The Lush Brilliance of Ennio Morricone’s Dollars Symphony

Few artists can plan a career for themselves, especially in the uncertain world of filmmaking. Most work has to be taken as it’s offered, which is why so many artists end up jacks of all trades. This was certainly the case with Ennio Morricone, who began his career not in films but in a variety of roles within the music industry—playing trumpet in jazz bands, writing original compositions for theatre, radio and television, and (as a studio arranger for the RCA Victor label) working on arrangements for pop music artists. After spending some years ghostwriting film music, Morricone got his first solo film composing job with 1961’s Il Federale (The Fascist). That gig was only a few years before he met up with director Sergio Leone, who also had a circuitous path to filmmaking: after working for just over a decade as an assistant director, Leone got his first solo directing job in 1961, with The Colossus of Rhodes.

The film on which Morricone and Leone first collaborated, 1964’s Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars), would be a watershed moment for both of them, catapulting their respective careers to huge success. Fistful, along with its sequels (1965’s Per qualche dollaro in piú aka For A Few Dollars More, and 1966’s Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo aka The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), reinvented the Western by remixing various elements of mythology, cinematic history, and new styles and techniques. Morricone’s music was constructed in much the same way, pulling from a variety of influences and sources to create a trilogy of scores that retroactively work as a makeshift symphony, a work that is highly thematic and forever changed the sound of the Western, influencing future film scoring for decades after. 

Like many a great collaboration, the meeting of Morricone and Leone on Fistful was by total happenstance. Leone had shot the movie in Almeria, Spain, on old standing sets utilized by one of the film’s co-producers, the studio Jolly Film. Fistful was considered the “B” production to another Western shot concurrently with it on the same sets, Mario Caiano’s Bullets Don’t Argue (1964), for which Morricone had already been hired as composer. Suggested by the producers to Leone, Morricone was brought onto Fistful, whereupon he realized that he and Leone had attended the same primary school at the same time. This camaraderie allowed the duo to work through a rough period of attempting to find a direction for the film’s score, which the tone-deaf Leone couldn’t communicate to his composer further than demanding that Morricone emulate Dimitri Tiomkin–in particular his “El Degüello,” which had been used in Rio Bravo (1959). Morricone wrote a beautiful Degüello (a bugle call traditionally used by the Mexican army) for Fistful, and it forms the basis of the film’s emotional center, marking that sound and style’s importance to the Dollars films early on. 

As for a main title that would double as a signature theme for the movie’s antihero, the magnificent stranger played by Clint Eastwood, Morricone and Leone were stumped. But during a meeting where prior recordings of Morricone’s music were being played, the composer’s 1962 arrangement for ex-pat American pop singer Peter Tevis of the Woody Guthrie song “Pastures of Plenty” came on, and Leone insisted it be used. Morricone had played up the “Western” aspects of Guthrie’s ode to migrant workers for Tevis’ cover version, using a whistling vocal, a male background choir (whose near-incomprehensible vocals can be better understood with Tevis’ lead vocal intact) and even a whipcrack. In the revamped version for Fistful, Morricone removed Tevis’ vocals and added even more Stratocaster guitar, perhaps influenced by Monty Norman’s guitar-led theme for the James Bond films. The overall sound of the cue indeed gives Eastwood’s bounty hunter a thematic signature, one which not only came to be known as iconic Western music but which Morricone would carry over into the next two Dollars pictures.

Thanks to the success of Fistful, Leone’s sequel, For a Few Dollars More, is bigger and grander in scope, a direction which Morricone’s score ably follows. The main title theme for the film is a clear sequel to Morricone’s “Pastures” cover, bringing back the whistling, male chorus, and Stratocaster guitar. However, there are two new elements: gunshots in place of the whipcracks, and a jew’s harp. This is an indication right from the start that the Dollars world is becoming more complex and character-filled, as the instrumentation sets up Morricone’s use of not just melody but instruments themselves to identify characters. Eastwood’s bounty hunter is once again represented by the whistling melody, guitars, and choir, but the jew’s harp belongs to new character Colonel Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef), used exclusively to support his scenes and/or to indicate his presence or influence. 

