Monday, 17 October 2011

Celluloid Sounds - Giallo Morricone [Part 1]

I make no apologies for the fact that the legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone will figure prominently in the landscape of Celluloid Sounds. I have been a great admirer (who isn’t?) of Mr. Morricone’s film music for many years and am excited at the opportunity to pay fulsome tribute to him on The Celluloid Highway. In the first of this two part series I will be casting my eye and ear over Morricone’s often wonderful contributions to the Italian giallo cycle. In the 1960’s Morricone rose to international prominence with his unique and often imitated compositions for Sergio Leone’s trilogy of ‘Dollars’ westerns featuring Clint Eastwood as the implacable unnamed anti-hero. Many more superb soundtracks for the so called ‘spaghetti’ westerns followed. Some of my personal favourites are Navajo Joe (1966), Face to Face (1967), Death Rides a Horse (1967), The Great Silence (1968) and Companeros (1970). Although public perception strongly associated the maestro with this genre, the 1960’s were in reality a decade of diversity for the prolific composer, as he hopped effortlessly from one genre to another. In 1970 Morricone was invited to compose the music for Dario Argento’s directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, thus beginning a relationship with the giallo cycle that would encompass fourteen films. This opening instalment will investigate the first seven.

Dario Argento’s filmmaking debut has assumed a position of unparalleled prominence in discussions of the gialli cycle. It’s a position which I believe to be somewhat questionable. Between the release of Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963 and Argento’s film in 1970 well over twenty giallo films had seen the light of day. The difference of course was that none of these had set the international box office alight. Argento’s film was also more self-consciously indebted to the West German ‘Krimi’ cycle, which founds its inspiration from the pages of Edgar Wallace. Argento certainly had some refreshing stylistic tricks up his sleeve, and his playful attitude to gender maintained a sense of mystery that concluded in a fine twist. But the true importance of this films lies in the fact that it made the giallo a commercially viable genre. The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone has been released in a variety of editions over the years, the most prized of which perhaps is the Capital Records US LP released in 1970. My copy is the Cinevox CD release from October 2008 that includes a number of bonus tracks, the cover of which can be seen here.  This appears to be the most widely available edition of the soundtrack. The extract I have chosen is Piume di cristallo.

Morricone’s second gialli soundtrack of 1970 was for Luciano Ercoli’s distinctive tale of sordid blackmail and murder Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. Ercoli would go on to helm two more interesting gialli - Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972) featuring the statuesque talents of Nieves Navarro aka Susan Scott. Forbidden Photos… was co-written by Ernesto Gastaldi whose numerous contributions to the cycle remain underappreciated and under researched. Morricone provides a much a jazzier score than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with a number of lounge music numbers that compliment the sleazy nature of the plot. This is not the easiest soundtrack to get hold of. The most complete edition would appear to be the Verita Note Japanese release from Oct 2006. The last time the soundtrack was issued on CD in Europe was Dagored’s 1999 edition. The extract I have chosen is Intermezzino Pop.

In 1971 Morricone would go on to compose the scores for no less than seven giallo productions. After the success of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the centrality of its music, it was only logical that Morricone should be invited to score Dario Argento’s second film The Cat O’ Nine Tails. In almost all key filmmaking departments Argento’s second gialli was less successful than his debut film, with the honourable exception of the music. Here Morricone develops nuanced and textured compositions which compliment themes of lost childhood innocence. Originally released on the Dagored label on LP in 1971 this is a very visible soundtrack thanks in part to the issuing of the single Ninna nanna in blu in Feb 1971. Dagored’s CD release in 2000 runs for 59:30 and contains three bonus tracks. This was trumped for completeness by the GDM CD Club October 2006 edition which runs for 1:13:33. The extract I have chosen is the title them Ninna nanna in blu.

Lucio Fulci only set foot within the gialli landscape on three occasions. The first of these was his distinctive London set thriller A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, featuring the acting talents of Florinda Bolkan, Stanley Baker and Jean Sorel. With its fragmented and illusory structure and unreliable protagonist, Fulci’s film has a number of impressive moments of surreal dream-like beauty. The music compliments this mood excellently as Morricone utilises a more experimental and chaotic tone to reflect the subjective hysteria of the central character. The soundtrack first emerged on CD in 1996 and was issued by Screen Trax and contained fifteen tracks running to 1:01:18. This was trumped in 2000 by by Dagored who issued both a limited edition thirteen track LP and a nineteen track expanded CD, the latter of which runs for 1:13:40. The extract I have chosen is La Lucertola.

