The 12 greatest film scores by Ennio Morricone

2 July 2024, 08:38

Best film scores by Ennio Morricone – From The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (pictured) to The Mission
Best film scores by Ennio Morricone – From The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (pictured) to The Mission. Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Rosie Pentreath

From ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ to ‘The Mission’, these are some of Morricone’s most iconic works.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

It starts with a coyote call-like oscillation of notes, played on the soprano recorder, followed by three strident “wah, wah, waaah” notes, all underpinned by a galloping rhythm evoking horses’ hooves across dusty deserts.

The iconic western movie soundtrack.

Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is synonymous with the sound of westerns, and is regularly voted among the most iconic film scores ever written.

We celebrate the magic of Morricone in our pick of the late Italian composer’s best scores.

Read more: The joyous sound of a ukulele orchestra playing Morricone’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’

  1. A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

    A Fistful of Dollars was Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s first western featuring Clint Eastwood, and it was Eastwood’s first lead role. Moviegoers were meeting the sun-burnished and inscrutable ‘man with no name’ for the first time, and a new kind of anti-hero demanded a new kind of score.

    Morricone stepped forward with a completely revolutionary soundtrack for the time. It featured wistful, whistled melodies, male chanting, Spanish guitars, and bells, and it catapulted the Italian composer to movie scoring stardom.

    A Fistful of Dollars • Main Theme • Ennio Morricone

  2. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

    Another Sergio Leone ‘Spaghetti Western’ – named for the cuisines of their Italian makers – called for another Morricone score. And The Good, the Bad and the Ugly arguably became his most iconic. In it you find what have become instant sonic indicators for “you’re watching a western”.

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the third film in Leone’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’, the preceding films being A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. The plot revolves around three gunslingers competing to find a fortune in buried Confederate gold.

    Morricone’s most famous score combines a classic theme tune with electric guitars and dramatic vocal shrieks, which represent the howling of coyotes.

    Read more: The 50 best film scores of all time

    Ennio Morricone - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  3. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

    Another Western, another iconic Morricone score.

    Once Upon a Time in the West, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda, is a western epic with all the expected ingredients – a mysterious stranger (carrying a harmonica), a notorious desperado, a beautiful widow in distress, and a ruthless assassin working for the railroad.

    Set off by Morricone’s lyrical, harmonica-drenched soundtack, Leone’s brutal story was set to become a classic.

    Once Upon a Time in the West (1/8) Movie CLIP - Two Horses Too Many (1968) HD

  4. Maddalena (1971)

    In 1981, an exquisite Italian song called ‘Chi Mai’ (‘Whoever’) went up to No.2 in the UK singles charts.

    It had been released as the soundtrack to the TV drama The Life and Times of David Lloyd George, which starred Philip Madoc as the final leader of the now-defunct liberal party.

    The song started life as part of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for Polish filmmaker Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s cult film, Maddalena, starring Italian actor Lisa Gastoni as a recently-divorced woman at the mercy of her own sexuality.

    While the film isn’t the best known that Morricone worked on, the song remains one of his most popular.

    Cult Classic MADDALENA (1971) Trailer (Ennio Morricone)

  5. Days of Heaven (1979)

    Morricone might be associated with Spaghetti Westerns first, and gritty gangster movies second, but the first Morricone score to be nominated for an Oscar was a romantic period drama.

    Starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, Days of Heaven is set in Texas’ 1916 pan-handling belt, and tells the story of farm labourer Bill convincing the woman he loves, Abby, to marry their rich employer, who is dying, so they can claim his fortune.

    The Terrence Malick film also scooped nominations for costume design and sound, and picked up the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

    Days of Heaven (1978) - Terrence Malick (Trailer) | BFI

  6. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

    While Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West scored a western, his assignment on Once Upon a Time in America was to inject a moving soundtrack into the story of gangsters navigating New York’s organised crime world.

    Starring Robert De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern, Sergio Leone’s final film was lauded with several awards, including a Best Original Score BAFTA for Morricone.

    Morricone conducts Morricone's Once upon a Time in America: Cockey's song (Pan flute)

  7. The Mission (1986)

    Ennio Morricone's Oscar-nominated soundtrack for The Mission fuses baroque choirs with Amazonian drumming rhythms to evoke the culture-clash of 18th century Spanish Jesuits and the Guarani people of South America.

    Morricone’s ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ melody remains one of his most beloved. The melody features as part of the plot itself when Father Gabriel extracts his oboe at the heart of the forest and intones the melody through the trees, until he is interrupted by local people who are halted and intrigued by the music.

    Morricone conducts Morricone: The Mission (Gabriel's Oboe)

  8. The Untouchables (1987)

    In The Untouchables, FBI Agent Eliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner, sets out to stop Al Capone (Robert de Niro) and stamp out rampant corruption.

    Ness assembles a small, hand-picked team, which included Jim Malone, who is played by Sean Connery in what would become an Oscar-winning role.

    All the tension and prohibition era atmosphere of director Brian de Palma's gangster drama is enhanced by a thrilling, Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning score by Morricone.

    The Untouchables (1987) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

  9. Cinema Paradiso (1988)

    For Giuseppe Tornatore’s story of a Sicilian boy’s love affair with cinema, Ennio Morricone opted for a traditional score. He also worked alongside his own son, Andrea, when composing the music, reflecting the films story of an older protagonist seeing his craft anew through young eyes.

    The story of friendship and passion for film inspired some of Morricone's most touching and melodic music, and the score won a BAFTA in 1990.

    Cinema Paradiso Official Trailer

  10. Bugsy (1991)

    Like westerns in the early days, films about gangsters seemed to call out for scores by Ennio Morricone like no one else.

    Barry Levinson 1991 biopic about the life and loves of American mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel has an all-star cast, including Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Harvey Keitel, and features a blazing sore by Morricone that recieved an Oscar nomination.

    BUGSY Trailer

  11. Malèna (2000)

    Following up his work with director Giuseppe Tornatore on Cinema paradiso, Morricone provided a bitter-sweet score for another Tornatore coming-of-age drama in 2000.

    Monicca Belluci stars as Malèna, a woman who provokes sexual awakening in a group of adolescent boys. The context is small-town Sicily after Mussolini has risen to power and declared Europe on England and France.

    Our protagonist, 13-year-old Renato, is no less distracted by his burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. Another sensational score earned another Oscar nomination – his fifth – for Morricone.

    Malèna (3/10) Movie CLIP - Causing a Commotion (2000) HD

  12. The Hateful Eight (2015)

    Excluding the Honorary Academy Award he was presented with in 2007, Ennio Morricone’s first and only Oscar win came with his score for Quentin Tarrantino’s take on the western genre, The Hateful Eight.

    Starring Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the Tarantino epic meets eight diverse and suspicious strangers as they seek shelter from a blizzard in a stagecoach stopover in Wyoming, in 1887 in the context of the recently-ended American Civil War.

    FSO 2016 Oficial | The Hateful Eight