Ennio Morricone, and the Spaghetti Westerns

ENNIO MORRICONI  “Making the ‘Man with No Name’ more exciting”

When Clint Eastwood finished his stint with Rawhide, he had an offer to travel to Italy to make a “western.”  (And would thusly make the “speghetti-western” a popular sub-genre.) I remember going to a drive-in movie (remember those?) and saw the trailer for “A Fist Full of Dollars.”  There was something about about this western that seemed different from other westerns I have seen. I HAD to see it.

So when the “Dollars” came to town, I went straightway to my neighborhood theater.  The opening credits—perhaps, a tad crude—caught my attention right away. Not the visuals, but the music. Although having someone whistle as part of the soundtrack had been done before—Dimitri Toimkin utilized a whistler for his work on Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall, and his soundtrack for the John Wayne film The High and the Mighty—there was just something different about this score! The unusual percussion and additional men’s chorus was not the usual western soundtrack!

Oddly, Mr. Morricone was not credited with the score for “Fist Full of Dollars” and the opening titles simply has: Music –  Dan Savio (whoever he is).  But when I purchased the soundtrack record album, the score was credited to Ennio Morricone. (I still haven’t found an explanation about about the discrepancy yet!)

Not only did I become a fan of “The Man with No Name” but of Ennio Morricone. When For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly came out, I listened intently to the score and found that Mr. Morricone had captured a certain unique “spirit” that I had not noticed in any other western before these came out. Morricone’s score not only added excitement to the narrative but a sense of humor too!  And there was a certain majesty.  In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when Tuco sets off

to look for the grave of “Arch Stanton,” the piece “Escasy for Gold” is truly an exciting bit of movie music—starting of very low, with just a piano then building to a fever pitch as the search comes to a climax. The female singer who sings a background counterpoint (?) is such a wonderful touch!

 

A movie I saw once, was perhaps an off-shoot of the “speghetti western” craze starred “…the Ugly”’s “Angel Eyes,” Lee Van Cleef.  The movie, the Big Gundown. I don’t believe you can find this movie in either DVD or in VHS tape. (Lord knows I tried…) But Morricone’s score was also rather impressive —to me, at least! I would play the record over and over again while living in the baracks in Millington, TN, during my stint in the Navy.  Some of my “bunkies” also though it was a good score and would come and listen with me. I have recently found a record version of the soundtrack and plan to go down Morricone Memory Lane soon!

 

I know Ennio Morricone has done other types of films—even doing the soundtrack to the John Carpenter’s The Thing.  Yet, that particular score seem to “copy” Carpenter’s own style in other horror outings and just sounded more like John Carpenter warmed over, rather than a unique Ennio Morricone score!

 

But before that disappointment, I went to watch Anthony Quinn in Guns for San Sebastian (co-staring Charles Bronson and Sam Jaffe as an old Catholic priest which Leon Alistray (Quinn) dons his robes — unwittingly, and is mistaken for a real priest. As the opening credits burst forth, I thought, “Boy, I’ll bet anything that Ennio Morricone had something to do with this score—and I was right! The unusual percussive mix, the dynamic, powerful driving beat—all the marks of a Morricone score!  This is another movie nearly impossible to find—although on e-Bay, a VHS version (in good condition) commands a price of about $124!  It is not on DVD yet—or will it every be? This is another great score (in my opinion) as the cut called “The Long Trek” which depicts Leon accompanying the old priest (Jaffe) to his new parish of San Sebastian—and you can hear in the music—the difficult, hot journey with birds of prey wheeling overhead! Then the score rises to soaring heights especially in the scene when the wild, white stallion is being chased with the intent of presenting it as a gift to the Yaqui chief—to forstall the indian attack upon the village of San Sebastian. But Morricone’s versatility can be heard in his scoring of the Governor’s fancy ball that sound somewhat “Baroque.”  Featured in this segment, a favorite instrument of Morricone’s: the ocarina!  The love-theme is hauntingly beautiful—again with that lone female voice vocalizing the main melody accompanied primarily with just a guitar and strings. Later, a full choir joins in! It is hard to find this score in normal outlets but I managed to acquire a CD of the soundtrack on eBay.

 

Ennio Morricone was musical supervisor for another western—a comedic take off on the “Man with No Name” —called: My Name is Nobody. Henry Fonda plays Jack Beauregard, a gunfighter who is coming to the end of his career. Terrance Hill plays his deadly, admiring fan who just happens to be extremely fast on the draw. “Nobody’s” desire is for Jack to face down the “Wild Bunch” by himself and end his career in a blaze of glory! “Nobody” would then challenge Beauregard to a final gunfight to prove who was the faster gunfighter. Thus the play-on-words at the ending epitaph regarding Jack Beauregard: “Nobody was faster.”

 

Finally, my least favorite Morricone score: “Once Upon a Time in the West”  This one was supposed to make Charles Bronson an international

Star (which it apparently helped attain that goal). Although, it has been reported that other actors were offered the roll before Bronson, it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of the harmonica playing “Loner.” The uniquiness of the film is having the bad-guy (cast against type) played by Henry Fonda. The heavy electric bass twanging away and the mournful, whinning harmonica riffs were not to my liking. It tends to grate on my nerves rather then carry me along on waves of musical genius. It tends to make the already long film seem longer. As John Williams demonstrated how his two-note Jaws score can have a different effect depending on how fast one plays the two notes, Morricone’s score here makes me feel like I’m slogging through thick mud in heavy boots.  There were some themes that were rather beautiful, especially the one with the (classic Morricone) woman singer vocalizing the melody (love theme?) in the quiter moments of the film.

 

The “bouncy” (if I could call it that) background theme seemed less dramatic and almost comedic. The plunking banjo doesn’t carry a strongly dramatic effect. (Not exactly the effect you’d want,) Yet, the film has an epic, classic western look to it because it was partly filmed in America, specifically in Mounument Valley. Leone had memorized all the John Ford locations and would point out where shots from Stage Coach or Cheyenne Autumn were taken. This gave “Once Upon a Time…” an authentic look (although much was still filmed in Spain). Matching the coloring from Mounument Valley (which is redish) to the Spanish landscape was difficult and Leone had to import red dust from Mounment Valley for a scene when a group of killers enter a building with red dust blowing in after them. Filmed in Spain with red dust coutesy of America.

Certainly, it could be argued that Sergio Leone was taking the classic

Western and turning it on it’s ear. The casting of Woody Strode & Jack Elam as these ominous killers in long tan dusters who get killed in the first 5 minutes is certainly surprising.  (An unverified story is that Sergio asked

Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleff –who were the three main characters in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly— to be in Once Upon A Time in the West—and they initually agreed until he told them they would all be killed in the first 5 minutes!  That seemed to be Leone’s attempt at making a complete break from his other films. Interesting, if true!  So the music would be different and more oppressive than his previous western outings. Still, it is just my personal opinion and preference that puts “Once

Upon a Time…” in a negative catagory.  While I can listen to the other soundtracks over and over.  I don’t really care for a repeat listening to the “Once…” score.  I guess, that’s just me.

 

 

 

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