Dave of the dead

 

© The Stone Quarry / Netflix

 

I’ve finally caught up with one of the most hyped films to land on Netflix last month, Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead (2021).  I’m not a massive fan of Snyder’s work, though I can’t say either that his films rouse in me the antipathy that they seem to rouse in thousands of other movie-fans, who regularly spray adjectives like ‘bloated’, ‘dour’, ‘humorless’, ‘prolonged’, ‘hollow’, ‘overbearing’ and ‘overstuffed’ at them, while dissing Snyder himself as some sort of dumb-assed filmmaking dude-bro.

 

Mind you, I’d only seen two of his earlier films.  The first was his 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s masterful 1978 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead.  I have mixed feelings about Snyder’s version of Dawn.  Its first 25 minutes are terrific, but thereafter it becomes a routine, if slick, affair, with no attempt to replicate or develop the satire on mindless consumerism that made Romero’s original so enjoyable.  (Incidentally, I recently discovered that Romero shared my opinion of the remake.)

 

The second was his 2013 Superman movie Man of Steel, which I thought was underrated.  I didn’t mind it being darker in tone than the Superman movies of the late 1970s and 1980s and liked how it showed Superman getting a hard time, initially at least, from a suspicious humanity.  Admittedly, Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane didn’t engage in the way that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder did in those roles three decades earlier, but the splendid supporting cast – Michael Shannon, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner – more than compensated.  That said, not being a fan of DC Comics overall, I felt no inclination to watch Snyder’s later ventures into the DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017).

 

As its title suggests, Army of the Dead sees Snyder return to zombie territory, although this new movie takes place in a different universe from Dawn of the Dead.  Whereas in Dawn, the zombie outbreak happens everywhere and brings civilization to its knees within days, in Army it’s localized and quickly controlled.  It begins with holidaymakers, gamblers, croupiers, showgirls and Elvis impersonators succumbing to a nasty, bite-y zombie virus in the casinos and hotels of Las Vegas, after a top-secret convoy transporting the bug crashes in the nearby Nevada Desert.  The US military responds and manages to contain the virus, plus all the zombies carrying it, by sealing off Las Vegas behind a towering perimeter wall of metal containers.

 

Although it was obvious from the start that I was going to be watching a big, dumb, action-fantasy-horror movie, even at this early point I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.  From where did the military suddenly rustle up all those giant containers?  And how come the Las Vegas they seal off seems to consist only of the downtown area with the casinos and hotels, but with nothing else attached?  Doesn’t the real city sprawl a bit? Doesn’t it have suburbs?  I’ve never visited it, but I had the impression that Las Vegas was more expansive, thanks to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013) and watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

 

Oh well. Now under zombie-lockdown, Las Vegas is completely inaccessible.  This is frustrating news for casino tycoon Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has 200 million dollars in cash sitting in a vault under a casino in the city and would like to retrieve it. The fact that the US government has just announced that it’s going to erase the zombie plague by nuking Las Vegas in a few days’ time gives extra impetus to his desire to retrieve it.  Thus, Tanaka approaches a tough ex-mercenary called Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) and offers him a generous portion of the 200 million in return for putting together a ‘team’, breaking into Vegas, blasting their way through the zombies and liberating the money before everything goes up in a cloud of mushroom-shaped radioactive smoke.  Ward was involved in the original military operation to evacuate non-infected people from the city and seal it off and so is the best man for the job, but he carries psychological baggage.  His wife perished during the operation, which has so traumatized him that he’s been reduced to flipping burgers in the kitchen of an out-of-the-way diner.

 

Indeed, food seems to have become the Bautista character’s way of dealing with post-zombie stress disorder.  He’s still blathering about lobster rolls near the movie’s close, two-and-a-half hours later.  (Yes, two-and-a-half hours – this is a long film.)

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

The set up reminded me less of past zombie movies than of John Carpenter’s rugged sci-fi actioner Escape from New York (1981), in which tough guy Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent into a future version of Manhattan, sealed off and transformed into a giant, hellhole prison run by its own inmates, to rescue the US president whose plane has just crashed there. The president was played by Donald Pleasence, so the film was eerily prophetic in its vision of a dystopian future America run by a president called Donald.

 

The difference is that Carpenter would have established the premise, introduced the protagonists and got them into the zombie-fied Las Vegas within the first quarter-hour.  Snyder, it’s fair to say, is a less economical filmmaker.  While Bautista was in the middle of assembling his team, and no one had got anywhere near Vegas yet, I checked my watch and realized 45 minutes had already passed.  Herein lies Army’s greatest problem.  It takes its time getting going.  And even after it gets going, there are still periods when everything stops going again so that Snyder can shoehorn in ponderous, talky, supposedly character-building stuff.  I can’t help wondering how much better the film would have been if some studio bigwig had told Snyder that Army wasn’t allowed a 150-minute running time.  No, it’d only have 90 minutes maximum in which to tell its story.  I’m sure the result would have had much less flab and far more momentum.

 

Another issue I have with Army is its derivativeness.  I don’t mind films containing little nods and homages to other films, but Snyder not only pinches a major subplot and supporting character from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) but also rehashes at least two of that film’s legendary action sequences.  As the film progresses, it also increasingly calls to mind the Will Smith sci-fi / horror movie I Am Legend (2007), with Bautista and his crew discovering that there aren’t just ordinary, common-or-garden zombies shambling mindlessly around downtown Las Vegas.  There’s also a more evolved variety that can sprint, climb, communicate, experience emotions, reproduce, organize themselves and even wear metal headgear, making them impervious to that normal zombie-stopping technique, “shoot ’em in the head.”

 

Frustratingly, like the film I Am Legend (and unlike the marvelous 1954 novel by Richard Matheson on which it’s based), nothing is done with these creatures once they’ve been introduced.  They merely become another threat to be blasted away, like a new foe that’s appeared on a new level of a computer game. Considering how it’s clear at this point that both Bautista’s team and the evolved zombies are being shafted by unseen corporate villains, it would have been interesting if the script had had Bautista try to communicate with the creatures and enlist their aid against the common enemy.

 

One other irritant is Snyder’s use of music, which is meant to be ironic but just seems clunkingly obvious: Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas (1964) and Suspicious Minds (1968) to evoke the setting and the Doors’ This is the End (1967) and Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Riding (1969) to evoke the apocalyptic mood.  Most of these appear as cover versions by the likes of Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe, Theo Gilmore and the Raveonettes, which suggests Snyder didn’t trust the young audience the film was targeting to be able to handle hearing the songs in their original forms.  Worst of all, though, is his deployment of the Cranberries’ Zombie (1994).  I’m not a fan of that song but it was written to protest the killing of children by the IRA.  Using it on the soundtrack of a Hollywood blockbuster about zombies doesn’t strike me as funny, but as crass.  (Also, when Zombie plays in the background of a scene, it gives away an important, upcoming plot twist.)  Still, I laughed when Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me (1982) made an unexpected appearance.  Musically, Snyder got one thing right, at least.

 

© Island Records

 

Despite everything – the film’s bloated-ness, overlong-ness, derivativeness and unimaginative use of music – I did quite enjoy Army of the Dead.  Largely this is due to the cast.  Even though he’s the size and shape of a muscular Michelin Man, Bautista comes across as a likeable human being, while the other performers do a good job of creating characters you can relate to and root for.  Well, apart from the character who might as well have ‘I’M A SCUMBAG WHO’S GOING TO BETRAY EVERYONE’ written on a signpost above his head. Particularly good are Ana de la Reguera as Bautista’s capable deputy, who quietly carries a torch for the big fellow; Tig Notaro as the helicopter pilot tasked with flying them out the disaster zone before the bomb drops on it, who displays Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy levels of loveable crankiness; and Omari Hardwick and Matthias Schweighöfer as, respectively, a macho, chainsaw-wielding mercenary and a nerdy, mild-mannered safecracker, who get involved in an unexpected bromance.

 

And the action and suspense scenes, when they come, are exciting.  It’s just a bit disappointing that, as I’ve said, so many of these scenes evoke similar scenes in earlier movies – Aliens or I Am Legend or, say, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London (two blokes crossing some desolate terrain at the film’s start, trying to escape a slavering monster) or the 2013 Brad Pitt vehicle World War Z (Bautista’s team having to make their way through a building that’s crowded with zombies, who are all in a statue-like state of hibernation but will wake up if there’s any sudden sound).  Definitely worth waiting for is a gory sequence featuring the movie’s best original touch, possibly its only original touch, a zombie tiger that’d originally belonged to Vegas magicians / entertainers Siegfried and Roy.

 

To sum up – plot-wise, Army of the Dead is as ragged and hole-ridden as the undead creatures that inhabit its dystopian setting, but it remains entertaining.  Its main problem is its inordinate running time.  If an hour had been chopped off that, you’d have had a thrilling, engaging action-horror movie as fast-moving as its evolved tier of zombies.  Unfortunately, the two-and-a-half-hour-long Army too often resembles its other tier of zombies, the ones that just shamble.

 

© The Stone Quarry / Netflix

Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

During the previous incarnation of this blog, before it had to be rebooted due to hacking issues, I published a series of posts under the title Cinematic heroes.  This was about actors whom I admired, ranging from craggy action men like Rutger Hauer and James Cosmo to beloved old-school character actors like Terry-Thomas and James Robertson-Justice.  Aware of a gender imbalance, I’d also intended to launch a parallel series of posts called Cinematic heroines, dedicated to my favourite actresses.  But I never got around to it.

 

Anyhow, a week ago saw the death of the actress Barbara Shelley following a Covid-19 diagnosis.  When I was a lad of 11 of 12 and a nascent film buff, Shelley was perhaps the first actress I developed a crush on.  Thus, sadly and belatedly, here’s Cinematic heroines 1: Barbara Shelley.

 

As well as being my first movie crush, Shelly starred in the first horror movie I saw that properly horrified me, 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness.  Before I watched it, and before I reached my second decade, I’d seen some quaint old black-and-white horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, including a couple that featured John Carradine as Count Dracula.  Carradine played Dracula as a gentlemanly, well-spoken figure who could change from bat-form into dandified human-form complete with a top hat.  This hardly prepared me for Dracula, Prince of Darkness, made two decades later in colour by Hammer Films.  It was a decidedly more visceral experience…  Almost traumatically so for my young sensibilities.

 

Cloaked in an atmosphere of dread from the word ‘go’, it has four English travellers getting lost whilst holidaying in Transylvania and spending the night at the seemingly empty Castle Dracula.  There, an acolyte of Dracula strings one of them up over a tomb containing the dead vampire’s ashes, slashes his throat and sends blood splashing noisily onto those ashes to bring the monster back to life.  And monster he certainly is.  Played by the great Christopher Lee, Dracula lurches around, hisses and spits, and glowers through red contact lenses like a literal bat out of hell.

 

Barbara Shelley is the second-billed actress in the movie, after Suzan Farmer, but she’s as memorable as Lee is.  She plays Helen Kent, a stereotypically repressed and prudish Victorian housewife who, the traveller least enamoured with the apparent comforts of Castle Dracula, comes out with the prophetic line: “There’ll be no morning for us!”  Later, bitten by the Count, she transforms from Victorian housewife into voluptuous sexpot, tries to seduce the surviving members of the group and bares her fangs animalistically at the sight of their naked throats.  However, Helen’s sexual awakening is shockingly punished near the film’s end when another memorable actor, Lanarkshire-born Andrew Keir, playing a very Scottish Transylvanian monk, re-asserts the puritanical and patriarchal status quo.  He and his fellow monks tie her down and bang a metal stake through her heart in a scene that evokes the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Warner-Pathé Distributors

 

After all that, my eleven-year-old self was shaken – but also stirred, into a lifelong fascination with horror movies.  And thanks to Barbara Shelley’s performance as a saucy vampire, I was probably stirred in more ways than one.

 

Born in London in 1932 as Barbara Kowin, Shelley took up modelling in the early 1950s and by 1953 had appeared in her first film, Mantrap, made by Hammer Films, the studio that’d later become her most important employer.  However, she subsequently spent several years in Italy, making films there.  It wasn’t until 1957 that she got a leading role in the genre that’d make her famous.  This was the British-American cheapie Cat Girl, an ‘unofficial remake’ of Val Lewton’s supernatural masterpiece Cat People (1942).  Cat Girl’s director was Alfred Shaughnessy, who’d later develop, write for and serve as script editor on the British television show Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75), essential TV viewing during the 1970s and the Downtown Abbey (2010-15) of its day.

