Words by Rafe Arnott, photos credited. Image above courtesy IMDB.
Soundtrack is a column that examines the music of influential films in cinematic history. This instalment looks at Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Stripped of any Venerum Americana infusing typical western films of the time, The Good the Bad and the Ugly preserved cinematic focus in 1966 by remaining morally ambiguous. Sergio Leone’s third instalment in his spaghetti western trilogy saw the director once again rely on Ennio Morricone’s unconventional soundscape constructs to musically frame an unflattering cinematic take on conflict, plutocracy and avarice which influenced every western made after it.
Utilizing complex characterizations of villains and heroes, screenwriters Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli and director Leone weave the story of two grifters warily brought together by greed against a third as they lie, cheat, double-cross and kill to uncover the secret location of a lost trove of Confederate gold buried in the desert. With the film’s foreground of greed propelling its main characters to engage in any means to an end, and a subtext of battle as folly lensed against the backdrop of the brutal 1862 New Mexico campaign of the American Civil War, the movie, while a box-office hit, was not popular with critics at the time for its unflattering portrayal of U.S. history.
While Clint Eastwood reprised his ‘man with no name’ role for the third (and last) time with director Leone as “The Good,” and Lee Van Cleef made his second appearance as “The Bad,” Eli Wallach shone as trilogy newcomer Tuco – “The Ugly,” offering a deeply-flawed, often comedic foil to both Van Cleef’s considered cruelty and Eastwood’s shifting moral compass. Visually charged with the electrifying cinematographic work of Tonino Delli Colli, the film’s baroque aesthetic pendulums between Leone’s signature use of extreme close-ups cut with wide panoramic shots. As with A Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More, this editing style, along with a notable lack of dialog in key scenes – some lasting more than two minutes – and Morricone’s generous use of frantic string arrangements, creates a palpable tension. “I’m a director of gestures and silences,” said Leone before his death in 1989 when asked in an interview if action is character.
Photo above: One of the many wide establishing shots employed by director Sergio Leone throughout the film. This one in particular, introducing Clint Eastwood's character 'Blondie.'
Leone’s telegraphed emotional momentum taken in hand with Morricone’s visceral musical accompaniment, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly became the film – along with its soundtrack – by which all other westerns are measured. When questioned by a journalist about his use of animal sounds, and strange vocalizations in the film (and let us not forget the Pizzicato cello and violin, haunting harmonica solos, twangy high-strung, or distorted electric guitar, polyrhythmic tribal chanting, string or horn arrangements and diegetic inserts – to name but a few methods employed), Morricone answered without hesitation, “I come from a background of experimental music which mingled real sounds together with musical sounds.”
My films are basically silent films. The dialogue just adds some weight."
Photos above: Left: Ennio Morricone during post production on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Image courtesy Pinterest. Right: Sergio Leone on the set of the film. Image courtesy Alamy.
A large part of the lasting brilliance of the film’s soundtrack is how the composer eschewed a standard cinematic parlance, instead championing a vernacular which many labeled as ingenious or unorthodox: he created distinct musical identities for each main character. In doing this, Morricone forever entwined their personalities collectively with the film. Blondie (Eastwood) is represented with a flute, Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) with the ocarina and human voices for Tuco. This instrumental characterization cements the actor’s position in relation to not only the soundscape, but to each other in the aesthetic hierarchy of the film. It is as if Morricone treated the three men as verse, refrain and chorus. Add in the legendary main title’s coyote-like wail supported by various melodic “Wah-Waahs” either voiced or played out with strings, guitar, horns, wood winds or percussion and there are few who would feign ignorance to the theme’s origin. Of the now famous main title, Morricone went into further detail, “Along with Edda Dell’Orso’s voice, there was also a distorted electric guitar producing a kind of piercing cry. I noted on the score “distorted electric guitar” and two notes: c and b. [Guitarist Bruno Battisti] D’Amario could freely oscillate between the two pitches with quarter-tones, and I added synthesized sounds as well.” Morricone added, “These little inventions were very rewarding, and gradually I enriched them with more and more electronic instruments.”
“I also used these realistic sounds in a psychological way,” said Morricone in another interview. “With The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I used animal sounds – as you say, the coyote sound – so the sound of the animal became the main theme of the movie.” According to Morricone, the effect was realized by experimenting with track overdubbing during live sessions “by overlaying two hoarse male voices, one singing “A” the other singing “E” somewhere in between sforzato and falsetto.” During rehearsals he went into the studio, discussed his idea with the singers, and “we recorded the voices and added a light reverb, and the effect worked.” Going into further detail of the post-production process Morricone said, “I continued this incipit by emulating vocal sounds through the wah-wah effect, which trumpets and trombones obtain by moving the damper back and forth, an effect typical of brass bands in the twenties and thirties.”
Photo above: Clint Eastwood ponders his fate as Tuco attempts to exact vengeance upon him (again). Morricone created abstract, subtextual pieces and movements to assist in creating tension for scenes such as these. Image courtesy IMDB.
Utilizing a workflow that had him watch a film before beginning to score it, Morricone compared the compositional process to motherhood, “…from that moment on, it is as if I were pregnant. I then have to deliver the child, so I think always about the music – even when I go to the grocery store, I think about it.” As the film progressed, he developed the trademark ululating title music into two unique phrasings which are re-used; an A phrase and a B phrase. These were comprised of repeating variations of the ocarina, whistling and guttural or high-register vocal chanting, or a subset of vocals and distorted/reverb-heavy guitar.
Photos above: Left – Lee Van Cleef as "Angel Eyes" and Right – Eli Wallach as "Tuco." Leone's close-ups and lack of dialog are legendary for creating tension.
While these A/B theme variations are common in the score, because it encompassed so many historical aspects, several contemporaneous folk melodies infused with a Central American patina were written. These helped create an aural motif worthy of the sweeping western panoramas backdropping much of the script’s momentum in Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco’s race to find the gold. Other abstract, subtextual pieces and movements were arranged to assist in creating tension, or scene setting. Director and composer added further texture with diegetic music scenes. One in particular contains the piece “La Storia de un soldato” where captured Confederate soldiers have formed a band and are forced to play “with feeling” over the sound of prisoners being tortured by Union officers.
Photo above: An original Italian movie poster from the film's release in 1966. Image courtesy Heritage Auctions.
Sergio Leone once said his films are basically silent, “The dialogue just adds some weight,” and that “The cowboy picture has got lost in psychology. The West was made by violent uncomplicated men, and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my pictures.” These quotes are compelling because they reveal the nature behind the rough-hewn skeletal apparatus Leone constructed to tell this simple, uncluttered tale. Morricone’s work subtly refines this vehicle, burnishing the more pugnacious edges, but in the end both the visual and sonic dimensions of this parable remain true to the characters and humanity’s violent, deeply flawed and murderous facets. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly breaks down any romantic mythos that previous cinematic white-hatted cowboys had fatuously associated with the genre by substituting them for conflicted, morally enigmatic ronin, and in the process left an indelible mark on filmmaking and film scores.
Listen to the soundtrack on Spotify below: