We’ve now announced the full programme for a season dedicated to one of the greatest composers to work in the cinema, Ennio Morricone, who sadly died in July 2020, aged 91. While it would be impossible to reflect the astonishing range of Morricone’s work (some 450 to 500 scores) in a 6-week season, this programme of 17 films, which will run at BFI Southbank from 19 October to 30 November, will seek to show audiences that Morricone’s career was far from confined to the western, the genre he’s most frequently associated with. 

Screenings will include films such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966), The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982), Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978), The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1988), Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988), Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Pedro Almodóvar, 1989) and many more. 

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An artist who saw composition and orchestration as part of a single process, Morricone wrote down every note himself, and unlike most composers, usually wrote his music to the script before filming commenced, rather than to footage. The result was that many of his scores had a much more direct impact on the filmmaking process itself. Director Sergio Leone played the music to actors on the set of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), a practice which continued on their other collaborations. 

While he may have written a staggering number of scores, Morricone was probably most famous for this creative partnership with Leone, beginning with the first in the Dollars trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and ending with Leone’s final film, the gangster epic Once upon a Time in America (1984). 

The Dollars trilogy – comprising A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), which will all screen during this season – are impossible to recall without Morricone’s music, and A Fistful of Dollars established both Eastwood’s nameless anti-hero and an enduring collaboration between Leone and Morricone. From the instantly recognisable whistling and whip-cracks to the electric guitars and coyote wails, Morricone’s music had an incredible global impact. One of the most famous themes from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ has been used by Metallica to introduce their live shows since 1983, just one example from a long list of musicians who have been influenced by his work. 

Other westerns screening in the season will include Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968) starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Claudia Cardinale. Leone reportedly watched many key American westerns in order to construct what for many would be his own masterpiece. His methods pay off both as an homage to Hollywood filmmaking and as a thoroughly entertaining addition to the genre. 

Also screening will be Two Mules for Sister Sara (Don Siegel, 1970), one of many collaborations between Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel, set in post-civil war Mexico. Not wanting to be defined solely by his work in this genre, Morricone reportedly turned down a large number of requests to score more westerns, once stating that he only wrote scores for 36, about 8% of his total output. 

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The Hateful Eight (2015)

Morricone did however return to the western for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), about a motley group – including a bounty hunter and his captive – who take refuge during a blizzard at a remote stagecoach lodge. The resulting score brought Morricone his first competitive Oscar, reuniting him with the genre that had first brought him worldwide acclaim 50 years earlier. One of the pieces of music used in The Hateful Eight was originally intended for John Carpenter’s terrifying – and supremely gory – horror classic The Thing (1982). The final score for The Thing was actually a combination of music written by Morricone and John Carpenter, with the latter saying that because Morricone was unable to see the completed film before writing the music, there were some dramatic moments he needed to fill with additional pieces, which he scored himself. The resulting pairing of Morricone’s score and Carpenter’s synth-based music is an original and memorable combination. 

Also screening in the season will be a pair of epic gangster films. Morricone reunited with Sergio Leone for the director’s final film Once upon a Time in America (1984), which follows a group of youngsters as they rise through the ranks of organised crime in New York. One of the greatest gangster films of all time (although widely panned on its original release due to a cut that was ‘butchered’ by the US distributors), it boasts an exquisite score by Morricone. Set in 1930s Prohibition-era America, The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1988) pits agent Elliot Ness against the infamous Al Capone (played by Robert De Niro); Morricone’s accompanying percussive, arresting and expressive score was nominated for an Oscar.

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Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Oscar-winner Cinema Paradiso (1988) began a long collaboration with Morricone. The film is a nostalgic love letter to cinema accompanied by a fittingly elegiac score by Morricone and his son Andrea and depicts the childhood of a director in Sicily after the Second World War. After the huge success of the film, Tornatore and Morricone continued to work together. The director’s first English-language film, The Legend of 1900 (1998), stars Tim Roth as 1900, who as a baby was discovered abandoned on a steam liner. Flashbacks recount how he grew up on board without knowing the outside world but with an extraordinary talent as a pianist.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) is a dazzling depiction of events in Algiers during the French occupation in the 1950s. Morricone collaborated closely with Pontecorvo, using a multitude of sound effects and different motifs to distinguish between the French and Algerian forces, helping to create a masterpiece of political cinema. 

Morricone received his first Oscar nomination for Days of Heaven (1978), Terrence Malick’s visually beautiful account of life in the Texan wheat fields during the First World War. Morricone had an ongoing creative partnership with director Pier Paulo Pasolini, working together on films such as Hawks and Sparrows (1966), Theorem (1968) and Arabian Nights (1974). Screening in this season will be Pasolini’s final, and most controversial, film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Morricone was brought in to arrange certain pieces but Pasolini showed only sections to him for fear he would walk away due to the extreme nature of the infamous film. 

Roland Joffé’s The Mission (1986) about the alliance between a Jesuit priest and a slave trader in 18th-century South America is a moving film that features a hauntingly melodic, partly choral score, which is considered by many to be one of Morricone’s finest. Meanwhile he channelled Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho for Pedro Almodóvar’s dark romantic comedy Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989), about a troubled man who kidnaps an actress in the misguided belief they are destined to be together. 

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Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)

Completing the season is Samuel Fuller’s exploration of the roots of racism White Dog (1982), in which a young woman adopts a dog, unaware it was trained to attack black people. Following a savage incident, she takes it to dog trainers who set about working on re-conditioning the animal.

Health and safety measures

Throughout October and November BFI Southbank continues to operate with exhaustive health and safety measures including social distancing throughout the venue, face coverings as standard for all visitors and staff, increased frequency of deep cleans, e-ticketing, scheduling of staggered screenings and more. These measures continue to be informed by ongoing consultation with the industry, our staff, and our customers, with health and safety the highest priority in the operation of the venue.

Booking dates

Tickets for the Ennio Morricone season will go on sale to BFI Patrons and Champions on 28 September, BFI Members on 29 September and to the general public on 6 October. Full details of seasons, including listings and free online events on BFI YouTube, will be released on, or before, 21 September.

Originally published: 22 September 2020