 

Slightly better remembered is 1958’s Blood of the Vampire, a cash-in by Tempean Films on the success that Hammer Films had recently enjoyed with gothic horror movies shot in colour.  Indeed, Hammer’s main scribe Jimmy Sangster moonlighted from the company to write the script for this one.  Shelley isn’t in Blood long enough to make much impact, although her character is allowed to be proactive.  Hired as a servant, she infiltrates the household of the mysterious Dr Callistratus (played by legendary if hammy Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit), who runs the prison in which her lover (Vincent Ball) has been incarcerated.  Callistratus, it transpires, is harvesting the prisoners’ blood to sustain and perhaps find a cure for his secret medical condition – for he’s actually a vampire.  An uncomfortable blend of mad-doctor movie and vampire movie, Blood at least gets a certain, pulpy energy from its lurid storyline and Wolfit’s OTT performance.

 

The same year, Shelley got her first substantial role in a Hammer movie, although this was a war rather than a horror one, The Camp on Blood Island (1958).  A half-dozen years later, she’d appear in its prequel, The Secret of Blood Island (1964), a film whose policy of casting British character actors like Patrick Wymark and Michael Ripper as Japanese prison-camp guards prompted the critic Kim Newman to write recently: “Even by the standards of yellowface casting – common at the time – these are offensive caricatures, but they’re also so absurd that they break up the prevailing grim tone of the whole thing.”

 

Before making her first Hammer horror film, Shelley appeared in 1960’s sci-fi horror classic Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos.  She plays Anthea Zellaby, while the impeccable George Sanders plays her husband George.  Like all the inhabitants of the village of Midwich, Anthea becomes unconscious when the district is stricken by some inexplicable cosmic phenomenon.  And like every woman of childbearing age there, she discovers that she’s pregnant after she wakes up again.  The result is a tribe of sinister little children with blonde hair, pale skins, plummy accents, super-high IQs, glowing eyes and telepathic powers who resemble a horde of mini-Boris Johnsons (well, without the IQ, eyes or powers).

 

These are cinema’s first truly creepy horror-movie kids.  Child-actor Martin Stephens is particularly creepy as David Zellaby, Anthea’s son and the children’s leader.  Still effective today, the original Village knocks spots off the remake that John Carpenter directed in 1995.  It was also amusingly sent up as The Bloodening (“You’re thinking about hurting us…  Now you’re thinking, how did they know what I was thinking…?  Now you’re thinking, I hope that’s shepherd’s pie in my knickers….”) in a 1999 episode of The Simpsons.

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Columbia

 

After making a horror-thriller called Shadow of the Cat (1961) for Hammer, about the murder of a wealthy old lady (Catherine Lacey), a conspiracy by inheritance-hungry relatives and servants, and a supernaturally vengeful pet cat, Shelley got her meatiest role yet in the same studio’s 1963 horror film The Gorgon.  This was directed by the man who’d make Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Terence Fisher, and also featured that film’s star, Christopher Lee.  In addition, it featured Hammer’s other horror legend, Peter Cushing.  Atypically, Lee plays the good guy here rather than the bad one, and Cushing plays the bad guy rather than the good one.  The Gorgon is about a mid-European village terrorised by an unknown person who’s possessed by the spirit of Megaera, one of the three monstrous Gorgons from Greek mythology.  (In fact, in proper Greek mythology, Megaera was one of the Furies.)  Her victims are regularly found transformed into stone.

 

Since the Gorgon’s female, and since Shelley plays the only prominent female character, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that she turns out to be the possessed villager.  Oddly, Shelley doesn’t get to play the character in Gorgon form.  That honour goes to actress Prudence Hyman, sporting a headful of very unconvincing rubber snakes.  While the monster is a big disappointment, and isn’t a patch on cinema’s scariest representation of a Gorgon, the Ray Harryhausen-animated Medusa in 1981’s Clash of the Titans, The Gorgon makes partial amends by having some wonderfully atmospheric moments.

