Ennio Morricone may have been a singular figure in film composing, but never let it be said he wasn’t open to suggestion — especially when the suggestion came from a director with a knack for writing scores himself (and played Morricone’s music at his wedding). John Carpenter’s The Thing saw Morricone adapt elements of Carpenter’s synth-driven style to create something appropriately otherworldly for his biggest brush with the sci-fi genre, most evident in the heart-palpitating main theme. Curiously, the initial commercial release of the soundtrack was filled out by the more traditional orchestral pieces originally submitted for the film before Carpenter shelved them — thus giving us both the collaborative experiments and Morricone’s earlier envisionings of a more traditional thriller score, all of which nail the suspense needed to score a sci-fi horror film of this caliber.
Most people will never see 500 films in their lifetime. Ennio Morricone is said to have scored that many in his long life, which just for the purpose of geeking out over a prolific output is even more remarkable when you consider he didn’t notch his first official sole-composer credit until 1961’s Il Federale (The Fascist) — at which point he was in his early thirties. 55 years later, his final score for La Corrispondenza (The Correspondence) concluded one of the most eclectic, experimental, fascinating bodies of work in the history of recorded sound. Throughout radically and constantly changing times for both film and music, Morricone was always reliable for the kind of soundtrack work that added as much to a film as any writing, casting, directing, or editing decision: not just to evoke a mood or set a scene, but to express in music something as integral to a film’s spirit as any visual part of it.
Morricone’s work came in phases, though often they were associated with a movie’s genre rather than any particular musical movement: his sweeping-vista epiphanies for spaghetti Westerns, the tightening-torniquet suspense of his giallo thriller collaborations, the freak-beat jazz and rock flourishes he brought to crime films, and eventually the epic orchestrations that would result in some of the most astonishing prestige-film scores of ’70s and ’80s Hollywood. There were few genres he didn’t dabble in — even Bond-parodying spy farces like Agent Double 007 and Batman-tinged ’60s whizbang comic adaptations like Danger Diabolik, films otherwise risible or goofy enough to earn the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment yet still scored like they meant the world to at least one viewer.
Sometimes it seems like there’s an enigmatic unrealness to his music, a hauntingly familiar through-line of fingerprints that come from a particularly adventurous, seen-it-all experience that knows just how to accent or counterpoint the goings-on in a film. Even his more absurd moments can be run through with melodies and arrangements that strike a particularly taut nerve of romance or spirituality, and do so with a catchiness that’s both unsubtle and difficult to imitate. Yet while there are plenty of individual selections that point to Morricone’s genius — many of the best have been assembled on compilations like the 2005 Mike Patton-curated Crime and Dissonance, not to mention given miraculous new shape by avant-garde composers like John Zorn on 1984’s The Big Gundown — it’s most worthwhile hearing him create thematic masterpieces in the original context of a self-contained complete soundtrack. Here are twenty of his most notable ones, all of which are stunning with or without the visuals.
Just a few years into his career, Morricone was already starting to show off. Here we get a title theme that did heretofore little-heard strange and exotic things with whistling and harmonica-harmonizing coyote-howl voices to chillingly eerie effect. And then there’s the climactic piece, “The Ecstasy of Gold,” that did more to evoke an almost spiritually cathartic sense of violent mortal reckoning and exhausting desperation in just over three minutes than anything Wagner ever dreamed of. Even putting aside its two most renowned selections, Morricone’s sense of emotionally heightened beauty and dread shines through the whole score, whether it’s the desert-bound heat fatigue of its shorter cues or the stirringly tragic folk-opera “The Story of a Soldier,” one of the few examples of a lyrical work in his catalogue.
It’s an odd twist of the movie business that Ennio Morricone would regularly score tawdry thrillers and profoundly ambitious epics in close succession. But just a year after lending his talents to films that would prove to be clearly beneath him (Jaws knockoff Orca; the disastrous Exorcist II: The Heretic), it would be Terrence Malick’s immaculately photographed 1978 period drama Days of Heaven that earned Morricone his first Academy Award nomination. While some of its best moments are adaptive — “Harvest” reiterates Camille Saint-Saëns’ glimmering melodies from “The Aquarium” into emotionally wandering contemplation — it only strengthens the bonds Morricone makes between European and American classical music, and creates the perfect match for Malick’s stunning golden-hour visuals.
Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission tells a tragic story about the conflicts between 18th-century Jesuit missionaries, brutal colonials, and the South American indigenous Guarani people both parties are attempting to shape the destiny of. But Ennio Morricone’s score tells that story even more compellingly, with the Spanish-guitar melodies he’d developed in his Leone Western scores interweaving with liturgical choirs and Latin-indigenous percussion to an effect that could only be called spiritually revelatory. And while it’s long since transcended the religious film it scored — “Gabriel’s Oboe” in particular remains remarkably enduring, and “On Earth As It Is In Heaven” became a showstopping performance piece in Morricone’s concerts — it still holds to the sense that music itself can be holy.