Cold Eyes of Fear marked the only occasion that director Enzo G. Castellari entered the realm of the giallo. Castellari was more famed for his westerns at this point and as the 1970’s wore on would become strongly associated with the poliziotesschi cycle with a series of high octane action movies such as Street Law (1974) and The Big Racket (1975). This is another London set gialli, and that is perhaps the most distinctive thing about it. This is a tired and uninspired film, with a host of tepid performances, and a strange lack of energy uncommon for Castellari. The soundtrack is likewise highly divisive. Morricone opts for a more avant-garde approach and the film lacks a strong central theme. I don’t mind admitting this is my least favourite Morricone giallo score. Like the previous soundtrack Dagored released this on both a limited edition LP and CD in November 2000. The difference here being that both LP and CD are identical, featuring sixteen tracks running to 45:04. Music from Cold Eyes of Fear had appeared earlier on Point Records 1996 CD which paired it with selections from The Fifth Cord (1971). The extract I have chosen is Seguita.

The beautifully titled Black Belly of the Tarantula was writer/director Paolo Cavara’s only giallo entry. Cavara achieved notoriety in the early 1960’s as one of the co-directors of Mondo Cane (1962), but in Black Belly… he creates a stylish and tense film that benefits tremendously from the fine performance of Giancarlo Giannini, and a profusion of gorgeous actresses that include Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet and Barbara Bach. All of whom would achieve fame as Bond girls. The killers novel approach which involves paralysing the victims with a poisoned needle inserted in their necks, before stabbing them to death, gives the film a unique feel which Morricone’s music easily matches. This is a very stylish score and one of Morricone’s best. For many years the soundtrack was only available as part of the CAM labels 1992 release which paired it up with I Malamondo (1964). The CD was weighted in the latter’s favour, with Black Belly only managing eight tracks to I Malamondo’s nineteen. This was readdressed in June 2007 with Digitmovies fifteen track CD which ran for 57:36. The extract I have chosen is Un uomo si e'dimesso.

The Fifth Cord marked the only occasion that Franco Nero would appear in a giallo. He plays alcoholic journalist Andrea Bild who is forced to begin his own murder investigation in order to both clear his name and save his life. The director was Luigi Bazzoni who would go on to make the offbeat and peculiar gialli Footprints (1975) with Florinda Bolkan. The Fifth Cord is a much more conventional offering, though it achieves moments of beauty thanks to the exceptional cinematography of Vittorio Storaro and of course the wonderfully sleazy lounge music of Mr. Morricone. Music from this film first saw the light of day on Point Records 1996 CD which paired it with Cold Eyes of Fear. In September 2001 the film got a singular release by Dagored who put out a 24 track CD which ran for 58:07. An enhanced version featuring 31 tracks and running for 1:14:01 was released in Japan on the Verita Note label. The extract I have chosen is Trafelato.


  1. "Dario Argento’s filmmaking debut has assumed a position of unparalleled prominence in discussions of the gialli cycle. It’s a position which I believe to be somewhat questionable. Between the release of Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963 and Argento’s film in 1970 well over twenty giallo films had seen the light of day. The difference of course was that none of these had set the international box office alight."

    Bravo! If only general commentary on gialli would realise this, too!

  2. Great! Great! Great! This compilation thing works perfectly! And my gosh, you must of been humoring me when you let me speak as an authority on Morricone. I've only seen two of these, but it was ages ago and the music was lost on me at the time; that, or it's just that I hadn't developed an ear for this kind of fair yet. Whichever the case may be, I am indeed impressed with these selected tracks! Fabulous! And "fabulous" isn't a word I'd just pull out of my ass for any old thing! I was it, because it just fits the feeling that this music invokes - like Billy Zane as Mr. E in Roman Coppola's CQ, which is a "fabulous" picture by the way.

    I absolutely cannot stop listen to the track from COLD EYES OF FEAR! This stuff gets me so excited to see these titles! In wanting to give the last three tracks their due, I'm gonna sign off here, and continue with another comment a little later on.

