Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays, Film music, Westerns

Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]


I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone

No—not “accompanies,” helps create. For Leone and Morricone are that rare combination of film director and film composer (Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann constitute another) whose work together unerringly builds a total integration of film and score. Once upon a Time in the West, for example—both men’s masterpiece—boasts a score so powerful in itself and so perfectly integral to the film that the montage could just as easily have been created for the music, rather than conversely—and in some instances has been.

Morricone does not write leitmotif music, like Elmer Bernstein, Rozsa, and other Wagnerians of film composition. There is no “Johnny’s Theme” stuff in a Morricone score. His use of a female voice in the title theme of Once upon a Time in the West inevitably associates that music with the character of Jill and the building of her corner of America; but the music itself serves a larger purpose than that of signature tune.

Nor does Morricone write “mood music” like the Mancinis and Bacharachs. His music has a quality more ariose than recitative, running to the repetition of ornate set-pieces rather than the mingling of leitmotifs or the atmospheric dynamism of most film scores. it is distinguished principally by its overpowering melody.

At the time A Fistful of Dollars was released, many casual viewers—myself included—were surprised that such superior, and incongruously beautiful, music should be used in what was regarded as an obvious B-film. The “‘Titoli” from the film’s score became at least as popular as the film itself (that romantic-sounding name, by the way, simply means “titles,” denoting the theme’s initial use in the film).

‘A Fistful of Dollars’

But with the appearance of For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, as the hastily presumed inferiority of Leone’s work came under serious question and Morricone’s music became better and better integrated with the films, a recognizable—though not formulaic—pattern developed. Leone and Morricone were giving to primal violence not only music but, astonishingly, melody, haunting and beautiful. Where Morricone’s music had seemed at first inappropriate, it was now recognized as a central element of the “spaghetti western” as people began to see what Leone was doing. His films, and Morricone’s scores, have much more to do with fantasy, with archetypal conflict—indeed, with fairy tale—than with any historical reality of the American Southwest. (The titles of the third and fourth films bear witness to the fact that Leone’s films function chiefly as fairy tale or parable.)

Given Leone’s sparse use of dialogue, it is easy to understand why Morricone’s music dominates—must dominate—the soundtrack. “Background music” it isn’t. Rather, the Morricone score combines with the cinematic image to create a single, powerful foreground effect. Instead of supporting the shots of the film, the music takes an equal value and importance with them.

One reason that Morricone’s music for Leone is so strikingly different is that its rhythms are not the rhythms of montage, to which moviegoers are more accustomed in film scores. Rather, they are the rhythms of camera movement or, when the camera is stationary, of character movement. Thus, even as Leone cuts rapidly from face to face, angle to angle, establishing shot to closeup, in the showdown in the cemetery at the climax of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Morricone’s score delivers a slow, majestic mariachi tune, emphasizing not suspense but the elemental triumph of that frozen moment of reckoning just prior to explosive action. It works so well that it is difficult to conclude—and probably even moot to ask—whether the music was composed to fit Leone ‘s protraction of time or the sequence was deliberately protracted to allow the music its sway.

‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’

When the camera is moving, the tempos of Morricone’s music are the tempos of tracking shots, of pans, and of boom shots. The slow-tracking pace of Once upon a Time in the West is reflected in the tempo of Morricone’s score. Even a dance tune (“Bad Orchestra”) is slow for its genre; and the three principal themes of the score are all slower than Morricone’s usual medium-fast tempo.

In For a Few Dollars More, Morricone uses three major themes not intermingled, but succeeding one another, each signaling a change in the pace of action and character movement in the course of the film. The main tune (“For a Few Dollars More”) enters with the titles and, in various arrangements, is virtually the only music used until Indio’s robbery of the El Paso Bank nearly halfway through the film. Thereafter, except for the short, five-note burst for woodwinds associated with the Eastwood character, it remains unused until the end titles. It is replaced with a faster-paced introductory phrase and main theme entitled “The Vice of Killing.” It is as if the film has shifted gears: as Indio’s dynamite blows the wall off the bank, the taut, excruciating suspense of the earlier passages gives way to several furious action sequences, and ultimately to violence of a more calculated and sadistic order than that of previous episodes.

“The Vice of Killing,” a major-key resolution of the minor-key “Aces High” (a trumpet tune used only once, during The Man with No Name’s card-game capture of his first bounty in the film), accompanies the getaway of Indio’s gang and, later, The Man’s solitary entry into Agua Caliente. With accompanying chorus, this tune colors virtually all the film’s high-action sequences, but dissipates abruptly when the long-awaited face-off between Indio and Colonel Mortimer occurs. The pace is down-shifted, the moment of truth is protracted, as Indio holds open a musical locket and tells Mortimer, “When the chimes stop, pick up your gun.”

On the simple melody of the chimes, Morricone builds a trumpet solo that mounts with the suspense and slows with the winding-down of the locket’s musical works. At the crucial moment, however, The Man interrupts the showdown, squares the odds, and begins the countdown a second time, with an identical locket he has pilfered from Mortimer. The trumpet tune, entitled “60 Seconds to What?”, is again built on the chime melody and is cut off abruptly when the last few notes sound from the locket.

After the shootout, there is a brief falling action. Then, as an epilogue, the first theme returns to accompany The Man’s departure.

