I was enamored of Ennio Morricone before I heard a note of his music. My father, like many others, loved westerns, and perhaps even more loved passing their stories down to his son, filling the boy’s head with adventures and derring-do that, in those days before home video, might luckily be stumbled upon someday, surrounding such ads as a local TV station could garner on a weekend afternoon. And when it came time for the tale of the Man with No Name (many names, as it turned out: Joe, Manco, Blondie), my father, like many others then and since, would punctuate his telling. Raising his hands to his lips—one curled to an open-fisted trumpet, the other waving to indicate (more visually than audibly) the odd tremolo of the original—and displaying the glint that comes to the eye of a good man recounting wickedness, my father would intone three times, in a hypnotic rise and fall: Wah-WAH-waaahh.
That vocalization from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s opening theme, along with the surrounding whistles, coyote yelps, percussion both ominous and propulsive, and the furious, clipped insistence of the guitar, promises events so strange and compelling that even at his most discursively epic Leone had to strain a bit to match them. The score’s glories continue to flow unabated, rising to every challenge from the mournful hymn of The Story of a Soldier to The Desert’s buzzing, mounting menace. Supreme achievement still is the celebrated Ecstasy of Gold, which doesn’t build from a whisper to a scream so much as from serenity to delirium.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the first Morricone I treasured, but it was of course far, far from the last. As multifaceted as he was prolific, Morricone could do avant-garde as well as nostalgia, leap across genres as he pleased (often within the soundtrack to a single film), tug at the heartstrings or chill the blood. He was effortless at surveying those sonic landscapes so crucial to the movies: love-blind and heartsick, heroic resolve and comical withdrawal, the thrill of promised danger and the sickening helplessness of its arrival. He scored murders for Argento, sunsets for Malick, revolutions for Pontecorvo, chase scenes for Petersen, dog attacks for Fuller, love at first sight for Tornatore, rescues in space for De Palma, raucously sung opening credits for Pasolini. His music breathes as naturally through all the bustling humanity and sunlit sweep of Bertolucci’s 1900 as it does the cramped nocturnal chill of Carpenter’s The Thing. Even when you try to circumscribe the voluminous output, restricting the list to, say, gangster films, you’re overwhelmed by Morricone’s providing the perfect backdrop for figures as deliberately brazen and stereotypical as De Niro’s Al Capone or eaten away at by time and memory as the same actor’s Noodles, subversively visionary as Beatty’s Bugsy Siegel, lone wolves like Cassavetes’s Machine Gun McCain and domineering patriarchs like Jean Gabin’s Vittorio Manalese.
A mere surface-scratch of Morricone’s career, yet already what a great, mad filmography that is. Indifferent to questions of High and Low, commerce and art, excited for any chance to set a scene, paint a mood, grab an audience by the ears and demand attention. And the movies invariably gain from his involvement, the images, however marvelously realized, growing in richness and surprise as the music drapes over them. The bloody westerns and thrillers have time for myth and politics, the overstuffed melodramas (prompted perhaps by a lonely tone on the flute or delicately pressed piano keys) linger on a refreshingly human-sized beat, films of every stripe suddenly submit to the pulse of a horror film or the lopsided saunter of the comic relief’s burlesque tune. If a first principle of auteurism is the consistency of voice whatever variation in story, and if Bresson is right that the ear is the most profound and inventive of the sense organs, shouldn’t Morricone’s claim to authorship be as strong as any of his collaborators? Of all the time I’ve spent in the dark watching the light flicker (or stream, of late) before me, the company I’ve kept with Morricone has been among the most rewarding, fostering the type of movie love that, if I’d had a son of my own, I’d have delighted in telling him of the endless bounty that awaited his hearing.