    I just wanted you to know how much I'm enjoying thss, along with your research, too. I hope your other faithful readers appreciate this as much as I do. Cheers, mate.

    More to coming soon...

  3. @ Jonny - It's a strange thing with the films of Dario Argento, I find that the older I get, the less impressed I am with them. It seems to me that the only films of his I was entirely satisfied with at the age of 18 and still am now are DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA.

    @ Greg - Thanks for the kind words buddy, always appreciated. My only reservation with embedding youtube videos is when you reach a certain number they can become unmanageable. The last thing I want is stacks of videos that are blank because the person who uploaded them took them down, or their account got suspended. I will have to keep a firm on eye on the Celluloid Sounds posts, to make sure the material still exists.

    It's interesting that you mentioned COLD EYES OF FEAR, because that is one giallo that I haven't got anything massively positive to say about. I even find Morricone's music problematic. So it surprises me that you were particularly taken by 'Seguita'. I have to confess I went down the established route with most of the others, including the most famous extracts from BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, CAT O NINE TAILS and LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN...the latter piece of music I think is possibly the best on offer here.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the others :-)

  4. Quote: "Lucio Fulci only set foot within the gialli landscape on three occasions. The first of these was his distinctive London set thriller A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin..."

    Shaun, I assume you're referring to 'Lizard', 'Duckling' and 'The New York Ripper' here. But what about Fulci's 'Perversion Story' ('One On Top of the Other') from 1969 - with Jean Sorel and Marissa Mell? That certainly is in giallo territory (albeit more in the Lenzi tradition). Incidentally, Riz Ortolani's jazz score for the film is notable.

    As regards Argento, I feel the same. Given the catalogue of giallo releases now readily available on DVD, we can confidently place his films in context - and although his best work still shines, other films feel much lesser (when compared against other gialli released at the time).

  5. Well, don't give yourself too big of a headache trying to manage these. Call it an experiment, try a few posts and see how common it is for these embedded youtube videos to drop out. If they're dropping like flies, maybe just review a score and embed one or two video samples. Could be the the larger compilations wasn't the hottest idea from a possibility standpoint. Here's hopping it works out!

    And as far as "Seguita" goes, I'm a sucker sometimes for more tonal-based funkier jazz stuff. I also haven't seen the film, so perhaps it doesn't fit the action/tone as well as some. And it's not may favorite on the list. Let's see, out of the selected tracks, I'd say I like CAT O NINE TAILS best, then FIFTH CORD and BLACK BELLY OF THE TARATILA (and what a title that!); I also especially love the title: FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY UNDER SUSPICION. Just think of all the images that conjures in one mind's eyes!

    There's just something about CAT O NINE TAILS. It's sad and haunting, just the slightest bit sexy, elegant and eclectic.

    Anyway, a fine list, Sir. When ever you get around to the next seven, they'll be appreciated for sure.

  6. @ Jonny - I forgot all about PERVERSION STORY, which is absolutely a giallo! Actually the three I was thinking of were LIZARD, DUCKLING and SETTE NOTE IN NERO aka THE PSYCHIC...I've always been dubious about NEW YORK RIPPER being categorised as a giallo, I feel that one is arguable. But either way, that's four or five instead of just three. Off the top of my head I can think of two gialli that are superior than anything Argento ever did - SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS and THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS. If I think about it properly I could undoubtedly come up with more.

    @ Greg - With regard to youtube videos I'm making sure that I embed videos that have been up on the site for several years. These are less likely to vanish I think. All I have to do is check out the posts once a week or so, so it won't be too much of an hardship. There were some wonderfully titled giallo films, some of my favourites include - THE IGUANA WITH A TONGUE OF FIRE, THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERLY, and SEVEN BLOODSTAINED ORCHIDS. More often that not though, the title was the only exciting thing about film!

  7. "More often that not though, the title was the only exciting thing about film!"

    Blasphemy! ;)

    Even with the worst of them, there's always something to like about a giallo - even if it's just a familiar face, a turtleneck jumper worn under a suit jacket, spaghetti doubling for intestines, a gay photographer, or Luciano Rossi.