The use of chimes to integrate the music with the driving motivation of plot and action is singularly effective; but it is mere apprenticework compared with a similar device in Once upon a Time in the West. Again, revenge is the motive, and it is associated with a musical instrument. Throughout the film, The Man (another nameless Man, this time Charles Bronson) is characterized by a discordant, tuneless drone on a harmonica. When the time comes at last for him to face off with Frank (Henry Fonda), disjointed warps into the past, to the wail of the harmonica, give us the reason for his avenger’s obsession with Frank and also traces the heritage of the harmonica as a crucial prop in the original outrage. (Likewise, similar—though less taut—flashbacks associate the locket with Mortimer’s revenge in For a Few Dollars More.)

This use of the harmonica does more than tie plot to music, however. It also ties both to the tired convention of the musical cowboy and, through use of harsh discordant tones like the moaning of an injured child, fills the cliché with fresh life and significance, underscoring Leone’s creation of a new fable-West, characterized (as in all his films) by the total absence of Law and the total presence of a hauntingly different Order.

‘Once upon a Time in the West’

Morricone taps many conventions in scoring Leone’s westerns and always with a difference. He dares to employ dissonance within the most stunning melodic passages-and gets away with it. His “Square Dance” in A Fistful of Dollars has the structure of a Renaissance dance (its pattern of theme and counter-theme reminds me of the famous bourée from Michael Praetorius’s Terpsichore), but at its climax it begins to wind down through decreasing tempos, and finally grinds to a tired stop. The score to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly features a mock-heroic march and a lilting ballad (“Story of a Soldier”), scored for harmonica, winds, and a low chorus, in the manner of the Confederate favorite “Lorena” (a principal theme in two Ford film scores—Max Steiner’s The Searchers and David Buttolph’s The Horse Soldiers).

Another convention to which Morricone has given new life—and, in fact, has now made uniquely his own—is the mariachi trumpet air. The main theme of A Fistful of Dollars consists of just such an air, with long rising notes interrupted by short notes tripping downwards. Its roots lie in the legendary Mexican trumpet tune “Deguello” (“Massacre” or “No Quarter”) used at the Alamo to signal that no quarter would be granted the defenders of the besieged mission. A “Deguello” created by Dimitri Tiomkin was played in Rio Bravo by a trumpeter hired to strike fear into the hearts of John Wayne and his faithfuls; and Tiomkin later built an entire soundtrack score out of the tune for Wayne’s own film The Alamo. Morricone’s trumpet calls similarly prophesy doom—but it is never quite so clear who the doomed party will be; his use of the trumpet solo building to a crescendo just before a climactic shootout has become a staple of the spaghetti western, even those less-known and less-effective ones directed by Leone’s protégés and imitators.

Perhaps Morricone’s most daring—and certainly his most successful—use of generic cliché in a film score is found in the theme associated with the character Cheyenne (Jason Robards) in Once upon a Time in the West. The basic rhythm is, of all things, the clip-clop of a plodding horse. Over this Morricone lays his melodic line, plucked on the strings of that most western of instruments, a banjo. But what a melodic line! A slow, ambling monotone, further delayed by long rests. Above the banjo, the theme is taken up by a solitary whistler, and thereby associates itself with the casual lifestyle and sardonic manner of the wandering Cheyenne.

‘Once upon a Time in the West’

But Morricone’s Leone scores do not consist entirely of overhauled conventions. He has also established his own conventions, which are startlingly original. The use of a whistling voice associated with the lone, anonymous bounty-killer who is the protagonist of the first three films is only the most familiar of a number of devices Morricone employs to create a music of the non-musical. The twang of a jew’s-harp, the humanoid wah-wah of an electronically amplified harmonica, and an exotic assortment of less identifiable sproings, bwangs, clicks, and cracks characterize his orchestration of the savage. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly the distant cry of a human voice (war whoop? scream of terror?) becomes a five-note motif for flute which forms the basis for all the film score’s thematic developments.

In putting the human voice into his scores, Morricone has consistently used it as an instrument of the orchestra rather than simply as a voice. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly the insistent throb of primitive drumming, heavily accented on the downbeat (recalling the “Indian music” of so many westerns), is augmented with a small chorus of male voices chanting a guttural underbeat. Elsewhere, the use of the chorus has a more hymn-like quality, with echoes of chant and liturgical music underscoring the amoral fatalism and terrible-beauty violence of Leone’s films. There is in this, perhaps, a suggestion of the sacredness of the Material, reaffirming the elemental nature of theme, character, and confrontation in Leone’s work.

It is appropriate that Morricone so frequently provides a religious overtone with his music; it’s a natural amplification of the religious imagery that’s all over Leone’s films (two obvious examples being The Man’s entry into town on an ass in A Fistful of Dollars and Indio, in For a Few Dollars More, planning his next bank job by means of a parable told from a pulpit in an abandoned church).

It is when the music is at its most reverential that it best achieves the delicate timelessness that informs Leone’s most dramatic moments. Just before the shootout in the cemetery in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, “The Ecstasy of Gold,” a simple but rapturous theme for strings, harmonica, and chorus, reflecting the lingering awe of having found the treasure, builds to a climax, and sets the musical stage for “Triello,” the ever-ascending mariachi tune which bodes death for at least one of the film’s three soldiers of fortune.

‘A Fistful of Dollars’

And, most of all, this: The final shot of Once upon a Time in the West, with the main title theme at first quietly brooding, and then—led by a female voice associated with Leone’s only woman protagonist—growing to an overpowering crescendo, as the camera cranes away from Jill, upward and upward, taking in more and more of the railroad, its workers, and the little station destined to be a city: a cinematographic and musical apotheosis which is only the most masterful moment of two men’s careers.

Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow