2007's Honorary Oscar recipient is the composer behind the themes for ''The Mission'' and many more

By Tim Purtell
January 26, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

Who wrote the Top 40 hit ”The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”? You know, the one with the unearthly ah-ee-ah-ee-ah howl. For fans, the answer’s obvious: Ennio Morricone (pronounced EN-nee-oh More-uh-KOE-nee). Since 1961, the 78-year-old Italian has composed more than 400 soundtracks and earned five Oscar nods — but never won, an oversight he once said left ”a hole” in him.

Morricone’s rich, pastoral music (with an assist from Camille Saint-Saëns) for 1978’s Days of Heaven is as integral to Terrence Malick’s vision as Nestor Almendros’ cinematography, and won him his first nomination. He was tipped again for 1986’s The Mission, where choral grandeur deepens the Edenic imagery. In 1987’s The Untouchables, the percussive rat-a-tat-tat of drum and piano functions as an aural metaphor. The score also has one of his surprising instrument choices: A twinkling glockenspiel introduces the train station shoot-out. The lush darkness of 1991’s Bugsy led to a fourth nom; the alternately playful and romantic strains for Giuseppe Tornatore’s 2000 wartime film Malèa provided nod No. 5.

Beyond Oscar’s radar, there’s the devilish beauty of his Sergio Leone collaborations. The soundtrack for 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly still sounds daring, while Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) contains arguably his greatest work. Filled with scuzzy guitar, wailing harmonica, plunkety-plunk banjo, and a haunting soprano, the leitmotifs perfectly match Leone’s unorthodox filmmaking and the film’s themes of revenge and loss. Melodic melancholy also wafts through 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America, the mournful strings and ghostly piano reflecting the sadness in Robert De Niro’s eyes. Or is it the other way around? Grazie, maestro.