 

In 1966, besides appearing in Dracula, Prince of Darkness, Shelley appeared in Rasputin, the Mad Monk, which was shot back-to-back with the Dracula film and used many of the same sets and cast, including Christopher Lee as the titular character.  Despite some good performances, I find this film a confused, half-baked affair.  Happily, two years later, Shelley’s final movie for Hammer was also her best one.  This was 1968’s sci-fi horror film Quatermass and the Pit, based on an original 1958 BBC TV serial of the same name.  Both the film and serial were written by the same man, Nigel Kneale.

 

Pit has an ingenious premise.  Workers on a London Underground extension project dig up some skeletons of prehistoric ape-men and what proves to be an alien spacecraft full of dead, horned insect-like creatures.  The insects are identified by the film’s scientist hero Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir again) as inhabitants of the now-lifeless planet Mars.  Five million years ago, they came to earth and staged an invasion by proxy.  Unable to survive themselves in the earth’s atmosphere, the insect-Martians programmed the apes they encountered to become mental Martians.  Since these apes were the ancestors of modern human beings, Quatermass memorably exclaims, “We are the Martians!”

 

© Hammer Film Productions / Seven Arts Productions

 

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Martians, in both insect and surrogate-ape form, conducted occasional culls whereby those with pure Martian genes / programming destroyed their fellows who’d developed mutations and lost their genetic / programmed purity.  When the spacecraft is reactivated by a power surge from the cables of some TV news crews, it triggers a new cull.  London becomes an apocalyptic hellscape where the human inhabitants who retain their Martian conditioning roam around, zombie-like, and use newly awoken telekinetic powers to kill those who no longer have that conditioning.

 

Shelley plays an anthropologist called Barbara Judd, a member of a team headed by Dr Roney (James Donald) studying the apes’ remains.  They join forces with Andrew Keir’s Quatermass – sartorially striking in a beard, bowtie, tweed suit and trilby – who’s a rocket scientist come to examine the spacecraft.  Shelley, Donald and Keir are endearing in their roles.  It’s refreshing to see a film where the scientists aren’t cold-blooded, delusional, self-serving or plain weird.  Instead, they’re decent human beings, working with an eager curiosity, a sense of duty and a very relatable sense of humour.  Indeed, the film has a poignant climax, when the member of the trio who’s least affected by the influence emanating from the spacecraft makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to stop it.

 

Thereafter, Barbara Shelley made only a few more film appearances, most notably with a supporting role in Stephen Weeks’ Ghost Story (1974), a film with an unsettling atmosphere – perhaps because although it’s supposed to be set in the English countryside, it was actually filmed in India.  It’s also interesting because it offered a rare screen credit for Vivian MacKerrell, the actor who was the real-life inspiration for the title character of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987).  However, she kept busy with appearances on stage, courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and on television.  Fans of British TV science fiction of a certain vintage will know her for her appearances in the final season of Blake’s Seven (1981) and in Peter Davison-era Doctor Who (1983).

 

Barbara Shelley’s death on January 4th led to her being described in the media as a ‘scream queen’ and ‘Hammer horror starlet’, but both labels don’t do her justice.  For one thing, her characters rarely screamed – the impressive scream she produced in Dracula, Prince of Darkness was actually dubbed in by her co-star Suzan Farmer.  Also, the ‘Hammer starlet’ moniker implies she found fame due to her looks and physical attributes rather than her acting abilities.  The moniker is frequently applied to actresses like Ingrid Pitt, Yutte Stensgaard, Madeline Smith and Kate O’Mara who worked with the studio in the 1970s, when relaxed censorship rules allowed more bare flesh to be shown onscreen.  But working in a less permissive time, Shelley projected sexuality when she had to, as in the Dracula film, the same way she projected everything else – through sheer acting talent.  It was a talent that fans of the classic era of British gothic filmmaking, like myself, have much to be thankful for.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Morricone no more

 

© enniomorricone.org

 

The death of legendary film composer Ennio Morricone a fortnight ago shouldn’t have been a surprise since he was at the big age of 91.  But he’d shown such a cussed approach to life and art, still composing music, going on world tours and quarrelling with young whippersnappers like Quentin Tarantino while he was in his ninth decade, that you assumed he was going to continue living and composing forever.  Anyway, a heavy workload earlier this month prevented me from penning a tribute to the great man at the time of his passing.  Here’s my belated tribute now.

