Friday, July 10, 2020

Once Upon a Time in a Western

 1928-2020
That's film composer Ennio Morricone four years ago when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He deserved it though I should point out that he was never a permanent resident of Hollywood, nor Los Angeles, nor Los Angeles County, nor California, nor the United States, nor even the North American continent. He lived his entire life in Italy, though I'm sure he left it occasionally to do things like go to Oscar ceremonies, and, well, see his star unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now,  I said he composed films, as in feature films, movies. And we here in the U.S. tend to equate movies with Hollywood, but Morricone's most well-known film score was for a picture made in his native Italy, and directed by a fellow Italian, though it did star three Americans who had done their fair share of work in Hollywood: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach. Moreover, it was a movie that took place in America, in the Old West, a period of history that seems to interest Europeans as much as it once did Americans themselves. And it interested an old schoolmate of Morricone's, that Italian director I mentioned, Sergio Leone. The versatile Morricone, at home with both classical and jazz, was already an up-and-coming composer, of movies but also radio, TV,  and music performed by Italian pop stars of the day, when in 1964 Leone hired him to write the score for a Western starring the aforementioned Eastwood titled A Fistful of Dollars. The next year there was a sequel (unless Eastwood was just playing a different but very similar character with a very similar fashion sense--no one's ever known for sure) called For a Few Dollars More. A year after that a third movie, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, turned the whole thing into a trilogy. All three films were released in the USA in 1967, giving rise to the USA-coined term "Spaghetti Western". Such Westerns--Leone's anyway--were violent, darkly humorous, and morally ambiguous (I suspect that's because Europeans tend to see the United States as a whole as violent, darkly humorous, and morally ambiguous, but let's not go there.) And Morricone's moodily evocative melodies provided the perfect background music for a gunslinger wandering the desert looking for that special somebody to kill. Leone was about to quit directing Westerns altogether when Paramount Pictures of Hollywood, USA, threw a bunch of money at him to come up with another one. The result was 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and an uncharacteristically homicidal Henry Fonda. From my point of view it wasn't all that different from the earlier films, but whether because Eastwood, now a big star who no longer needed a Spaghetti Western to boost his profile, had begged off this one, or that nobody could appreciate the novelty of Fonda blowing away an Opie Taylor lookalike, it flopped at the US box office (but did quite all right elsewhere.) No one blamed Ennio Morricone for any loss of film revenue, as he had produced another classic score, and he in fact now was greatly in demand, particularly in Hollywood.

Morricone did several more Westerns (including Duck, You Sucker, again for Leone) and then took a 42 year hiatus from the genre. In the meantime other esteemed Italian directors kept him busy, including Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), and Guiseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso.) And when it wasn't the Italians, it was the French (Édouard Molinaro, La Cage aux Folles) and the British (Roland Joffé , The Mission.) But the biggest calls for Morricone's services outside of Italy came from Hollywood directors. There were three films for Brian de Palma (including The Untouchables), and two for Barry Levinson (one of which was Bugsy.) Other Hollywood directors he worked with include Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven), John Carpenter (The Thing, 1982 version), Mike Nichols (Wolf), Oliver Stone (U-Turn), Warren Beatty (Bullworth), John Boorman (British but working within the Hollywood system--The Exorcist II: The Heretic), Wolfgang Peterson (German but working within the Hollywood system--In the Line of Fire), Roman Polanski (Polish, as well as a fugitive from U.S. justice, but somehow still working within the Hollywood system--Frantic), Franco Zeffirelli (Italian but working within the Hollywood system--Hamlet, 1990 version), and one other Italian who ended up working within the Hollywood system, the aforementioned Sergio Leone, who finished his career with Once Upon a Time in America, a movie about Jewish gangsters (perhaps Leone saw it as a blow against the ethnic stereotyping of organized crime figures.)

Then there's the American-born director with the Italian-sounding last name, Quentin Tarantino. A longtime fan, Tarantino has often referenced the films of Sergio Leone in his own movies, even when the movies themselves were of an entirely different genre (thus Inglorious Basterds, a Spaghetti Western version of World War II.) Now, Tarantino had long resisted the traditional single-composer-doing-the-whole-score in his films, preferring the alternative method, a soundtrack made up of a bunch of different songs by a bunch of different artists. Yet when it came time for Tarantino to make a Western that actually took place in the Old West, 2015's The Hateful Eight, he asked the 87-year-old Morricone to do the score, which ended up being nominated for an Academy Award. Morricone had been nominated several times before, but, for as in demand as he was as a composer, he had always lost out to someone else. However, now he was back in his old stomping ground (in terms of public recognition) the Western, and finally took home an Oscar. Call it frontier justice.







10 comments:

  1. Hi, Kirk!

    Thanks for presenting this overview of the career of Italian film score composer Ennio Morricone who died a few days ago at the age of 91. Morricone had a long and distinguished career and it is gratifying that late in life he finally received an Oscar for his work.

    In my film course at college, we were shown scenes from various movies that had the music track removed. We discovered that without the music to inform the soul, those scenes, some of them iconic, had far less emotional impact. Music gives meaning and context to what the eye sees. In some movies the music is overwrought. I have always pointed to Ron Howard's Backdraft in this regard. In places the soaring music tries too hard to stir the viewer's emotions and shape how we feel about what we are seeing. As I recall the films I have seen that benefit from Morricone's compositions, I realize that they were used to best advantage. I have not seen the Spaghetti Westerns, but I did see The Untouchables, Bugsy, The Thing, The Exorcist II: The Heretic, In the Line of Fire and Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds.

    Thanks again for paying tribute to Ennio Morricone and for listing the films to which he made important yet often subtle or subliminal contributions with his music. Have a safe and happy weekend, good buddy Kirk!

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    1. "...tries too hard to stir the viewer's emotions and shape how we feel about what we are seeing."

      Shady, that actually reminds me, though I like the song, they play "Moon River" one too many times in Breakfast at Tiffany's. I mean, it's nice that Audrey Hepburn gets to sing it (and proof that she didn't always need to be dubbed by Marni Nixon), but we really don't need to hear George Peppard whistle the song later on in the film.

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  2. Hello Kirk, I have never seen any of these movies, so I cannot comment except to agree with Debra above.

    I watched Carl Reiner's Head of the Family that you recommended. Pilots can be pretty rough, and this was no exception. What I don't understand was the conception of the son Richie as a seriously disturbed kid hiding in the cabinets, not just doing some youthful hijinks. This is trebly upsetting thinking back to the cabinets of that time, which often latched from the outside. For some reason Reiner could not let this ill-conceived idea go. I recall seeing it in some early episodes or pilot of the Dick van Dyke show. No wonder the part of the son never went anywhere or was really incorporated into the show.
    --Jim

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    1. Jim, Carl Reiner has said he based the show on his own life, so maybe son Rob did that. Fortunately, nothing tragic came of it, or else Norman Lear would have had to find someone else to play Meathead.

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  3. RIP Ennio. Such a distinguish career :-)

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    1. Film composers are sometimes overlooked, Ananka. That there is a reason to do this post.

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  4. RIP Ennio. We all tip our hats to you and applaud your brilliant career. You enriched so many people's lives with your talent.

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  5. Thanks for leaving a comment, Mildred. Sorry I took so long to get it published, but it was hiding within the lower reaches of my email.

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