    OK, maybe not Luciano Rossi. ;)

  8. When all they really had to market a film were titles and a one-sheets, they really poured their hearts and souls into both! There were no TV ads to speak of, just the odd trailer at the cinema, and the title on the poster you'd spent months developing. Artwork and titles really used to sell a film, like dime-novels, pulp-trash, pre-code comic books et al. And all of it done by hand! I lament the loss of this type of art.

    Next trip to the video store, I'm gonna pick up THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS. Watched HITCH-HIKE yesterday. Too tired to read the review, so I'll save that to a later date.

    Cheers, amigo.

  9. @ Jonny - You're right of course! I've been after a white turtleneck jumper for months! I already have a suitable suit jacket to go with it, and a wonderful array of tasteless ties. Also of course there is always impressive facial hair on display. Oddly one of the my favourite gialli has one of the worst/dullest of titles...THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE.

    @ Greg - Yes, you're quite right; British production company Hammer often had a poster prepared before the cameras had even got rolling! In my own small way I keep classic poster art alive in my semi regular poster gallery feature, now it's dull airbrushed and photo shopped images. Given a few hours I could probably create on my computer a poster for TWILIGHT that is better than the one used.

    Here's a little something for you -

  10. "I've always been dubious about NEW YORK RIPPER being categorised as a giallo, I feel that one is arguable."

    I don't really understand your reasoning of leaving out The New York Ripper, which, despite having a police detective as the main protagonist, is 100% giallo in my book anyway. You're also forgetting Lucio Fulci's Murder Rock from 1984. While it's another example of opportunist Italian film-making and taking cues from certain dance films of the 80's, its convoluted plot is yellow.

  11. Oh, yeah! The art work on things like TWILIGHT is total trash. I saw THE IDES OF MARCH yesterday, and they ran the trailer for the latest entry in that garbage series, and I literally wanted to throw up.
    Sadly, cover art for a lot of books is going that way, too. If you ever walk by the preteen and teen section at the bookstore now, you'll see what I mean. No imagination. They're actually using photographs of models who are supposed to be one of the main characters in the book - all of 'em photo graphed of course!

    Worse, a lot of movie art today is basically one huge head shot of the star or stars! And it's only going to get worse, now that people are streaming their books and films. The art of tomorrow will be designed to grab peoples attention online, I'm afraid.

    But on the bright side, I can find all the old art I can handle in few clicks of the mouse. It's quiet a conundrum.

    Thanks for that link. I'll check it out!

  12. I didn't just forget MURDER ROCK, I totally obliterated it from my mind. Leo, did you notice there was also some nice music in this post? THE NEW YORK RIPPER does not merit a moments thought from me...but I will say this. There was a very fine line between the slasher film and the giallo in the 1980's, I think Fulci's odious trash belongs more firmly in the slasher camp.

  13. Of course, I noticed the music, but I'm Finnish and we're not known for our politeness :) I guess I should mention that this was a good post.

    We probably need to agree to disagree, but even with your explanation of The New York Ripper I don't think it belongs to the slasher camp at all. It's an 80's giallo for me. While most slasher elements are missing, many giallo staples are present: major plot twist, investigation to the killings, strong sleuth protagonist, plenty of red herrings and sexual games. I guess the ramped up violence in lengthy scenes where the killer mutilates his victims and the release date of the film could put it to the slasher territory, but I personally think that having a giallo-style plot is more important. I don't think the line is fine. Perhaps with Italian slashers Body Count, Nightmare Beach and Stagefright it is.

  14. I've met some very polite Finnish people Leo, and you are too, I value your contribution. I think to say that THE NEW YORK RIPPER doesn't belong to the slasher camp at all is innacurate. The film clearly has a relationship with the numerous slasher films being produced at the time. I think the giallo staples you mentioned are purely narrative ones, and could easily be applied to any cop thriller. Your staples don't really get to the heart of the giallo - The grandiose operatic feel, the exaggerated stylisation, elements of camp, the importance of fashion and art, tourism and alienation. THE NEW YORK RIPPER owes more to William Lustig's MANIAC than it does THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE...but yes, we can agree to disagree! Feel free to disagree with anything else on here :-)

  15. Suburb write up Shaun! As much as I adore Morricone’s scores for various Spaghetti Westerns, I feel his music for giallo movies is often unfairly overlooked. It’s so progressive, atmospheric and unusual. You’ve included a few of my personal favourites here – Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Black Belly of the Tarantula. I also love his score for Short Night of Glass Dolls (one of my all time favourite gialli) and his score for What Have You Done to Solange? – the main theme of which is one of the most melodic, melancholy and down right beautiful pieces of music ever written for a giallo. His jazzier, more experimental pieces are also perfectly fitting.

