A LASTING COLLABORATION between a composer and a film director is a precious thing. The work of Steven Spielberg would be greatly diminished without John Williams’s scores. The famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is remembered in large part because of Bernard Hermann’s screeching strings. Of all such partnerships, none seems quite so complete as that between Sergio Leone (pictured right) and Ennio Morricone (pictured left). Together the two Italians revitalised an American genre and created some of the most powerful and recognisable moments in post-war cinema.
The two men grew up in close proximity in Trastevere, a working-class district of Rome—so close, in fact, that they posed for their primary-school photograph together. They met again in 1963 when Leone contacted Mr Morricone, who was working as a composer for radio, television and pop stars, to write the score for a new low-budget Western called “The Magnificent Stranger”. Without the large orchestra that would typically burnish the soundtrack of a John Ford Western, Mr Morricone got creative. An array of different instruments were used to create an exciting new soundscape: electric and acoustic guitars, rare harps, whips, durango trumpets, bells, gunshots and, perhaps most importantly, whistling, provided by another childhood friend, Alessandro Alessandroni.
The success of the film—renamed “A Fistful of Dollars” before its release—was so great that it single-handedly removed the stigma attached to the Spaghetti Western, at that time considered a cheap and risible subgenre. American directors such as Sam Peckinpah and, later, Clint Eastwood, would soon imitate the close-ups, the cynicism and the operatic violence which became the hallmarks of Leone’s style, set to Mr Morricone’s eclectic soundtracks. “A Fistful of Dollars” was “the test bed of my relationship with Sergio,” Mr Morricone said in his autobiography. “And from the very beginning, it divulged all of its facets—from our great synergy to our fights.”
In the sequel, “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), sound became even more integral, as a musical pocketwatch played a key role in the plot. Mr Morricone’s score carefully segued between diegetic music—which exists in the world of the film—and non-diegetic music, which comments on the narrative and the psychological interiority of the characters. By this stage in their collaboration, Mr Morricone was writing the music in advance of filming. Leone would edit the footage to fit the music and not, as was conventionally the case, the other way around. While making “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966), Leone would play the music on set for the actors to help them get into character. (Each of the titular parts shared the same theme but it is played on a different instrument: the flute for the “Good”, the ocarina for the “Bad” and the human voice for the “Ugly”.)
By “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), the director had gone further, playing the music as the cameras rolled so that he could line up his shots accordingly. The most striking part of the movie’s soundscape comes during the opening title sequence. Three cowboys await the arrival of the protagonist—a man known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson)—at a railway station; Mr Morricone created atmosphere using the sound of a fly buzzing, water dripping and a sign creaking. This was his genius. He combined the catchiness of a pop melodist with the daring experimentalism that made him a core member of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, a collective of avant-garde composers.
Following “Fistful of Dynamite” (1971), the last of Leone’s Westerns, the two men would collaborate for the last time on “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984), a mobster film set in New York. Although the movie featured some jazz, the score soared beyond its genre. Mr Morricone’s openness to unusual instrumentation was in evidence again: the pan flute was enlisted to haunting effect, associated with regret and the characters’ loss of innocence.
Leone’s death at the age of 60 put an untimely end to their creative partnership. Mr Morricone’s comparative longevity—he died on July 6th, aged 91—meant he could expand his repertoire far beyond Spaghetti Westerns. He worked with film-makers including Bernardo Bertolucci, Tinto Brass, John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino. But it is his output with Leone that deserves to be most celebrated, for the collaboration was a kind of co-authorship. As Leone put it: “I’ve always said that my best dialogue and screenwriter is Ennio Morricone.”