Indagine su un Cittadino al di sopra di ogni Sospetto ( Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) [Original Soundtrack]Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai
Give Ennio Morricone a chance to get a little sardonic, and he’ll take it for all its worth. Elio Petri’s 1970 political thriller Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion treated the actions of a corrupt, murderous, and arrogant high-ranking cop with the sly contempt they deserved, and Morricone’s score uses springy jaw harp, skulking rhythms, and a perfectly needling tightrope-wobble melodic motif to create one of the best examples of a score practically bellowing can you believe this asshole? in his whole filmography. Even with all its eyerolling at authority, however, the music brings some spectacular tension to the fore in just the right moments, the kind of clenched-fist stuff Bernard Herrmann would no longer be alone in mastering.
The commercial release of Ennio Morricone’s score to Bernardo Bertolucci’s period drama Novecento (1900) only runs about 50 minutes — which, for a film that clocks over five hours in its original two-part director’s cut, seems comparatively slight. But in the service of a film that runs through some of the most pivotal, tragic, and harrowing moments of Europe in the first half of the 20th Century, Morricone created a symphonic masterpiece that defers to the film’s historical weight while piercing it with distinct moments of individual characterization. And when Morricone’s trademark flourishes come to the fore — string drones, folk rhythms, yearning brass — it’s clear that Bertolucci isn’t the only one who made an epic here.
With the rise of the poliziotteschi films to a prominent place in ’70s Italian cinema, Ennio Morricone’s frequent gigs scoring these two-fisted crime-panic cop films gave him ample opportunity to take advantage of all the strengths he displayed in his scores for giallo horror-thrillers and tough-guy Western epics in a newer, tougher, American-influenced style. Revolver might be best known for the tender ballad “Un amico” — repurposed by Quentin Tarantino for Shoshanna’s death scene in Inglorious Basterds — but the real stunner is the full 12 ½-minute title theme suite, which rides off a motorik-pulse purpose that Krautrock bands would envy and keeps finding new levels of escalating intensity that any film would have a hard time living up to.
Italian cinema’s fascination with the American West saw its greatest creative breakthrough in 1964: the first partnership of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Few director-composer teams have ever been better-suited for each other, with Leone’s intensely dramatic Ford-via-Kurosawa visual language met with equal operatic bravado by Morricone’s endless-vista atmosphere. The titoli grabs you by the poncho instantly when it’s merely that galloping acoustic guitar and the existentially lonesome wandering whistled melody — then the whole orchestra gradually rides over the horizon and it’s like dawn breaking. The hyperventilating piano of “Almost Dead,” the Wrecking Crew-with-spurs rumble “The Chase,” and the trembling fury of “The Result” proved that even Morricone’s “incidental” music cues felt integral.
It stands to reason that one of the most beloved soundtracks Ennio Morricone ever composed was for a movie about the evocative power of film itself. If that seems a bit meta, who cares — it’s the Maestro creating a piece of work that, through his own personal and undying connections with the world of filmmaking, has to have his own particular sense of profundity, wonder, and emotional resonance. And it’s an infectious one, the lilting and saudade-aching main theme weaving its way through a succession of reiterations that echo like faded but treasured memories.
The Westerns he scored gave him renown, but Morricone’s work could find modes of expression just about anywhere given the right inspiration — including a controversial avant-garde sexual thriller from director Pier Paolo Pasolini. While the official soundtrack release features only an EP’s worth of Morricone compositions — the other half is taken up by a series of Mozart compositions also used in the film — the five pieces he contributes are among his most stunning, drawing from his interest in free-improv music and driven by the film’s psychological intensity to mint some of his most harrowing works (“Teorema”; “Frammenti”) alongside of some deceptively groovy contemporary music (“Beat n. 3”; “Fruscio di foglie verdi”) that holds its own as a fine example of late ’60s beat pop.
Known in English-speaking countries as Almost Human, this 1974 crime film by future Cannibal Ferox director Umberto Lenzi was condemned by critics for its unceasing brutality and irredeemable villain protagonist. But with Morricone composing, a tough watch is bested by a compelling listen: if you’re not down to watch Tomas Milian going on a psychotic, stomach-turning nihilist killing spree, you can find a less sordid but no less suspenseful experience in these reiterations of themes (“Rapimento”; “Raptus omicida”; the title cut) where every brass-section melody and tendon-stretching string movement feel percussively intent on knocking the wind out of you.
Quentin Tarantino’s controversial career has resulted in at least one undeniable, unalloyed good for cinema: he finally got Ennio Morricone his first and only competitive Oscar for Best Original Score. The music is Tarantino-ishly referential in itself, in that it nods to and repurposes some of his earlier compositions for The Thing and The Exorcist II: The Heretic — but it’s also a distinct break from his other Westerns, drawing more from the droning tension, ironic-lullaby lightness, and perilously weaving melodies of his thriller and giallo scores. Perfect for Tarantino’s most claustrophobic and bitterly cold film.
