Ennio Morricone: The good, the great and the magnificent maestro
The towering influence of film composer Ennio Morricone — and his appearance at this year’s Belfast Festival — is being celebrated at the QFT with a special season, featuring all your favourite spaghetti Westerns, a forgotten Italian classic starring Marlon Brando, and family favourite The Mission. Michael Open delves into the superlative Morricone back-catalogue in time for curtains-up
Ennio Morricone is unquestionably one of only half a dozen, at most, composers of film music who can be said to have dominated the medium in the last half of the 20th century.
Indeed, apart from Bernard Herrmann, it is difficult to think of a film composer who is his peer. His visit to the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s and his forthcoming 80th birthday have been the perfect excuse, if excuse were needed, for QFT to present a short season of films graced by some of his most memorable scores.
Born into a musical family in Rome, Morricone took to the trumpet (his father's instrument) as a child and shone at the Conservatory. After qualifying from music college, he gravitated towards the theatre, then moved into radio before taking advanced studies in composition. This was at a time (the early 1960s) when the creative corner of the Italian film industry was emerging from the influence of neo-realism and a new generation of film-makers, headed by Sergio Leone (with whom Morricone had been at school) and Bernardo Bertolucci were beginning to make their presence felt.
Morricone's early scores were relatively unremarkable, but he often worked on films that became quite influential, including Bertolucci's first feature film, Before The Revolution — a dazzling coming-of-age drama.
However it was with his first film for Sergio Leone that Morricone clearly announced his arrival as a major composer. His score for A Fistful of Dollars (1964, QFT Oct 25 and 27 ) has become emblematic of the entire ‘spaghetti western' genre with its wailing high-register melody and insistent guitar bass.
Clint Eastwood's ‘Man with No Name' character caught the public mood of sceptical alienation which was signalling the end of the road for ‘classical' westerns. Leone's wildly original vision of the West as a dusty, empty space peopled by the avaricious and the frightened has become part of the collective consciousness and Morricone's score, for this film and the other two in the trilogy established his reputation as a cutting-edge composer of memorable melodies and mood music.
The other two films in the trilogy are also screening in the season: For a Few Dollars More — (1965, QFT Oct 25 and 28) — sees Eastwood's ‘Man with No Name’ back on screen, but this time pitched against the sinister ‘Man in Black' — Lee Van Cleef in his seminal role as the rival looking for the same bounty.
The third apex of Leone's triangle is Gian-Maria Volonte as an archetypal drug-crazed villain. This was followed the following year by the finest of the three, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (QFT Oct 18 and Oct 24-26) – presented in its fully restored digital version). Real enthusiasts will, additionally, be able to hear the UK authority on Leone, and Morricone enthusiast Sir Christopher Frayling talk about the composer before the October 18 screening. The film itself delightfully alternates high drama and black comedy in a complex story of greed and betrayal.
During this early period of Morricone's career, he also worked with the ‘young turks' of the era, and an influential film (though perhaps not score) was Fists in the Pockets, by Marco Bellocchio (1965, QFT Oct 30). Shot in dark black and white, this highly charged emotional family drama of bourgeois adolescent angst was a huge succes d'estime on release.
Around the same time, the composer worked with young politically active director Gillo Pontecorvo on the controversial and spectacular Battle of Algiers (1967). This dazzling collage of activism and violence featured a script by one of the finest political scenarists of all time — Franco Solinas.
Morricone re-joined Pontecorvo and Solinas on the ‘American sequel' to Battle of Algiers, Burn (Queimada), in 1969. This sensational, but largely forgotten work will be screened at QFT on Oct 23 and should not be missed.
Starring Marlon Brando as a Machiavellian English opportunist in a Caribbean Portuguese colony during the 19th century, the film is a thrilling and hugely cinematic political drama that refuses to preach. Almost from the opening scene, the drama is locked onto an inevitable course.
Another young Italian director to have benefited from Morricone's talent is Dario Argento, who went on to become Italy's leading exponent of the horror genre.
The season gives a rare screening to his first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970, Oct 17). More psychodrama than horror story, the film, influenced by Blow-Up, stars Tony Musante as an American writer who is trapped between two walls of glass during an attempted murder.
In the late 1970s Morricone ‘broke through' into Hollywood — largely due to his wonderful score for Terrence Malick's second masterpiece, Days of Heaven (1978, QFT Oct 22), which gained the composer his first Oscar nomination. This lyrical cine-poem – a turn of the century love story set in the wheatfields of Texas broke QFT's box office record when it was first shown during Festival 1979. A very young Richard Gere and Brooke Adams star opposite Sam Shepard as lovers fleeing the oppression of Chicago. Nothing I could say would prepare you for the film's visual wonder, enhanced by Morricone's haunting score.
Less overtly ‘arty' but more popular was John Carpenter's The Thing (1982, QFT Oct 18). Loosely based on a famous but rarely-shown sci-fi horror film of the late 1940s, it changes the story of the discovery of a mysterious object deeply buried and frozen in arctic ice into a much more insidious tale of an alien that can adopt the shape and behaviour of any creature. A minor masterpiece of paranoia!
Finally, for this season, is the Oscar-nominated score for The Mission (1986, QFT 21 Oct). Much of Morricone's orchestral work sounds somewhat religious in tone, and this chimes beautifully with the film which tells the story of an ‘unspoiled' Amazonian village and mission that falls victim to the socio-economics of capitalism and the Church of Rome. The grandeur of the environment is perfectly captured by the score's strident chords and lyrical melodies.
There is no doubt that the QFT Morricone season is a fabulous opportunity to catch up on great classics with wonderful scores. Just sad, really that Morricone's masterpiece — the score for Once Upon A Time in America — remained unavailable.
A Fistful of Celluloid opens tonight and runs until October 30. www.queensfilmtheatre.com