in his friend that he had him write the music for a scene first, then directing the actors while the music played so they understood the mood he wanted.

Ennio Morricone (1928 – 2020)

Let’s take a look at how music and visuals work hand-in-hand during a scene near the beginning of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” director Leone’s swansong. Ex-prostitute Jill McBain (played by a ravishing Claudia Cardinale), married in secret months earlier, is waiting at the train station in the fictional frontier town of “Flagstone.” She is there to meet her new husband’s family, not realizing they have been gunned down by “Frank” played by Henry Fonda cast against type in a performance dripping with malice.

Not on Golden Pond

Jill waits in vain, pacing back and forth, and the music reflects that, not really going anywhere.  At 00:46 she takes the matter into her own hands and goes to hire a coach out to the farm. As her inner landscape changes from waiting to action, the wordless singing of Edda Dell’Orso enters and the music also starts to move as does the camera. It tracks Jill sidewise into the building, loses her for a second, then picks her up through a window. At 1:20 she walks out and the camera, mounted on a crane, soars up over the stationhouse to see where she is going as the horns enter. Then at 1:28 – oh, oh, this is amazing! – the strings join in, the music swells, the timpani rolls, and we are exposed to a broad panorama, our first view of a bustling frontier town. Every single time I view this my chest expands as the scene moves from the personal (Jill’s story) to the general (the story of the West).

After allowing our heart rate to subside we are rewarded with a long flowing melody as Jill rides through a town in the throes of expansion. The music is warm and in a major key (Eb) yet it also contains an inexplicable sense of loss. At its core “Once Upon a Time in the West” is about nostalgia, the end of an American myth. The freedom of westward expansion is being replaced by “progress,” represented here by the railroad. Jill, arriving by train, is the future; the gunslingers who fight over her are relics - the past. Listen to this scene without music (there isn’t any dialogue anyway) and it loses all its power.

Leone going for the shot - sometimes you have to
improvise when you don’t have a crane

The Italian Leone was influenced by the Japanese samurai films of director Akira Kurosawa who was inspired by American Westerns - and so it came full circle. Here, from Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” we see the noble lone samurai (read: gunslinger, played by Toshiro Mifune) facing off against a cadre of beastly opponents armed to the teeth. Listen to the terrific and oddly jazzy score by Masaru Sato, Kurosawa’s long-time collaborator.

The music to a film is in service to the image on the screen, but can it stand on its own? The pioneering mid-century film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold treated his scores like mini-operas with themes for each character just as Wagner did. The most well-known example of this today would be John Williams. I dare you to resist immediately thinking of Darth Vader after the first few seconds of this:

Korngold felt you should be able to listen to a movie soundtrack and understand the story on an intuitive level without even seeing the film. (Arnold Schoenberg said the same about his masterpiece Verklärte Nacht for string sextet and the poem it is based upon.) But this approach is fraught with danger as well: film composer Hans Zimmer (“Gladiator,” “The Dark Knight,” “Thelma and Louise”), noted how, when he asked a picky director what he wanted, he replied “just don’t write me a symphony." What is extraordinary about Morricone’s music is that, while it stands powerfully on its own, when paired with a movie, the same music is able to effortlessly and humbly step aside to support the action on the screen.


David Yang, Artistic Director

One of the final shots from “For a Few Dollars More”
directed by Sergio Leone with music by Ennio Morricone.

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