For the third major character in the film (this movie begins Leone’s obsession with trios and triangles), El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté), Morricone throws in a variety of instruments—Spanish guitar, pipe organ—yet the one that sticks is the sound of music-box-like chimes, diegetically emanating from a mysterious pocket watch that has ties to several characters’ pasts. Morricone uses these instruments in various combinations until the final duel, where the composer puts them together with a conclusive new degüello. This climactic scene is notable for Leone stretching out its suspense for as long as possible, a choice Morricone thought wasn’t made purely out of style—according to a 2007 interview with the composer in The Observer, Morricone believed Leone “often kept the scenes longer simply because he didn’t want the music to end.” With More’s expanded palette and haunting melodies (with one cue anticipating the lush arrangements of later period Jerry Goldsmith), it’s easy to see why.

His work on More was so impressive (not to mention his steadily growing repertoire in his other film work), Morricone had reached star status by Leone’s final Dollars film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and his music is a main feature of the movie. While Leone had hoped to arrange for Morricone to compose some music the director could hear ahead of filming on their prior collaborations, the timing never quite worked out. This time, however, it did, and Morricone composed the film’s climactic pieces before shooting began. He also composed a good portion of the music in a traditional fashion, after filming was completed—in fact, this led to the writing of the movie’s infamous main title theme, its iconic vocal refrain inspired by a coyote howl in the first few moments of the very first scene. Once again, Morricone uses distinctive instruments to identify each of the titular trio thematically: a flute for Blondie (Eastwood), an ocarina for Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), and a human voice for Tuco (Eli Wallach), while the use of whistling, male chorus, and Stratocaster keep the overall theme in Dollars tradition. The score’s moments of peril, such as Blondie’s trek through the desert at gunpoint, uses complex, atonal arrangements that would be emulated by John Williams in similar desert-set scenes in his work for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. 

The film provides the most pointed commentary of the trilogy on Leone’s mythic view of the American West, as well as the not-so-noble Americans themselves, culminating in Morricone’s original ballad written for the film, “The Story of a Soldier.” The song underscores not only moments of tragedy during the Civil War (when the story is set) but also the torture of Tuco at the hands of Angel Eyes, solidifying the trope of sadistic violence accompanied by diegetic, beautiful music. As an ironic counterpoint, Morricone saves the most triumphant and ebullient cue not for a noble act or victory in battle, but for Tuco’s discovery of the cemetery where a treasure in gold is buried, in a piece aptly named “The Ecstasy of Gold.” 

That cue is one of the two composed prior to filming so that Leone could shoot with it in mind; the other is the score’s—and the film’s—climactic moment, a three-way (or is it?) duel named “The Trio.” It’s in this scene that the Dollars trilogy reaches a thematic (as opposed to narrative) culmination, and Morricone supports that climax by working in a number of elements from the prior films: hard-edged guitar work, a soaring degüello trumpet, and even a variation on the chimes from For a Few Dollars More. Even though these may not be the same exact characters seen in the prior films, Morricone seems to say, they nonetheless act as stand-ins for their mythic, philosophical archetypes, locked in a struggle as eternal as war. It’s a piece that retroactively makes Morricone’s work on the Dollars films act as a symphony, a full composition whose various movements correspond to each movie. In another composer’s hands, Leone’s grandiose and operatic take on the Western may have seemed hopelessly daft. In Morricone’s, the trilogy seems positively transcendent, a master statement on a West that both forever is and never was. 

Bill Bria is a writer, actor, songwriter, and comedian. "Sam & Bill Are Huge," his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill's acting credits include an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and a featured part in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He lives in New York City, which hopefully will be the setting for a major motion picture someday.

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