Thursday, March 30, 2023

A Fistful Of Dollars' Score Transformed The Film For Clint Eastwood


By Jeremy Smith

February 17, 2023

The Western might be the quintessential American film genre, but it probably would've fallen completely out of favor in the 1960s were it not for Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone. With loads of ingenuity and not a lot of money (initially at least), Leone overhauled the increasingly staid formula, and knocked out a surprise international hit via "A Fistful of Dollars." Aside from Leone's striking widescreen compositions, there were two keys to the film's success: Clint Eastwood's taciturn portrayal of The Man with No Name and Ennio Morricone's bizarrely innovative score.

When Eastwood traveled to Spain in 1964 to shoot "A Fistful of Dollars," he was nearing the end of his run as cowboy Rowdy Yates on CBS' Western series "Rawhide." Despite the name, his character was a bit of a cliched bore, so teaming with the up-and-coming Leone far away from Hollywood gave Eastwood the opportunity to transform his image by building an archetype from the ground up.

After wrapping principal photography in June, Leone zipped through post-production and had the film in theaters by September. When the movie exceeded commercial expectations, the producers hit up Eastwood for a sequel. Though the actor was certainly interested, he had one simple request: could he watch the first movie?

Morricone revolutionized the sound of the Western

"A Fistful of Dollars" might have been a roaring success in Europe, but American distributors were hesitant to release the film in the U.S., so a screening had to be arranged for Eastwood in Hollywood. The star was immediately knocked sideways by the stylized opening credits, which featured Morricone's peculiar main theme. As Eastwood told NPR's Terry Gross in 2007:

"[I] came in and, all of a sudden, this score comes on, and I thought, 'Wow, this score is really unusual.' And unusual is the thing I would say about Ennio Morricone is that–and I don't know whether it's him or a combination of Sergio Leone, but Sergio was always very interested in music and he was always interested in the framing of sound effects and music in films."

The instrumentation is all over the place: there's a guitar, click-clacking percussion, a church bell, and chanting. Eastwood knew he was hearing something truly original (in the most formulaic of genres), and committed to the sequel, "For a Few Dollars More."

One of the greatest, and most versatile, to ever do it

By the time the "Dollars Trilogy" concluded with 1966's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," Eastwood was an international movie star. As we know, he had ambitions outside of acting, and pursued them to Oscar-winning effect over the ensuing five decades. And while Eastwood typically favored more subdued music for films he directed, he did perform in two very different movies featuring radically different scores from Morricone.

Don Siegel's 1970 Western, "Two Mules for Sister Sara," might be a minor effort from the great filmmaker, but it's well worth seeing for Morricone's sound-effects-laden music (some of which was featured in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." 23 years later, the maestro slathered on the strings and brass for the propulsive main theme to Wolfgang Petersen's superb thriller "In the Line of Fire," while breaking out the pan flute for the unexpectedly gorgeous romantic cue that plays as Eastwood's Secret Service agent falls hopelessly in love with his colleague (Rene Russo).

Eastwood was, like so many of us, a huge Morricone fan, and he explained his admiration thusly to Gross: "The Leone pictures were very operatic, and Morricone could go flat-out on those with great trumpet solos and all kinds of different sounds and stuff, and he's very clever, very innovative for that particular time especially, and now he's been imitated by many people since then."

Imitated, but never, ever equaled.

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