Investigation of a Composer of Boundless Invention
Published on January 16th, 2012 | by Michael Rawls2
[H]e creates wonders worthy of Nino Rota and Kurt Weill. Here again, the melody consists of a mere handful of recurring bars, but with enough subtle variations in tempo and texture to make each reiteration sweetly old and spanking new. –John Simon on Ennio Morricone
I also used to create a score by taping some things on one track, other things on another track, and then, using all the twenty-four tracks, I would create different mixes that produced completely different results from the exact same material. –Ennio Morricone to Charles Bernstein, in an interview in “Score” magazine
And that technique, along with a boundless melodic invention that can express itself in a wide range of genres (pop, jazz, classical, experimental, we could be here all night) has enabled Morricone to compose over four hundred scores in fifty years with samples (Don’t take offense, Kim!) from those scores turning up in another three hundred films or so. And would younger auditors like Anna Calvi, for example, be playing surf guitar if it weren’t for Morricone and his Fender playing sidekick Alessandro Alessandroni in the Leone westerns? (For the record, so to speak, Alessandroni is also responsible for the whistling, coyote howling, and choir direction in those same westerns.) If a producer or director happens to be on the unimaginative side (this does happen) and wants something he or she has heard before, Morricone is quite capable of running up some pseudo John Barry or Henry Mancini or Burt Bacharach or… But Morricone can also devise scores that suit a film quite well but which will have close to no commercial potential outside of that context (the what seem to be post-mortem voices wailing away on the soundtrack to Armando Crispino’s “Autopsy”).
I’ve chosen Morricone’s score for Elio Petri’s “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” out of hundreds of competitors not only because I admire the score and the film (which, at the moment, seems to be beneath distribution in America) which it supports, but also because this soundtrack is the best demonstration of that technique described by Messrs Simon and Morricone above.
The citizen above suspicion in Elio Petri’s film is the Chief of Rome’s Homicide Bureau, about to be shifted over to Political Investigations (this being Italy circa 1970, there’s plenty of business over in that department). The Chief is played, spectacularly, by Gian Maria Volonte whose shape shifting countenance might at one moment suggest Alain Delon, at another Stanley Baker, now a suave continental, and now a shamed little boy being reproved by Mama. As the film opens, he is visiting his mistress in her Art-Nouveau Decadent Love Nest apartment. The couple go in for theatrical S&M, but on this day The Chief overplays his turn as Top and slits his mistress’s throat. Having been told earlier by his victim that his status as an authority figure guarantees invulnerability, he proceeds to leave enough evidence about to make it possible to pin on himself practically every felony committed since the end of the Mussolini administration. And indeed, he finds that people will deny the evidence of their own eyes and what’s left of their minds rather than question a superior, I’m sorry, A Superior.
The two main themes in Morricone’s score are “Indagine” and “Miraggio.” The “Indagine” theme, which is heard under the credits where we see Our Hero (?) approaching his mistress’s apartment building as if it were a terrorist hideout, is usually associated with The Chief in his official capacities (intimidating suspects and subordinates, swanning about Police Headquarters) and is both sinister and jaunty, with a martial sort of beat, and aside from the expected stand-up bass, also features a mandolin, a guimbarde (which used to be called rather unfortunately and inaccurately a jew’s harp round these parts), and what sounds awfully like Charlie Kohler’s piano from “Shoot the Piano Player.” The “Miraggio” theme that repeatedly accompanies The Chief’s flashbacks to his up-and-down relationship with his mistress is sleepy and sensual (yes, the guimbarde player takes a rest here) but also indicates The Chief’s sliding slowly and irretrievably into lunacy no matter how much energy he’s expending in his various fool testing stratagems and how speeded up is his “Indagine.” The third theme in the film, “Taglio,” is there to accompany scenes like police moving out, closing in, and generally doing the things that movie cops do, and “Taglio” does its job too.