    It would appear great minds think alike, too – I’ve just started reviewing movie soundtracks for a new monthly feature on Paracinema’s website. Needless to say some of Morricone’s stuff will find its way on there.:)

    What do you think about Bruno Nicolai’s music – particularly for gialli? I love it – especially his scores for Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark, Your Vice and Case of the Scorpion’s Tail. He’s often unfairly described as a poor man’s Morricone – I actually think the reason why they fell out of friendship is because Morricone accused him of ‘plagiarism.’ Yes, there are similarities (some quite glaring), but overall I think his work is rich, lush and original enough.

    Looking forward to more Celluloid Sounds!! Keep up the great work. :)

  16. Hi there James - good to hear from you :-)

    I agree, his giallo music is often unfairly overlooked. Although personally I prefer much of his spaghetti western music, his diverse and often challenging musical arrangements for giallo films cannot go unnoticed or unremarked upon.

    GLASS DOLLS, and SOLANGE will be covered in Part 2, if and when I finally get around to doing it. Also included in that post will be music from FOUR FLIES, WHO SAW HER DIE?, MY DEAR KILLER, SPASMO (a personal favourite) and watch this space!

    I will be sure to check out your monthly articles on the PARACINEMA website, I enjoyed your piece on SESSION 9 which remains a criminally underrated horror film. I'm a huge admirer of Bruno Nicolai, and his scores are easily the equal to Morricone's. I think accusations of plagiarism are a moot point in a film cycle like the giallo - all of the films were borrowing ideas, motifs, symbols, themes and stylisations from each other, so why not musical ones? This is precisely why the giallo coheres so successfully as a cycle, and why we spend so much time on it.

  17. Couldn't agree more! :)
    Oh, and I completely forgot about Morricone's score for Who Saw Her Die? Easily one of his best-and most likely underrated scores. EVER!

    I saw the man himself in Belfast a couple of years ago - he was conducting the Ulster Orchestra and choir. Despite a fairly predictable 'set list' (no gialli scores sadly) it was still an utterly amazing night and an experience I will always treasure. I find it difficult to listen to some parts of his scores for The Mission and Once Upon A Time In The West - simply because they're TOO moving! Always feel a little choked up.

  18. I have his soundtrack for THE MISSION on vinyl - not as grand as it might sound, it's quite an easy title to obtain on that format. I also have a FISTFUL OF DOLLARS/FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE soundtrack on vinyl which is a little scarcer. I do like his score for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but it lacks the playfulness of MY NAME IS NOBODY and A GENIUS, TWO PARTNERS AND A DUPE - which are two of my favourites. Though the latter film is pretty dreadful. I will in the future probably do a Spaghetti Morricone series.

    I think WHO SAW HER DIE? is generally underrated as a film. I don't think Nicolas Roeg thought so though, when he borrowed heavily from it for DON'T LOOK NOW. It's certainly a favourite of mine.

    You saw him live? That must have been a memorable evening for sure! I think I'll start a campaign to get THE MISSION on blu-ray.

  19. DAYS OF HEAVEN is a great Morricone score I always forget about. So haunting.

  20. The Mission still isn't available on Blu-ray? I did not know that. As I recall the only Morricone I have on vinyl is a BBC release - it has some stuff from Chi Mai and a few Spaghetti Western themes on it. I'm not really an avid collector of vinyl - much of my collection was obtained from various charity shops.

    Speaking of Who Saw Her Die? and Don't Look Now - I contributed a wee comparison piece on the two to Paracinema earlier in the year. I watched them both back to back (great double bill!) a few times. I have to say, Don't Look Now is my favourtie of the two - but I still love Lado's film. Though I still think his first film - Short Night - is the best of his genre work.

    Yeah, Morricone was amazing. A friend got me a ticket for my birthday. They performed a lot of stuff from The Mission.

    Hope you're well!

  21. Does anyone know of a site that published the lyrics of the opening song to Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion?


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