On set, Leone relied for atmosphere upon tapes of Ennio Morricone’s main musical themes, which, this time, had all been written, performed and recorded in advance: ‘Everyone acted with the music, followed its rhythm, and suffered with its “aggravating” qualities, which grind the nerves.’

On set, Leone relied for atmosphere upon tapes of Ennio Morricone’s main musical themes, which, this time, had all been written, performed and recorded in advance: ‘Everyone acted with the music, followed its rhythm, and suffered with its “aggravating” qualities, which grind the nerves.’ Sergio Donati remembers vividly a particular instance: ‘The music was played for the scene when Claudia arrives and there are the dead people laid out on the tables. It was in Almeria, it was sunset and everybody on the set was crying. Even the grips, the tough guys were crying.’ Morricone’s music inspired Leone’s choreography. The composer remembers, ‘I believe Sergio regulated the speed of the crane which follows Claudia Cardinale when she comes out of the station, in time with the musical crescendo.’

The music was slower in tempo than usual, more stately, with less variations; and there was much more of it. This time, there was no ‘sproing!’ of the maranzano, no grunting chorus, no whipcracks, pistol shots or bird cries to punctuate the driving rhythms. Leone was deliberately getting away from the riot of imagery in his earlier Westerns, and the music, which resembled a 1940s Hollywood score at times, matched this change of emphasis. The expansive main title theme summoned the wide open spaces, the arrival of the railroad and, with added glockenspiel, the character of Jill McBain. There was an ominous trumpet dirge, sometimes played on amplified guitar, with harmonica wails superimposed: this was called ‘As a Judgement’, and accompanied the McBain family massacre and the final duel (as well as appearances by Harmonica and Frank). Cheyenne’s character had a casual clip-clopping piano and banjo melody. A rough-and-ready barroom stomp entitled ‘Bad Orchestra’, played on slide-whistle, tuba, banjo and violin, was prepared for the arrival at the fledgling town of Flagstone. Meanwhile, Morton was afforded an optimistic ‘Pacific’ theme, with piano rumblings breaking in with the sound of waves; and solo harmonica laments, played by Franco De Gemini, ‘spoke’ for Bronson’s character. The harmonica was for Morricone ‘a nostalgic campfire instrument that American composers have always associated with the solitude of the country’, but for Leone it was ‘more sinister’, played with the hands cupped over the microphone in the style of a blues musician – only much, much slower. Morricone delightedly claimed that for this film, ‘finally, we were just about liberated from the deguelto’. And yet, the trumpet-dirge version of ‘As a Judgement’ still bears a family resemblance to the mariachi tune in Rio Bravo, as Henry Fonda rides past the railroad workers at Sweetwater.

Morricone remembers, ‘The Cheyenne theme was born almost instantaneously, without discussion. We were in the recording studio, I started to play the piano, Sergio liked it and I wrote it.’ Leone differed somewhat in his recall. Initially, the Cheyenne theme was the one aspect of Morricone’s work which didn’t quite fit: ‘ “You’ll see,” Ennio insisted, “with instrumentation and arrangement it will create a different effect.” I let myself be convinced, up to the moment when we reached the recording studio where eighty musicians were waiting, all professionals. Ennio stands at the podium, gives his instructions and begins to make the orchestra play. At the end of the piece he saw my face behind the glass – impassive, still unimpressed – and he understands that the music still doesn’t appeal to me. “So what’s going on?” he asks as he enters the booth. “Well, sorry, it’s just that this music seems crap to me – just as it did four months ago. You told me that everything would be different with the arrangement but nothing has changed!” Ennio goes to the room next door, to the studio, and asks me to follow him, saying, “Come to the piano and explain to me once again what you want for your character, because 1 don’t know what more I can do. I’ve already tried fifteen themes like this one!” Immediately I ask him: “Have you seen Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp?” “Yes,” he replies, “but what has that got to do with Cheyenne?” Then I explain. “Well, Cheyenne is the Tramp. He has at the same time intelligence and instinct, he’s a bandit and a lout, a son of a bitch, but he has the capacity for friendship. So there shouldn’t just be violence in Cheyenne’s theme, but also a great tenderness, because he’s a sweet, romantic character, proud and full of love.” When he’d heard all these descriptive words, Ennio begins to play: “Tan, tan tan tan tan, tanti tan tanti tan.” He’s composed the music by instinct and I say to him “That’s IT. That’s the one.” ’

Cheyenne’s theme was the closest Morricone ever came, when working with Leone, to a straightforward musical cliche from the Western: the plodding horse, the campfire whistle, the lazy rhythm. The only unusual features were that it was also scored for electric piano, and it tended to break off – mid-phrase – just as the audience was getting used to its repetitions; like a leitmotif which stops dead. Alessandroni, as usual, did the whistling: at first, he adopted the shrill style of the ‘Dollars’ scores, but ‘Ennio asked me not to do this kind of whistle, he wanted something soft and tired, with no vibration. Different. Fistful of Dollars was heroic whistling, For a Few Dollars More was aggressive, very strong, this was to be softer and more relaxed.’

Morricone had also composed in advance a theme for the opening sequence, the long wait by the three pistoleri at Cattle Corner Station. It was to take four days to film, the last sequence to be shot in Spain (along the railway line near Estacion de Calahorra, outside Guadix). The fly buzzing around Jack Elam’s marmalade-coated growth of beard predictably took much longer than anticipated. A jar full of flies was produced by the prop man, but in the end, according to production manager Claudio Mancini, ‘We managed to do it with just one fly.’ The rusty water which drops on Woody Strode’s head took three hours. But Ford alumnus Strode was happy to oblige for his egregious Italian director: ‘The close-ups, I couldn’t believe. I never got a close-up in Hollywood. Even in The Professionals. I had only three close-ups in the entire picture. Sergio Leone framed me on the screen for five minutes … That’s all I needed. When I got home and saw Papa Ford, I told him, “Papa, there’s an Italian over there that just loves the West, and he’s not going to do another Western because they call them Spaghetti Westerns.” I said, “Will you autograph a picture for him?”

