Parting words: Ennio Morricone
“Ennio Morricone‘s passed away” read the text from my friend. As I woke up from slumber, I didn’t have too many thoughts racing my mind. Just an image of the maestro in motion during one of his concerts.
I didn’t know how to feel then, at least for a few minutes. There was at least this fact that he had lived a long life and contributed a lot to the music and cinematic world, but also a certain feeling of emptiness.
The first sequence from a movie that came to my mind was not from a western, but from one of the most iconic works of Sergio Leone, The ‘Noodles I slipped’ scene from Once Upon a Time in America. It left an indelible impact on my mind. Something about it, the innocence of childhood lost in a few seconds, the simple final words and perhaps when the music hits the screen, it hits you as a viewer as well.
There was something about Morricone’s works which stood out, perhaps best applied when he collaborated with his schoolmate Leone, and quite endearing otherwise as well. There have been other great composers in movies as well Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Bernard Herrmann to name a few, but what set Morricone apart was the way he owned the scene.
The music in a sequence matched the action to perfection, this can be seen in Once Upon a Time in the West, during the bar scene. Cheyenne’s entry is rough and sudden, and our attention is captured by him, but as soon as he starts drinking the bottle the harmonica starts and just like that our attention moves to a dingy location where Harmonica (Charles Bronson) is seated. The scene reaches its climax when Cheyenne irritated by this newcomer swings a lantern towards him, only for the music to pick up, which engages us as much as Bronson’s enchanting eyes.
Cheyenne is wearing handcuffs when he lifts the bottle- this in itself raises a number of questions in the viewer’s mind, but then we are forced to divert our attention towards Harmonica. What follows is an interesting exchange where we see the two exchanging glares, Harmonica’s gun which is situate facing Cheyenne and finally Cheyenne asking Harmonica to prove himself. (“Know how to blow music from that”)
What stands out for us are the glares, the camera movements and the music which plays perfectly to every small movement by the main characters.
This was just one of many examples of the magic that Leone and Morricone could create. It is also serves as a reminder as to how cinema can say so much in so little. Movies don’t need grand action sequences to earn a moniker of action flick (not that Leone’s movies were lacking in them, in any sense whatsoever), actors don’t need to show their skills only through spoken words and music need not only be used in a conventional sense.
Aside from this Morricone’s music in itself had the capacity to capture the emotions of characters like nothing else. John Mallory’s pain through his flashbacks is reflected well in A Fistful of Dynamite, even though the action changes from happy times to betrayal. What is portrayed well is Mallory’s sorrow at a loss, one which stays with him forever.
Tuco Ramirez’s torture scene is another one which develops multiple emotions in the viewer. At one end is the torture of Tuco by Corporal Wallace and Angel Eyes, while the song in itself and the faces of the soldiers playing them makes one feel the pain of the soldiers captured and with little hope for their futures. These sequences show to us that these movies were not limited to expression of an individual’s quest for gold or power, but had a larger underlying critique of the society, of wars, of the times in which they were set.
And this would not have been possible without Ennio Morricone.
I am no expert in music, I don’t understand one thing from another in terminologies related to the field, but what Ennio Morricone did was help fill the worlds of several movies with raw emotions, add another dimension to the characters who inhabited them and give viewers a sense of contentment when the movies ended. Also his music seemed to take a life of its own, one which can inhabit many movie-worlds, as Quentin Tarantino has successfully shown us in recent years.
His music makes us understand that cinema can be so much more and so different.
Thank you for all the magic Maestro. Your works will continue to live on immortally.
Ennio Morricone passed away at the age of 91 in Rome, Italy on July 6, 2020. He leaves behind a wife, four kids, and hundres of compositions.