Monday, November 10, 2008

It's Ennio's Eightieth

"Now that you've called me by name..."
Enzo Santaniello as Timmy McBain in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

If I had to trace the exact moment when the full weight of cinema's importance came crashing down on me, I could draw a straight line to that moment in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST when little Timmy McBain comes running down the corridor of his family's farmhouse and stops cold and incomprehending at the sight of his family's slaughter. The bodies remain offscreen as Tonino delli Colli's camera holds tight on his face, but the power of his trauma is conveyed by the long-delayed introduction of music into the film -- Ennio Morricone's music, Alessandro Alessandroni's distorted electric guitar foregrounded against a full orchestra whose rising and falling, mathematical cadence seems to count the last grains of time left to this young orphan's life.
Today, Ennio Morricone -- far and away our greatest living film composer -- marks the 80th anniversary of his birth. He is well aware of the impact and significance and, I believe, unmatchable quality of his Italian Western music, to the extent that it deeply annoys him, so I do not propose to write not much more about it. Instead, I would like to use this occasion to discuss my own lengthy prowl through the Maestro's back catalogue in search of music that, for me, would be capable of rivaling the unforgettable shock of my initial introduction to his work.
There is obviously no shortage of music of the highest quality in Morricone's filmography, found in pictures as well-known as THE MISSION or CINEMA PARADISO, or as beloved as DANGER: DIABOLIK, or as obscure as Veruschka and Meti una sera a cena. He has also written music that has imbued some otherwise tepid films with the very deepest and richest of emotions -- Adrian Lyne's version of LOLITA comes to mind, a film I like primarily because of what Morricone's music does for it. As surely as Morricone coined the musical landscape of the Italian Western, he did the same for the Italian thrillers of the 1970s, beginning with Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, but continuing with his THE CAT O'NINE TAILS (plausibly one of Morricone's Top 10) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, and carrying on with other examples such as WHO SAW HER DIE? (a particularly brilliant session), SPASMO, and the underrated Jean-Paul Belmondo vehicle Peur sur la Ville. I don't think it is possible to say of any other composer short of Bernard Herrmann, but the effect of Ennio Morricone on our understanding of the language available to cinema has truly been incalculable. But the full breadth and depth of that contribution is oh, so tempting to calculate.
Morricone's immensely moving, lyrical and magisterial score for OUATITW is an almost impossible act to follow, and yet he has "followed it" to say the very least. He has, in fact, continued by writing nearly 400 additional scores, with his current IMDb total reaching a staggering and unchallenged 486 film scores to date! His artistic achievement to date is already of such monumental proportion that one almost feels the need of two lifetimes in order to do it justice as a listener and commentator.
I recently posted here about Morricone's soul-stirring pop song "Se telefonando," which comes as close to his own standards of perfection as anything else I've heard -- but it's not film music. It was only within the past year or so that I finally heard something else from Morricone's catalogue that I believe -- in its romanticism, melancholy, majesty and drama -- stands as a true equal to the likes of such outstanding OUATITW tracks as "Jill's America" or "Man with a Harmonica." That cue is "Amore come dolore" ("A Love Like Sorrow"), a haunting 6:10 piece from Luciano Ercoli's 1970 giallo thriller Le foto proibite di una signora per bene. You can find a full rundown on the different issues of this soundtrack album and the various compilations on which its cues have been included here.
Le foto proibite di una signora per bene, which is available on DVD from Blue Underground as THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION, is only a passable giallo but it is one of the genre's greatest soundtrack albums. The music runs the full spectrum, from breathy bossa nova pop to organ-driven discotheque tunes (I can't help feeling that Radley Metzger would have killed to have "Allegreto del Signora" in his CAMILLE 2000) to some of the Maestro's best thriller music: suspenseful tracks that seem to accrue more and more silken spiderwebs and eerie lighting as they slither from beginning to end.
But when the album reaches "Amore come dolore," time stands still. I wish I could play it for you, but the best I can do is direct you to this not-always-work-friendly YouTube trailer for the film, which is mostly scored with the piece in question. Since I can't play the music for you in its entirety, the best I can do is to describe it as best I can:
It opens with a vulnerable, naked-sounding piano signature being tapped out on two notes by a single hand, which gains in complexity when it is joined by another hand playing doublets of three complementary notes, which lend the initial signature greater poignancy. A muted trumpet enters, so softly as to be easily mistaken for one of the deeper woodwinds, carried on a river of strings almost hesitant to veer away from the one or two sustained notes that most concern them -- and with the dawning sound of the muted trumpet, the piece acquires a sense of hopeful momentum as the sound of the strings seems to double, triple, with all the disparate components still searching for proper unity. As the lovely ostinati continues, it finally reaches a point (at 1:20) when electric bass enters to ground everything into a strong and coherent, almost jaunty emotion. At this point, pizzicato strings enter, echoing the initial piano notes, and these are soon doubled on electric piano, brightening the same notes that sounded so sorrowful in their initial solitude. As the piece reaches its halfway point, something happens to undermine the coherence and security of the melody: the piano notes tremble and a snare drum rattles as the orchestral strings stretch and bend, in the manner of wary sighing, over a further repetition of the initial piano signature, abruptly darkening the atmosphere of the piece. Slightly after the four minute point, the composition returns to square one with the piano signature repeated solo, and once again, the introduction of the strings and the muted trumpet bring a measure of hope that sounds more bittersweet in recovery after the middle part's unsettled detour.
Considering the title that Morricone chose to give this composition -- and "Amore come dolore" really has nothing to do with anything in the story of Ercoli's film, suggesting that the piece was either written independently of the film or had some other meaning for its composer -- it may be a musical representation of love found, love threatened or possibly abandoned, but love also recovered as the opening theme is once again recovered from its loneliness by a measure of optimism.
Upon discovering this music, I immediately added the Le foto proibite soundtrack to my iPod (which contains very little other soundtrack music, not even OUATITW), but it was "Amore come dolore" that I continue returning to, even today. I consider it one of Morricone's indisputible masterpieces; at six minutes and change, I find it always takes me on a musical journey as complete and fulfilling as, say, Pink Floyd's "Echoes." It's no surprise that, in the last decade particularly, "Amore come dolore" has become one of Morricone's most anthologized pieces.
I was into my obsession with this track for close to a year before it dawned on me that I didn't really know anything about the movie it was from. When I finally looked up THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION on the IMDb, I was flabbergasted to discover that it was scripted by my friend Ernesto Gastaldi, with whom I've maintained a warm personal correspondence for the past fifteen years. (In fact, Ernesto is interviewed in a featurette included on the Blue Underground disc -- as I happily discovered once I got around to watching it.) I was so pleased for Ernesto -- imagine having Ennio Morricone respond to something you have written with one of his finest pieces of work! -- that I couldn't resist writing to him and telling him how I had fallen under the spell of "Amore come dolore." He didn't remember the piece, so I sent him an mp3 file so that he could experience it for himself. He replied to me: "Wonderful music! I don't remember it as the soundtrack of my movie, [but] that music is perfect by itself."
Indeed it is. The full Le foto proibite soundtrack album, and individual cues from it, are available for download at MSN Music here. Whatever music you choose to ring in this milestone in the Maestro's life, I'm sure you'll join me in wishing Ennio Morricone many more years of health and joyous productivity.

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