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Eight scenes that Ennio Morricone’s music made memorable

The Italian composer died today, leaving behind one of the greatest legacies in film scoring. We pick eight scenes impossible to imagine without his music

Ennio Morricone scored some of the greatest moments in film history
Ennio Morricone scored some of the greatest moments in film history

Ennio Morricone, one of the most influential and prolific film composers ever, died today in a hospital in Rome. He was 91. It’s difficult to convey the vastness of his contribution to cinema except to say that film scoring was immediately and irrevocably changed by his electrifying soundtracks for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s. He was, however, much more than just a composer of Westerns: he worked in just about every genre there was, collaborating with directors as different as Dario Argento and Terrence Malick. Out of the thousands of movie moments he scored over more than six decades, we pick eight scenes that wouldn’t have been the same without the Morricone touch.

‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1966) – The final duel

In the opening credits of the first film of the Dollars trilogy, with an unholy, thrilling mixture of whistles, shrieks, exclamations, bells and twanging electric guitar, Morricone revolutionized film scoring. In the third film, he perfected it. The final duel in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a masterclass of cutting and framing but it wouldn't be immortal without Morricone’s music, those ascending guitar arpeggios joined by strings and choral singing and exploding into a searing horn figure. Fans of the film don't just see this scene in their minds, they hear it.

‘Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion’ (1971) – A little death

Morricone’s penchant for unusual instrumentation didn’t just surface in his Westerns. Elio Petri’s dark comedy begins with a man in a suit arriving at his mistress’ pad, undressing and making love to her. When she cries out, we realize that he’s actually murdered her. All the while, a merry, mocking tune plays. Morricone said in an interview that he felt the scene needed music with “a folkish feel". He used “peasant instruments": a mandolin and a Jew’s harp along with piano. He also asked the synth player to imitate the sound of a raspberry being blown.

‘Allonsanfàn’ (1974) – Vision

Most film fans today know Rabbia e tarantella as the track that plays in the closing credits of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Yet, its original use, in the Italian period drama Allonsanfàn, is even more memorable, as the film’s titular character, suffering from a head injury, sees villagers and revolutionaries performing an incongruous folk dance. Morricone’s theme is sincere and stirring, transforming a moment of madness into one of imagined victory.

‘Sacco e Vanzetti’ (1971) – Handshake

Even if you didn’t know that Sacco e Vanzetti ends with the execution by electric chair of two Italian anarchists, the theme accompanying their last handshake in prison is the saddest music you’ll ever hear.

‘The Battle of Algiers’ (1966) – Before the bombing

Though he did bombast better than anyone, Morricone could also pare down his sound when required. In a tense sequence in The Battle of Algiers, we see three local women fixing their clothes and hair before heading out to go set off bombs in the French quarter. Morricone accompanies the long, tense buildup to the bombing with little more than fast, agitated percussion, picking up from the rhythm of ululations by women in the Qasba in the previous scene. Critic Pauline Kael wrote that "in The Battle of Algiers, music becomes a form of agitation: at times, the strange percussive sound is like an engine that can't quite start…"

‘The Untouchables’ (1987) – Shootout on the bridge

The exhilaration of the raid by Eliot Ness and his men on gangster bootleggers at the Canadian border finds the perfect accompaniment in Morricone’s exultant theme. The old-fashioned joyousness of the piece is in tune with the film’s retro cops-and-robbers brio.

‘Fists in the Pocket’ (1965) – Alone at the party

As a young unknown, Morricone was a trumpeter in jazz bands, so he might have enjoyed composing the jazz-lite dance music that plays as Allesandro, the volcanic centre of Fists in the Pocket, stands alone in the corner at a hip party. The melody is teasing, mirroring his discomfort, then suddenly changes tempo and tenor to something more sympathetic as the camera draws in on actor Lou Castel.

‘The Cat o' Nine Tails’ (1971) – Opening credits

Morricone was as vital a horror movie composer as he was for Westerns. His theme for the opening scene of Dario Argento’s The Cat o' Nine Tails is a wonderful example of music that undercuts genre expectations. Instead of being spooky, the overlaying of acoustic guitar, flute and harpsichord with ghostly female vocals is stately and somewhat mournful.

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