By Chris Nashawaty
July 06, 2020 at 04:26 AM EDT
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Ennio Morricone
Credit: Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Redferns via Getty Images

Ennio Morricone, the Oscar-winning Italian composer of more than 500 film scores, including The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, died in Rome on Monday. He was 91.

His lawyer, Giorgio Assumma, confirmed his death to multiple outlets, adding that Morricone had been hospitalized last week after falling and fracturing his leg

Shortly after the composer's death, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tweeted, “We will always remember, with infinite gratitude, the artistic genius of the Maestro #EnnioMorricone. It made us dream, feel excited, reflect, writing memorable notes that will remain indelible in the history of music and cinema.”

The son of a professional trumpet player, Morricone, who was born in Rome, began writing his own compositions at six and entered the conservatory at 12. He would subsequently become schoolmates with future spaghetti western auteur Sergio Leone, with whom he formed an indelible bond whose only rivals were the director/composer partnerships of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Steven Spielberg and John Williams, and more closely to home, Federico Fellini and Nino Rota.

In the late ‘50s, Morricone began working as a studio arranger at RCA in Italy and later became responsible for a number of popular radio hits sung by artists as varied as Paul Anka and Francoise Hardy. For Italian artists like Morricone, though, working in Rome during that heady post-war period (a dizzying, carpe-diem era captured in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) meant that all roads would ultimately lead to Cinecitta — the fabled movie studio known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.” It was a boom time not only for Italian cinema but also for big-budget American films like Cleopatra that were being shot at the fabled stucco studio on the outskirts of the city.

Although his first uncredited film score is said to have come on 1959’s Italian drama Death of a Friend, his first official composing credit was for 1961’s The Fascist, a WWII film directed by Luciano Salce. Still, it was his old classmate, Leone, who would provide the launching pad for his breakout in 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. Leone’s stylish, Spanish-shot epic about a cheroot-chomping western gunslinger playing two rival gangs against one another starred a struggling American TV actor named Clint Eastwood as a character known as The Man With No Name. The first in the spaghetti western trilogy was an immediate box-office sensation in Italy — and a surprise one three years later when it was finally exported to the U.S.

Morricone filigreed the film (and its two Leone-Eastwood sequels, 1965’s For a Few Dollars More and 1966’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) with a strange and distinctive symphony of instruments such as surf guitars, jaw harps, gunshots, whip cracks, and ghostly whistling. The result was both bizarre and absolutely astonishing. For a time, it also trapped Morricone in a gilded cage — he became the go-to composer for the wave of Italian-financed, Spanish-shot spaghetti westerns that would saturate Italian cinema until the ‘70s. Some of these Iberian-lensed oaters were gems (1966’s Death Rides a Horse and The Big Gundown); others mere retreads. But Morricone’s unique, often otherworldly scores and majestic motifs were always worth the price of admission. Like John Barry’s James Bond theme, Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (as well as the film’s soaring, staggering climactic composition, “The Ecstasy of Gold”) is familiar to movie buffs and cinema agnostics alike. Still, one of his greatest triumphs in the genre belonged to another Leone film: 1968’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, which starred Henry Fonda (in a rare villain’s role), Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale. Bronson’s harmonica-playing character is both conjured and defined by Morricone’s delicate sonic paintbrush. He’s every bit Leone’s equal as a storyteller in the film.

Ennio Morricone
Credit: Luciano Viti/Getty Images

As the Maestro’s reputation spread around the world, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood would come calling. Morricone was still working tirelessly and brilliantly with Italian filmmakers in films like Mario Bava’s groovy cult caper, Danger: Diabolik (1968), as well as a string of kinky, Freudian Italian thrillers (known as gialli) by directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci (maybe his most infectious score in the genre is from the underseen 1971 thriller Without Apparent Motive, with the squawky jazz freak-out of Argento’s 1970 whodunnit The Bird with the Crystal Plumage a close second). But for a man of Morricone’s limitless talent and unquenchable curiosity, the siren’s song of Tinseltown (not to mention its vast resources) was too intoxicating to ignore — although he rarely, if ever, left his homeland to work. One of his earliest contributions to American cinema was John Huston’s 1966 epic, The Bible: In the Beginning — a wheezy, star-studded retelling of the Book of Genesis. But due to a contractual dispute between his record label and the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, the music was ultimately scrapped. Morricone would later pluck the compositions out of their legal purgatory and recycle them in other films.

Morricone collaborated far more successfully with Hollywood from the ‘70s on, when he created one-of-a-kind and often idiosyncratic compositions for movies of virtually every possible variety: Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978, his first Oscar nomination), John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986), Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991), and Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015). The Tarantino connection was, in a sense, inevitable. After all, the Pulp Fiction director had been praising Morricone and citing his influence for years, often using snippets of the Maestro’s compositions from other films in his own movies, where they felt both classic and cutting-edge — something borrowed transformed into something new.

Over the course of his glorious career, Morricone became a national hero in his native Italy and, in America, was nominated for six Oscars — winning only once, for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. In 2007, he was also the recipient of an honorary statuette from the Academy. He is survived by his wife, lyricist Maria Travia, and four children.

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