Before I begin, I think it’s probably best if you know why this article has come about. When Charlie asked me to write something on European scores for his website last October, I was both flattered and nervous. I love movie scores, of course, they’re one of my main passions in life… but, being as I don’t read music, I never feel that confident about writing about it. However, I knew it would give me the chance to have a stab at writing something I wouldn’t normally give myself the opportunity to commit to a computer screen and above and beyond that, I don’t like to let people down. Especially when they have the confidence that I can pull through for them.
I was originally going to write something on what are good foundation scores to buy for a soundtrack enthusiast wanting to venture further than the American scores which tend to dominate the market over here in the UK and in the USA. Yeah, I know the Americans practically invented film scoring and it’s historically their art form but, seriously people, there’s some unbelievable stuff coming out from other countries too… honest. However, when I thought about it, that task seemed a bit daunting for a first attempt at writing about European scores so I decided to limit myself to just one country. I’ve got around 300 Italian scores as a small part of my soundtrack library at present, so I figured I’d narrow things down to Italian scores, since I must obviously like them.
So far, so good… but then I started splitting it down into genres like peplum, giallo, spaghetti western, horror, sci-fi, sexploitation and I realised… yeah, I’m going to have to pare back a bit on what I want to write about here. And so, I’ve arrived at this point and picked on the humble giallo, because it’s a genre of Italian cinema which I am particularly interested in and which often gets noted for its rich musical contribution. The writing of this article has piqued my interest and so I’ll maybe do another one of these sometime on my own blog as part of a “Foundations” series. So I’d like to say thanks very much to Charlie for giving me the opportunity to write something for him and instilling me with the confidence to give this kind of topic a go. I hope he, and you, enjoy it…
A heavy, percussion led rhythm, not unlike Henry Mancini’s original opening title music for Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL starts up and you are propelled along with it while some bluesy, almost but not quite sleazy, brass oozes out a melody line which sounds like it belongs very much in a 1950s noir thriller.
This is the opening title music for Mario Bava’s groundbreaking 1964 giallo BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Sei donne per l’assassino) by Carlo Rustichelli and it’s not what you might think of as a typical giallo score, by any means. At least not what they would become. Bava practically invented the giallo with films like this and his earlier THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (La ragazza che sapeva troppo aka THE EVIL EYE) but LACE added the stylistic Bava colouring and various other key signatures that would help define the genre and, although this score by Rustichelli may indeed be atypical of the genre… I couldn’t fail to imagine having it as one of my constant musical companions. The main title theme oozes in and out of various tracks and gives it a certain jazz sensibility, which Ennio Morricone would later tap into with his remarkable work on various gialli, but the score lacks the atonal heart which would later go on to help define a certain sub-genre of the form.
The lack of hard atonal scoring may confuse some but this in no way diminishes the flavour of the creeping suspense music in some parts which, if anything, are quite reminiscent of some of the slower sequences on John Barry’s Thunderball score from the year after. This is a brilliant, musical foundation stone for any would-be giallo listeners and the version to go for, if you can get hold of it, would be the Digitmovies double CD release of this score coupled with Rustichelli’s score for Bava’s 1963 gothic horror movie THE WHIP AND THE BODY (which starred Christopher Lee and is definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of either Hammer horror or Corman’s loose Poe adaptations).
Bava may have practically invented the cinematic giallo but it was the first feature directed by a man who became forever associated with it that popularised the form and started off the usual Italian bandwagon movies which formed the substantial genre it became. The man’s name is Dario Argento and the film from this man, who was very quickly dubbed “the Italian Hitchcock”, was called THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo). For his debut movie as a director (he’d written films before this, most famously his writing collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone for Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) Argento went to the man who is probably the best known Italian film composer to this day, Ennio Morricone. And with this score Morricone helped define a musical signature for the giallo film which he and many of his peers would use for a lot of these movies.
That style consists of what I can only, due to my limited musical vocabulary, describe as a kind of avant garde, atonal jazz. It does contain melody lines for some of the score but other, immensely addictive portions, where all hell is breaking loose on screen, are a jumble of hard beats, wild sounds, disembodied voices (courtesy of his frequent vocal collaborator, the famous Italian score singer Edda Dell’Orso) and genuine musical chaos. And it’s brilliant. This score is not only a very addictive series of pieces on screen but it works extremely well as a stand alone listen and the expanded Cinevox edition from 2008 is definitely the one to go with here.
My third pick would be Morricone’s third score for Argento, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio). Like his second score for an Argento giallo, CAT O’NINE TAILS (Il gatto a nove code), Morricone continues to work in the same vein he established for the first one but FLIES is an even sweeter, wilder ride than the previous two, which is no surprise since the lead character played by Michael Brandon is a jazz drummer and his fictional group’s music is to the fore in certain scenes. There’s also some really interesting vocal stuff in here which sounds almost like an early classical chamber piece, but re-sampled through an early 1970s filter. Somehow Morricone makes it all work together and shows just why he is a musical genius. Again, the expanded Cinevox edition from 2007 is definitely the one to go for here, although even as an expanded album it’s still a very short score. More than worth picking up, though. Your ears will love you for it.
