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Ennio Morricone Was Bigger Than Cinema Itself

The genius composer died on Monday at the age of 91. From ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ to ‘The Thing’ to ‘The Hateful Eight,’ his work was unparalleled, and will never be forgotten.

Getty Images/United Artists/Ringer illustration

Over seven decades, the Oscar and Grammy-winning composer Ennio Morricone—who died at the age of 91 on Monday—was responsible for over 500 film scores, bridging musical traditions from folk, classical, and opera with modern pop and electronica and helping to cement the legends of several key filmmakers, first and foremost Sergio Leone. In the 1960s, Morricone worked with nearly every important or influential Italian auteur, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Marco Bellocchio; in the 1970s, he kept busy on the home front with emergent genre masters like Dario Argento, even as he became an in-demand name in Hollywood. By the 1980s, he was scoring multiplex hits while being held up as a legend—one beloved by every possible cinephile constituency, including the sect presided over by superfan Quentin Tarantino, who hired him in 2015 for The Hateful Eight. Not every movie Morricone contributed to was a masterpiece, but they were almost all elevated by his contributions (prime example: the demonic disco number adorning John Boorman’s infamous flop Exorcist II: The Heretic). To do full justice to Morricone’s achievements, you’d need to examine dozens of scores over half a century. For starters, however, here’s a short list of his most indispensable compositions.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

A bristling piece of docufictional agitprop that was banned in France for five years (and subsequently studied by various revolutionary groups as a kind of cinematic how-to manual), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers used a fly-on-the-wall style to re-create scenes from the anticolonial uprising; the idea was to film the action as if from the perspective of an embedded war reporter. In this hyperrealistic context, the use of any sort of musical score could seem problematic, but Pontecorvo worked with Morricone to create a propulsive, suspenseful soundscape of military percussion punctuated by trumpet blasts, at once rousing and ominous. It’s the sound of an irresistible force resolutely marching against an immovable object.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

With the possible exception of John Williams and Steven Spielberg, no composer-director duo yielded more deeply enduring marriages of music and images than Morricone and his old schoolmate Sergio Leone, the Italian master who reinvented the Western on his own thrifty, bloody terms. For the low-budget Dollars trilogy, Morricone devised a sonic minimalism in sync with star Clint Eastwood’s tight-lipped acting style; instead of drenching the soundtrack in lush orchestral flourishes, he conjured up jagged, asymmetrical melodies with the explosive spontaneity of a gunfight. The main theme for 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly represented the apex of this style, conjuring up a feeling of windswept desolation in a few stinging notes; as one of the most quoted and parodied movie scores of all time, its echoes can be heard in Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood” and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”

For 1968’s more elegiac Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone and Morricone went in a different direction, generating a gentle waltz that feels as though it emanates from some distant, unreachable past; its beauty seems to be slipping away even as you’re listening to it. Played underneath the first appearance of Claudia Cardinale’s character, it doesn’t just set the scene for the film—it turns pulp fiction into poetry.

Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

One of the most notorious movies ever made, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s anti-fascist horror show is designed as a viewer endurance test; its subject is the abuse of power, which it illustrates—unforgettably, and, for some, unforgivably—by redoubling that brutality against the people on the other side of the screen. “[Pasolini] made the film to scandalize the audience,” said Morricone, whose contributions to the film include a number of modified vintage classical and music hall pieces. The opening credits unfold over a relaxed, jazzy melody that doesn’t remotely hint at the depravity to come, yet in retrospect pulsates with precisely the kind of smooth, superficial evil that the film cautions against.

Days of Heaven (1978) and The Untouchables (1987)

Terrence Malick’s gorgeous melodrama juxtaposes an intense love triangle against the majestic indifference of nature. It’s a film possessed of a genuine but unsettling lyricism, and Morricone’s score serves to reinforce the pastoral beauty of the images. In lieu of the musical splatter of his Spaghetti Western arrangement, the composer comes up with something that hovers as serenely as late afternoon clouds over a rolling field of wheat. At a moment when Hollywood scores were succumbing to either blockbuster bombast or carefully curated jukebox cuts, Days of Heaven’s controlled musical melancholy was a glorious outlier.

And like Malick, Brian De Palma was one of the 1970s’ great mainstream radicals, which is why his biggest Hollywood hit was so atypical: Following a series of morally ambivalent thrillers, the simple, cops-vs.-gangsters story line of The Untouchables seemed a bit out of place. Morricone’s score doesn’t complicate the script’s conception of heroism—instead, it augments it, proceeding as a parade of brassy fanfares that could just as easily work in a Superman sequel. Even on its own, it’s stunning, exciting stuff, and evidence of Morricone’s taste for the pop jugular.

The Thing (1982) and The Hateful Eight (2015)

For his career-making slasher classic Halloween, John Carpenter had composed a killer synth riff with the same lurking intensity as the theme from Jaws. By the time he made The Thing four years later, the suddenly A-list director was working with bigger resources, so he sent out for Morricone to do something similar—with brilliant results. As a slow-burn thriller with a sub-zero setting, The Thing requires patient music cues, and Morricone’s compositions suggest a predator stalking prey to the rhythm of its own throbbing, unstoppable heartbeat.

Meanwhile, one way to look at The Hateful Eight is as a frost-bitten, cross-genre remake of The Thing, and Quentin Tarantino was upfront about repurposing unused portions of Morricone’s earlier score on the movie’s soundtrack. It wasn’t the first time that QT had borrowed from the composer, with cues from multiple westerns and giallos used in the Kill Bill series and Death Proof; he’d even wanted Morricone to write an original score for Inglourious Basterds but to no avail (once again, older pieces were used). In the end, The Hateful Eight was scored by Morricone, who at age 87 won his first competitive Academy Award. The music for The Hateful Eight has a spare, pressurized quality that goes a long way toward creating and sustaining an atmosphere of claustrophobic suspense; its gradual, swelling progression is the aural equivalent to Tarantino’s all-hell-breaks-loose sensibility.

Famously, Morricone lived his entire life in Italy, and preferred not to travel by airplane (although he did attend the 2007 and 2016 Academy Award ceremonies). In interviews, he emphasized the humility of his work, calling his work ”complementary but secondary” to the vision of the director. Even so, it’s hard to think of another composer who could be equally classified as an auteur, or whose music could often be gloriously larger than the movies it appeared in—and sometimes, bigger than the medium itself.