Saturday, May 16, 2020

What's the Score? A Fistful of Dollars by Ennio Morricone

Spaghetti Westerns.

Say that to any western movie fan and a dozen iconic images come instantly to mind. Actors wearing ponchos and sombreros. Gritty, barren Italian landscapes posing as the American southwest, unorthodox camera angles, ultra-violence and exploding blood squibs. The faces of some of our most beloved actors appear — Clint Eastwood, John Weis, and others.

Along with Eastwood and Weis, Sergio Leone’s 1964 A Fistful of Dollars, sets the standard for some of the above, but for me it’s also got the music that defined a sub-genre.

The sonic salvo here is composed and conducted with flawless originality by Enno Morricone, credited as Dan Savio in the picture. It’s an iconic sound that would be copied over and over during the next couple decades but never surpassed.

Originally, director Leone had committed Morricone to create something similar to Dimitri Tiomkin’s El Deguello used in 1959’s Rio Bravo. Instead of relying on that theme, Morricone used a lullaby he had composed and developed the arrangement based on that and Peter Tevis’ version of a Woody Guthrie song—"Pastures of Plenty."

Arranged by Morricone, Leone heard the Tevis song and reportedly said “That’s it!” With uncanny skill, the composer worked all of his influences together to create the opening title piece, “Titoli.”

The track has everything we’ve come to expect from Morricone, the now famous clip-clop beats, the odd whistling, the cracking whips and the background chorus, and always, the traditional solo instruments. Trumpets and acoustic Spanish-guitars, flutes and violins, they’re all here to evoke that lonely wide open solitude of the West that can—at a moment’s notice—burst into rousing action.

Peter Tevis eventually recorded lyrics to Morricone’s theme for the film, though United Artists Records released a different set of lyrics called "Restless One" recorded by Little Anthony and the Imperials in order to reach a wider audience.

Some tracks, like “Square Dance” resound with old European classical vibes. Others like “The Chase” are purely 1960s action-movie schlock, and it’s a credit to Morricone’s skill that he welds all of it together so beautifully.

If you buy one Western soundtrack this year, make it A Fistful of Dollars.

After growing up on a Nebraska farm, Richard Prosch worked as a professional writer, artist, and teacher in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Missouri. His western crime fiction captures the fleeting history and lonely frontier stories of his youth where characters aren’t always what they seem, and the windburned landscapes are filled with swift, deadly danger. In 2016, Richard roped the Spur Award for short fiction given by Western Writers of AmericaRead more at


  1. I used to own the original RCA (vinyl) soundtrack recording. There wasn't enough music to fill both sides of the LP, so side one comprised the title theme and the other individual tracks, while side two featured a "suite" in which the tracks were re-used and combined. The U.S. "soundtrack album" for the sequel, FOR A FEW DOLLAR MORE, was a travesty in which Leroy Holmes "covered" Morricone's music, turning it into elevator pap.

  2. If you've never heard of this, I highly recommend the film 800 Balas, Ochociento Balas, Eight Hundred Bullets.

    It's a contemporary story set in the mountains and villages used in the original spaghetti westerns where the bit part actors and crew from the original films eke out their living offering a wild-west experience to the few tourists who visit these old movie sets. Additional conflicts arise when outside interests move to purchase these sets and raze them for construction of some apartments or condos. Fun stuff! Thank you for your insights on the iconic musical angle!

  3. I remember seeing the movie when it first came out. I had to see it a second to realize what clicked was the score. The score so fit the scenes.

  4. Back in my history-teaching life, I planned a week-long activity around a theme during Halloween week. One year, the theme was the 1950s. I dressed up as Sandy from Grease. Another year, it was Phantom of the Opera, and I dressed as the Phantom. The last year I did this was Spaghetti Western week. I dressed as the Teacher with No Name. The students always enjoyed this week, and they particularly enjoyed the Spaghetti Western week. They were passingly familiar with the music but they didn't know the source. I remedied that for them. lol