While he was planning the sequence, Leone decided the music that had been written was not right; he would use a complex mix of amplified ‘natural’ sounds instead. Morricone recalls: ‘There was something very important that I’d told Sergio. I had been, some time before, to a concert in Florence where a man came on to the stage and began, in complete silence, to take a stepladder and make it creak and squeak – which went on like this for several minutes, and the audience had no idea what it was supposed to mean. But in the silence, the squeaking of this stepladder became something else. And the philosophical argument behind the experiment was that a sound, any sound at all from everyday life, isolated from its context and isolated by silence, becomes something different that is not part of its real nature … I recounted this experience to Sergio, who already had these things in his blood, in his own ideas about silence. He made those extraordinary first ten minutes of Once Upon a Time from that idea. In my opinion, that was one of the best things Sergio did in this film.’ So, at the mixing stage, the opening sequence became a symphony of exaggerated sounds interrupted by just one mumbled line of dialogue: the creak of a wooden door, the sound of chalk on blackboard, a windmill in serious need of oiling, the wind, crunching footsteps, the whimperings of the station agent, the fluttering of a caged bird (as one of the pistoleri makes angry cat sounds at it), the crowing of a cock, the windmill again, the slamming of a metal door – and all of this before the words A SERGIO LEONE FILM appear superimposed on a riveted door with ‘Keep Out’ painted on it. When he first saw the sequence, Morricone called the soundtrack ‘the best music I’ve ever composed’. Carlo Simi remembers that ‘Some little idiot tried to oil the mechanism of the windmill just before we recorded it. Sergio exploded, because he wanted that irritating sound at all costs!’ Morricone reckons that Bronson’s harmonica originated in early twentieth-century serial music: ‘At the Conservatory, I studied the whole history of music, certainly, but with particular reference to Arnold Schoenberg and serial music. I use this kind of music very often, on screen, where I integrate it into the very heart of tonal fragments. In Bronson’s harmonica theme, for example, I incorporated a little series of interior sounds, part of a tonal language. I’ve never been tempted to abandon serial music, in which I believe, and my researches with Nuova Consonanza have led me to transpose results such as these to the cinema.’ But the melodies remained simple to absorb, even if the orchestrations were complex and sometimes eccentric. ‘For Harmonica, I used just three notes of the instrument, for a public which is used to a simple form of music, articulated, I’d say, as a physical force like a heartbeat.’ Mr Morton’s ‘Pacific’ theme consists of just six notes descending a scale, while three-note citations of ‘As a Judgment’ accompany confrontations between Frank and Harmonica: simple, memorable and minimalist.

Crossover moments were scored after filming was completed. Leone had taken a great deal of trouble creating visual links between his big sequences: Harmonica getting up from the platform of Cattle Corner Station/Brett McBain’s shotgun; Timmy’s death/a locomotive’s soundtrack and whistle; Jill making coffee/Mr Morton removing ‘a small obstacle from the track’, a toy figure; Frank in bed with Jill/Harmonica peering through some lace curtains. Many of Morricone’s musical crossovers helped to reinforce them; ‘to make spectators understand what dialogue couldn’t explain’, as Leone put it. These included a few bars of ‘As a Judgment’ for Harmonica’s first appearance and of Cheyenne’s theme for the bandit’s arrival at the trading post; the ‘Judgment’ theme played lightly on strings for Harmonica’s first meeting with Frank; the main title theme on solo violin for the scene on the hanging bed at the Navajo cliffs; piano played as if it was percussion for Frank’s anxious walk down the street in Flagstone; and a reprise of Cheyenne’s theme for the discussion with Jill about patting her behind – before ‘As a Judgment’ crashes in for the final, tightly choreographed, duel.

The score was recorded, as usual, at the Forum Studio, only this time with a larger orchestra, consisting of members of the Roman Union of Musicians: teachers from the Santa Cecilia Academy, musicians from the RAI and Theatre of the Opera orchestras, assembled specially for the project. Choral work was performed by Alessandroni and his Cantori Moderni with soprano solos by Edda dell’Orso (‘the human voice as musical instrument, vocalizing without a text’). The most lavish orchestration for a melody, which unkind critics were to liken to ‘Oh, Sweet Mystery of Life’, was devoted to Jill’s theme. It is heard first, during the eighty-five-second track and crane shot showing her arrival at the town of Flagstone: in a single shot she walks from the train, followed by porters carrying her luggage, along the platform, into the station master’s office where we can see her talking through a letterbox window; she then walks into the broad main street, as the camera rises over the roof tiles to reveal the entire wooden town of Flagstone and the desert beyond. This was the shot for which ‘Sergio regulated the speed of the crane … in time with the musical crescendo’. The tracking element lasts forty seconds, the crane forty-five seconds; the most flamboyant shot Leone had ever attempted. Edda dell’Orso’s voice rises to a crescendo as the camera reveals the main street. The theme is heard last during the 140-second zoom and pan which concludes the film: the railroad workers gather round Jill as she distributes water to them, the locomotive reverses from the end of track, and Harmonica rides away to the right of frame with the body of Cheyenne slung over the bandit’s horse. In the year Morricone recorded the final version of the score he also recorded twenty other soundtracks and served on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. His career had progressed a lot since Fistful days.

SOURCE: Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone : something to do with death


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