 

Ennio Morricone was the first film composer I knew.  I recognised his work well before I recognised that of John Barry, Bernard Hermann, Leonard Bernstein or Henry Mancini and even before the blockbuster themes of Jaws (1976) and Star Wars (1977) acquainted me with the name of John Williams.  As a boy I was daft about western movies and as soon as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns started showing up on TV I realised that Morricone’s exhilarating music, soaring and swooping along the soundtracks with twangy acoustic guitars, electric guitars, whistles, chimes, bells, flutes and aah-ing choirs, was as much a character of the films as Clint Eastwood’s cigar-smoking Man with No Name.  Remove Morricone’s music and they wouldn’t be the same.  There’d be a gaping Clint-sized hole in them.

 

Morricone’s music for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the film that put him, Leone, Eastwood and spaghetti westerns on the map, is great but I think his theme for the sequel For a Few Dollars More (1965), with added Jew’s harp and ocarina, is greater still.  Maybe I’m biased since the film is my favourite of Leone’s Dollars trilogy.  It has Eastwood, the Man with No Name, team up with the splendid Lee Van Cleef, the Man in Black, and take on Gian Maria Volonté as evil scumbag bandit El Indio.  The climax sees Van Cleef facing up to Volonté in a duel whereby the participants can only draw their guns on the final chime of a musical pocket watch, which had belonged to Van Cleef’s murdered sister.  It’s absolutely epic, thanks largely to Morricone’s music, which climbs majestically and drowns out the plaintive tones of the pocket watch, then plunges and dies away again a few palm-sweating seconds before the watch stops and the shooting starts.

 

© Produzioni Europee Associati / United Artists

 

The third and final movie of the trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), confused me when I saw it as a kid because although Lee Van Cleef starred in it alongside Eastwood again, this time he played a different character from the one in For a Few Dollars More and was as evil as Volonté had been in the previous film.  I assumed he was the same guy and couldn’t figure out why he’d suddenly become so bad.  Morricone’s theme here is perhaps his most famous work – I still hear blokes in the pub, after a few pints too many, going “Na-Na-Na-Na-Naaah….  NA-NA-NAAAH!” for no good reason.  But it’s perhaps the accompaniment he provides for the Ecstasy of Gold sequence, in which an increasingly delirious Eli Wallach spends four minutes running around a cemetery while Leone’s camerawork becomes correspondingly frenzied, that’s the film’s musical highlight.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Of course, we hadn’t heard the last of Morricone as far as Leone’s westerns were concerned, because in 1968 he contributed to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a movie that regularly gets mentioned in ‘best film of all time’ lists.  (It’s certainly in my top three.)  Morricone’s magnificent score ticks all the boxes.  At times, it does the customary soaring and swooping.  At others, it’s playful and jaunty.  And at other times, it’s marked by a haunting and pained-sounding harmonica.  Like Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volontè and the musical pocket watch in For a Few Dollars More, we discover the tragic significance of that harmonica at the end when hero Charles Bronson has a showdown with villain Henry Fonda.  Ironically, the film’s most breath-taking sequence, the lengthy opening where three gunmen played by Woody Strode, Jack Elam and Al Mulock await, with murderous intent, the arrival of Bronson at a remote, rickety train station, unscrolls without Morricone’s music (and indeed, without any dialogue) until nearly ten minutes in when that melancholy harmonica strikes up.

 

Morricone toiled away on many other Italian, and occasionally American, westerns and his CV surely makes him one of the great figures in the western genre.  His work appears in Duccio Tessari’s The Return of Ringo (1965), Franco Giraldi’s Seven Guns for the MacGregors (1966), Carlo Lizzani’s The Hills Run Red (1966), Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1966), Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1967), Don Taylor and Italo Zingarelli’s The 5-Man Army (1969) and Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970).  He also contributed to a few westerns like Navajo Joe (1966),  The Hellbenders (1967), The Mercenary (1968) and The Great Silence (1968) that were directed by another Sergio, Sergio Corbucci, who was honoured in Quentin Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) when Al Pacino described him as “the second best director of spaghetti westerns in the whole wide world!”  Meanwhile, Morricone was reunited with the first best director of spaghetti westerns in the whole wide world with Leone’s late-period western Duck You Sucker (1971), a movie that I like but don’t consider in the same league as Leone’s earlier efforts.  (James Coburn’s Irish accent doesn’t help.)

