Friday, February 28, 2014

Ennio Morricone -- "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968)

After directing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- the last movie in the "Man with No Name" trilogy -- Italian director Sergio Leone thought he had directed his last spaghetti Western.  But when Paramount offered him a generous budget and a chance to direct Henry Fonda, Leone changed his mind.

The late Sergio Leone
Leone enlisted Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento -- two Italian film critics who later became directors -- to help him develop the story for the Once Upon a Time in the West.  (Bertolucci's directing credits include The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris.)

Bertolucci and Argento spent the best part of a year watching and discussing famous Western movies, and Once Upon a Time in the West contains references to High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma, The Magnificent Seven, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and other classics.

Once Upon a Time in the West was not a box-office success when it was released in 1968, but has a considerable cult following today.  Many great directors (among them Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Quentin Tarantino) are fans, and a number of film critics consider it to be the greatest Western of all time.  

Leone is a very patient director.  Like most of his films, this one is characterized by long scenes where very little action takes place, followed by brief bursts of violence.  Leone is content to spend a lot of time simply focusing on a character's face -- or just on his eyes.

The climactic scene of the movie is the shootout between the Frank the bad guy (Henry Fonda) and Harmonica the good guy (Charles Bronson) -- so named because he wears a harmonica on a leather string around his neck.

The bad guy
The good guy
On two earlier occasions, Frank has asked Harmonica who he is.  Harmonica replies only with the names of men that Frank has murdered. 

As the two men position themselves to shoot it out, we learn why Harmonica has been pursuing Frank: when Harmonica was a boy, Frank and his henchmen forced Harmonica to support the weight of his older brother on his shoulders after they putt the brother's neck in a noose.  As the boy struggles to support his brother's weight, Frank places a harmonica in his mouth and tells him to play for his brother.  Harmonica finally collapses -- or perhaps his brother kicks him away in a final suicidal act of defiance -- and the brother dies.

The scene is accompanied by Harmonica's leitmotif, which features a harmonica:

Ennio Morricone composed the scores for Leone's best Westerns, including Once Upon a Time in the West, and hundreds of others movies and television series.  He has been nominated for five Grammy and five Oscars, and received a special honorary Academy Award in 2007 -- one of only two composers to be so honored.

The score for Once Upon a Time in the West features musical themes for each of the film's major characters. 

Ennio Morricone
The main theme features wordless vocals by Edda Dell'Orso, who collaborated regularly with Morricone.  (As you remember, boys and girls, the human voice is just another musical instrument when there are no words being sung, so today's featured music qualifies as an instrumental.)

This post brings us to the end of this year "29 Posts in 28 Days," which was devoted to instrumentals.  We'll be back shortly with a 2 or 3 lines that begins with two or three lines of lyrics.

Here's the truly lovely main theme from Once Upon a Time in the West, which is simply titled "Once Upon a Time in the West" on the movie's soundtrack recording:

Click below to buy it from Amazon:

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