A Fistful of Dollars - Ennio Morricone
It was very sad to hear of the death this week of Ennio Morricone the best and most important composer of music for film of modern times.
From September 1967 onwards, as I trudged my weary way from London’s Kings Cross Station the three quarters of a mile or so to my Auntie Val’s flat in Prideaux Place, just off Percy’s Circus, at each beginning and end of the autumn school term, I passed what is now known as the Scala Cinema. Situated on the corner of Pentonville Road and the bottom of the Caledonian Road, it was in those days simply the King’s Cross Cinema. I remember clearly the first time I walked past it, pausing to relieve the pain of the heavy suitcases cutting into my fingers, and looking up at the “now showing” picture emblazoned over the lintel, a giant picture of Clint Eastwood smoking his trademark cheroot, with his classic unshaven look, somewhere halfway between stubble and beard, his poncho and sixshooter, and the words “A Fistful of Dollars”. The Kings Cross Cinema premiered all three “Dollar Westerns” in London.
The film was “X” rated, ie no-one under 18 was allowed to see it, which in those days was quite unique for a western. The idea that a cowboy movie, normally targeted at male adolescents and starring the likes of the avuncular John Wayne, or the relatively clean-cut, cleanshaven, younger Magnificent Seven generation – Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and co - should be an “X” was completely new and was a considerable allure to me and my 12 year old contemporaries. Rumours circulated of extremely bloodthirsty torture and killings, and sleazy sex scenes – this was a “foreign” movie after all – but, as there were no videos in those days, and films took at least four years to get onto tv, we had no way to confirm this. Certainly, our older peers who looked ancient enough to sneak into the cinemas didn’t disabuse us of any such notions.
So all we had was the music. And even for that we had to wait until two further Sergio Leone “Dollar” westerns had come out, when Hugo Montenegro had the idea of covering all of their theme tunes on one album, and even got to number one in the UK hit parade with his version of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” even though it was markedly inferior to the film soundtrack version, not as yet then released. The music alone was so different from the typical Hollywood fare that it fuelled our impression, without ever having seen a Leone film, that here was something different, a western for a new generation.
The opening title music speaks for itself, beginning with a single guitar in a riding rhythm, the whistling soon punctuated by an answering bird whistle and a dry noise that sounds like a barasti cane slapping the flank of a mule. This is the tune of a solitary rider, the sounds of bells, the light drums and the male chorus insistently repeating the words “we can fight” setting the tone for the challenges that lie ahead. The Mexican and American folk idiom and the contemporary popular music influences announce a tough, morally ambiguous knight errant of the sixties, a “hero of our time”, the era of Vietnam and a social democratic Western Europe.
The second link above is, if you want to hear it, an extended version of the original theme; the first is the film's opening music itself.
It may seem deceptively pensive today, but back then it was the music of change where film was concerned. No wonder it was “X” rated.