Morricone was far too prolific and full of ideas to keep all his Western soundtracks for Sergio Leone. And when he worked with a director who stepped outside the traditional boundaries of the genre — like Sergio Corbucci’s wintry, bleak Il Grande Silenzio, the filmmaker’s deliberate break with convention after a string of hits like Django. Morricone’s long working relationship with Corbucci allowed him to take a similarly iconoclastic approach to the Western score, leaning on icily sorrowful compositions (including “Invito All’Amore,” an early dalliance with the melodies that would later become signature composition “Chi Mai”) that traded out gunslinger heroism for the contemplative, spacious ghostliness he’d use to similar effect in his giallo and suspense-film scores.
By 1968 Sergio Leone was so confident in the ability of Ennio Morricone’s compositions to shape the tone of his films that he let Morricone create the music first and then had the actors take it all in on-set. With a main theme that sounds like a fairy-tale lullaby take on the endless-sky grandeur of Aaron Copland, a series of immortal character motifs that culminate in a showdown between dust-weathered harmonica and serrated fuzz guitar, and knowing takes on traditional Americana and Western-movie cliches ranging from saloon-drunk slapstick to clip-clop cowboy-strut swagger, this is a definitive gunslinger symphony that elevated Morricone to the ranks of the 20th century’s greatest composers — in or outside of film.
Imagine the good fortune to make your solo directorial debut on the Italian film scene with Morricone as your composer — that was just the first of Dario Argento’s brushes with history before going on to become one of the greatest horror-thriller directors in all of European film. Like many of Morricone’s thriller scores, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is infused with an eerie sense of faux-innocence and subverted easy-listening grace; just listen to the deceptively carefree quasi-bossa-nova flourishes of the title theme and it sounds more like a carousel ride than a brush with death. That, of course, makes for the perfect setup for the melodies to turn sour, the strings to start twisting, and the voices to get short of breath, at which point Morricone’s abstract and suspense-stirring tendencies run their wildest.
Sergio Leone’s final film had a lot going against it — particularly the brutal cuts American studios made that turned the nearly four-hour early 20th Century crime drama into a jumbled 2 ½-hour mess — but loyalty and friendship at least ensured that Ennio Morricone would create a stunning opus to soundtrack it. Unique in incorporating the pan flute of Gheorghe Zamfir as a major melodic element, the Once Upon a Time in America score is also a heartwrenchingly evocative portrait of a time of struggle, with only occasional moments of period Dixieland swagger providing brief levity in one of his more mournful, yearning scores.
A sea change in the film world and the public’s shifting tastes left directors reckoning with the Death of the Wild West at the turn of the ’70s. And Sergio Leone’s final Western, the Mexican revolution epic Duck, You Sucker!, is scored by his joined-at-the-hip composer Morricone in a way that feels like Ennio’s last big dance with the genre. Touches of experimental eccentricity — like James Coburn’s character Sean having his name turned into a semi-percussive vocal motif, or the froggy schlep of “March of the Beggars” — mingle with the most elegaic compositions for a Western that he (or anyone else) had ever scored, including the thoroughly devastating “After the Explosion”.
Ennio Morricone is more well-known for scoring epic Westerns, tense thrillers, and sweeping dramas than your typical revenge-driven crime thriller. But until Herbie Hancock got a crack at it four years later with Death Wish, nobody rose to the task like Morricone when it came to soundtracking a film featuring a modern-day Charles Bronson bent on revenge. Città violenta (Violent City) is one of Morricone’s gnarliest, nastiest scores, putting his ear for heightened nerves and narrow-eyed tension to work on a score that could translate seamlessly to doom metal, complete with some spectacularly menacing distorted guitar snarl.
While he had a hand in assisting with the score to The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1969 slave-rebellion drama Burn! was Morricone’s most fully-realised work with the director — and, in the shadow of the masterpiece that was Algiers, one of both creators’ more overlooked works. But if its critical acclaim and the promise of a fiery Marlon Brando lead isn’t enough to draw you to the film, the opportunity to hear one of Morricone’s most diabolical scores should finish the job of convincing you. Centering around compositions that fuse operatic and church-choir melodies with Afro-Latin drums, it’s alternately one of his most furious and most reflective scores, the sound of colonialism confronting its demons — and being confronted by its victims.
While director Mauro Severino’s feature debut Vetgogna schifosi (a/k/a Dirty Angels) is more or less an Italian cinema footnote, the fact that Ennio Morricone created a short but beautifully haunting score for the film has ensured at least a little legacy in itself. Run through with a melodic motif soaring with surprisingly childlike lightness and sunny intrigue, Morricone’s uncanny blend of upbeat pop and operatic folk is laced with some of the most unearthly vocals to ever soundtrack an obscure blackmail thriller, thanks in part to singer and frequent collaborator Edda dell’Orso.