 

By the early 1970s Leone had shifted from spaghetti westerns to another staple of traditional Italian cinema, the giallo – the horror-thriller hybrid wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (whose identity is revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most stylish, glamorous, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.

 

Morricone’s giallo music is frequently mannered, genteel and dreamy, at odds with the bloody events happening onscreen but matching the well-upholstered lifestyles of the doomed protagonists.  He contributed to Elio Petri’s supernaturally tinged A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Paolo Cavara’s slick but dodgy Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), Aldo Ladi’s rather brilliant Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), Massimo Dallamano’s fairly reprehensible What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and Umberto Lenzi’s lovably barmy Spasmo (1974).   He also did the music for Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), but I haven’t seen that one, so I can’t provide it with suitable adjectives.

 

© Seda Spettacoli / Universal

 

He also worked on three movies directed by the man who’s arguably the maestro of the giallo, Dario Argento: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).  He didn’t, however, supply the music for Argento’s giallo masterpiece Deep Red (1976).  That role went to the German prog-rock band Goblin and I have to say, with apologies to Morricone, that I think their baroque, intense Deep Red score just about pips his work as the best giallo music of all time.

 

By then, of course, Hollywood had discovered Morricone and his scores for such prestigious productions as Terence Mallick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Rolande Jaffé’s The Mission (1986) won him international acclaim.  A digression here – I remember reading an interview with Will Carling, the nice but dull skipper of the England rugby team in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Carling told the evidently bored interviewer that before games, to settle his nerves, he listened to ‘The Mission’.  The interviewer thought Carling was talking about the 1980s British Goth band the Mission and, believing he’d discovered something interesting about Carling at last, that he was a Goth, asked him if he liked Gene Loves Jezebel too.  “No,” retorted a perplexed Carling, “The film The Mission.  The music from The Mission!”

 

Morricone also enjoyed a final reunion with his old comrade Sergio Leone, creating a majestic but wistful score for Leone’s Hollywood gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

 

Leone didn’t just provide the music for good films.  He also plied his trade with many bad ones and often the music coming out of the cinema speakers and what was happening on the screen seemed to belong to two different aesthetic universes.  I’m thinking of Reagan’s Theme, the haunting guitar-and-choir piece he composed for John Boorman’s much-derided Exorcist II: The Heretic (1978), or the soulful, religious sounding theme he provided for Michael Anderson’s Orca: The Killer Whale (1977), totally at variance with the ridiculous plot that has Richard Harris going Captain Ahab against a vengeful cetacean.

 

© Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures

 

Among Leone’s Hollywood scores, I particularly admire the one he did for John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing (1982).  At the time, disdainful mainstream critics (who also hated the film generally) dismissed his work as being like one of Carpenter’s own, pulsating synthesiser scores ‘slowed down’ or ‘played at the wrong speed.’  Heard today, its doomy sound encapsulates the film’s claustrophobic and literally under-the-skin horror, whilst reminding you that, yes, this is a John Carpenter film but it’s a special John Carpenter film.  I also like his subtle, creepy score for Mike Nichol’s underrated Wolf (1994), wherein a tired, middle-aged and downtrodden publisher (Jack Nicholson) gets bitten by a werewolf and discovers that his newly acquired lupine powers actually serve him well in the aggressive, cutthroat world of the 1990s New York publishing industry.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

One of Morricone’s last major commissions was for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).  The two men had previously fallen out over Morricone’s contribution, eventually non-contribution, to Tarantino’s 2012 western Django Unchained, but Morricone was back on board for this and contributed an urgent and ominous main theme.  Appropriately, seeing as The Hateful Eight and The Thing feature the same star (Kurt Russell) and a similar scenario (a stranded group trying to identify an enemy hiding among them), Morricone also donated some pieces he’d created for but hadn’t used in the 1982 John Carpenter film.  And as extra icing on the cake, Reagan’s Theme from Exorcist II: The Heretic was borrowed to accompany a brief, arty sequence of coach-horses making their way through the snow.  So it was gratifying that near his life’s end Morricone got an opportunity to show his mastery again of the genre that established his name, the western.

 

From open.spotify.com