A look at the best scores by the late, great film composer Ennio Morricone

click to enlarge Squint hard enough, and you can hear Ennio Morricone's music for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
Squint hard enough, and you can hear Ennio Morricone's music for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

Last week, the legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone died, leaving behind a remarkably deep catalog of work that spans multiple eras of filmmaking. Like John Williams or Hans Zimmer, he was one of those rare creators of movie music whose style was instantly recognizable.

Morricone's best known composition is the theme to Sergio Leone's 1966 classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a piece of music so recognizable that it was even a hit single on the Billboard charts. Its distinctive hyena-like vocal line, supposedly meant to replicate a howling coyote, has been referenced and spoofed countless times: Just look at the Washington Post's derided tweet following Morricone's death, which credited him for writing the "'ah-ee-ah-ee-ah' theme" to the film. It's perhaps an inelegant way of describing it, but you know exactly what they're referring to.

But his career is so much more than his iconic work with Leone. Morricone worked in every imaginable genre — Westerns, of course, but also gory horror films, sleazy thrillers, historical dramas and prestige pictures from Oscar-winning filmmakers. Directors like Edgar Wright, Sam Raimi and especially Quentin Tarantino have regularly used Morricone's music as needle drops, and his work stands alone as great music sans images.

Save for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which everyone knows already, here are some of my favorite scores from Morricone's long, long career.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Leone and Morricone worked together frequently until Leone's death in 1989, and their musical collaborations (often composed before the movie was even shot, so that Leone could set the tone to Morricone's music) became inseparable from the very genre of the spaghetti Western (so called because they were made in Italy). Next to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone's greatest film is this generation-spanning epic, a timeless tale of good and evil whose lovingly composed shots and sequences of unbearable tension influenced everything from Star Wars to Breaking Bad. Morricone's score plays a huge role in the film's evocation of memory and retribution, particularly in a musical motif played on a harmonica that any Western fan can hum on command.

The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970) and Four Flies on Gray Velvet (1971)
Morricone was a major presence in the world of giallo, a genre of Italian whodunits from the '60s and '70s that are as outlandishly bloody as they were visually sumptuous. His work with Dario Argento, the king of the giallo, sticks out in particular, as Morricone's operatic tendencies perfectly accentuate the dreamlike qualities of Argento's approach to the macabre. Of the five films the two worked on together, these two bonkers murder mysteries are the best.

Days of Heaven (1978)
The films of director Terrence Malick have always been more concerned with atmosphere and feeling than plot or incident, and that approach arguably never worked better than in this tone poem about wayward convicts and sharecroppers in early 20th-century Texas. Morricone said that Malick, both an eccentric and a perfectionist, was difficult to work with, but his score is a lovely evocation of the film's time and place and earned him his first Oscar nomination.

Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Although Morricone is so closely associated with Leone, his most frequent collaborator was actually director Giuseppe Tornatore. Of the 13 feature films they worked on together, the best known is the wistful 1988 arthouse hit Cinema Paradiso, about a man looking back on the neighborhood movie theater where he learned about life. Morricone's score overflows with a love for cinema itself, particularly in a final montage of romantic movie moments.

The Hateful Eight (2015)
Although it isn't one of Quentin Tarantino's finest hours, this Western epic is worth remembering for no other reason than it won Morricone his first (and only) competitive Oscar. It might be weird to say, but the film peaks in its opening credits, as the camera slowly zooms out from an extreme close-up of a gravestone to reveal a wagon train rumbling through the barren, snow-packed wilderness. The impact of those opening minutes rests entirely on the shoulders of Morricone's score, which conveys grandeur and menace and which super-fan Tarantino so lovingly employs. ♦

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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.