Writing the book on cinematic sound

Pub date April 17, 2007
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Where to start with the work of Ennio Morricone? The composer and musician has scored more than 400 films, so the task for the curious listener, let alone for the intrepid film curator, can be daunting. His most famous soundtracks have become a kind of enduring synecdoche, capable of summoning not just a particular title but an entire genre — think of the evocative power of the ocarina flourish in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Countless others, unearthed from the vaults every few years, are often the only artifacts we have of titles — mostly sexy thrillers and low-budget police procedurals — long since forgotten (see Dagored’s impressive reissue catalog of Morricone’s more obscure Italian scores). The Castro Theatre has assembled a decent pocket guide — Il Maestro for Dummies, if you will — which includes chestnuts such as 1986’s The Mission (his biggest Oscar snub and crossover success) and the more rarely screened and heard, such as Sam Fuller’s 1982 tale of a racist canine, White Dog.

Morricone first garnered international attention for his collaborations with Sergio Leone, in which he underscored the rugged beauty of the director’s lawless western mesas by adding ethereal choirs, noble strings, lilting harpsichord, and fuzz guitars that dart like rattlesnakes across the landscape. It’s an approach perhaps best encapsulated in his gorgeous theme for 1968’s Once upon a Time in the West, also included in the Castro’s lineup.

By that time Morricone had already proven himself to be a protean asset to directors regardless of genre, given his ear for unusual timbres and sensitivity to emotional coloring. He could sum up the tragic cost of liberation in a simple martial tattoo, as he did in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), or use his extensive compositional training to achieve twisted, discordant ends, as heard in his score for the 1968 psychological thriller A Quiet Day in the Country.

It is the darker, freakier side of Morricone, deliciously showcased on the 2005 Mike Patton–curated compilation Crime and Dissonance (Ipecac), that has most consistently entranced this listener and could provide enough entries for its own film festival. The Doors-esque theme for Dario Argento’s 1971 giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet — kicked off with a chaotic drum roll worthy of the Muppets’ Animal — only hints at the bleating, echo-laden trumpet (often played by Morricone himself), cackling snippets of wah-wah guitar, frantic free jazz drumming, and creaking gongs that would later accompany the supernatural goings-on and criminal activities in films such as The Antichrist (1974) and The Cold Eyes of Fear (1971). The score for the latter was the only one Morricone ever performed with his avant-garde orchestral ensemble, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza.

His work on these pulpy flicks, like his celebrated spaghetti western scores, are only one facet of the embarrassment of riches constituting Morricone’s oeuvre. To call the honorary Oscar he received at this year’s Academy Awards long overdue is a gross understatement. Hollywood’s acknowledgement seemed almost too little too late for someone who has so profoundly shaped how we hear, and in turn how we see, movies. *


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