Two other Morricone giallo scores I would like to point you towards, out of the many he wrote for the genre, are his scores for Lucio Fulci’s A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (Una lucertola con la pelle di donna) and Aldo Lado’s WHO SAW HER DIE? (Chi l’ha vista morire?).
A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN is another truly beautiful score and album. It’s not surprising that various of the more melodic of the cues in this score have made their way onto a lot of Italian soundtrack compilations over the years… while the atonal, jazzy stuff is yet another testament to how he can make this kinda stuff seem so catchy without a hard melody line for those passages. The expanded Dagored edition from 2000 is the way to go on this one.
On the other hand, WHO SAW HER DIE? is a completely different kettle of fish, in that it’s choral based and delights in the juxtaposition of the voices of a children’s choir in interesting variations and fugues. Which may sound kinda bland but… it’s not. It’s essential listening and you won’t believe how addictive this can be until you start playing it. It’s a bit like the Medieval Baebes on steroids. The Digitmovies edition of this score is a good buy.
Bruno Nicolai was Morricone’s partner in crime for many years. He used to orchestrate Morricone’s scores and the two used to conduct for each other before something, as yet unrevealed, came between them and a great rift formed. However, Nicolai is arguably as good a composer as Morricone (and some people prefer him) and the scores he did for various movie genres over the years are usually worth a listen. Like Morricone, he wrote a lot of giallo scores but I’ll just mention a few essentials to get you started, if you’ve not heard them before.
His scores for director Sergio Martino’s THE CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TALE (La coda dello scorpione), ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK (Tutti i colori del buio),YOUR VICE IS A LO CKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave) and director Giuliano Carnimeo’s WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD DOING ON JENNIFER’S BODY? (aka THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS aka Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?) are all standout scores in the Morricone mode, although they do have certain characteristics that are not Morricone-isms… I’ve never really thought about that before but now I come to think of it, he does favour rhythms and melody lines built out of short musical cells, much like the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, but with less subtlety and more jazziness. I’d say, if you can, pick up all four of these which were all released by Digitmovies. If I was just going for one from this bunch though, I’d have to plump for ALL THE COLOURS OF THE DARK for the addition of some cues featuring wild, orgiastic, swinging sitar playing. Everyday’s a Sitarday when this score comes out to play!
Unlike the musical syntax he created for the spaghetti western, Morricone’s giallo style wasn’t copied exclusively by every composer in the business. When Argento was slightly less happy with what Giorgio Gaslini was doing for his return to the genre with the 1975 movie DEEP RED (Profondo Rosso), he brought on board some new collaborators to work with Gaslini who also ended up writing a big chunk of the score. The new collaborator’s were a not very famous (until this film) progressive rock group called Goblin and it was they who gave the giallo genre, and also the horror genre, the other musical style that has become associated with it.
The style they contributed is a compelling, rhythmic rock with some avant garde effects thrown in for good measure, producing a sound scape which plays through a sequence rather than Mickey Mousing the action. In fact, the style is so striking, especially with Deep Red, that it’s very easy to see just how influential this was in other countries. For instance, it’s almost impossible to listen to one of the main themes from this film without thinking of John Carpenter’s later score for his own movie, HALLOWEEN. The influence, I think, is pretty obvious to most people and certainly Goblin, when they were at their height, were kept very busy indeed. I’d like to recommend their score to SUSPIRIA to you, but it’s a horror score and not a giallo so, in addition to DEEP RED I will recommend you pick up their score to Argento’s TENEBRE, which is absolutely amazing stuff and has a kind of “disco slasher” vibe/mentality to it. Very addictive. The lead composer of the group, Claudio Simonetti, still works for Argento to this day, having recently scored the director’s DRACULA 3D movie. The expanded Cinevox editions are the ones to buy of these scores, especially the two disc, red digipack edition of DEEP RED.
Okay, as I’ve been writing about this article I’ve realised I could keep going for another ten pages, so I’ll just finish off with a very quick word on essential scores by a few of the composers I’ve not mentioned so far… Gianni Ferrio, Stelvio Cipriani, Piero Umiliani and Nora Orlandi.
Okay, so my three must have scores by Ferrio are DEATH OCCURED LAST NIGHT (La Morte Risale A Ieri Sera), DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT (La morte accarezza a mezzanotte), and THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY (Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate). All are absolutely gobsmacking brilliant, the first two because of the beautiful melodies coupled with some absolutely killer songs (what’s that, a score lover listening to music with, you know, words on them… scandalous) which I couldn’t get by without hearing at least once or twice a year. The third title is here because of the way he gorgeously uses and then subverts a famous, classical melody and turns it into his own thing (much like Morricone does on some of his scores), in this case a series of jazz cues. Digitmovies for the first and the Easy Tempo label for the other two.
Stelvio Cipriani is another major name in Italian scoring, especially for his music for his Italian cop movies. I’m only going to recommend one of his fine giallo scores to you… BLOODSTAINED SHADOW (Solamente nero). If you liked the score from DEEP RED seek out this one because Cipriani is very impressive with that same kind of musical language. This score even has Goblin performing on it, but I believe that was kept quiet at the time (and has remained uncredited on soundtrack releases) due to legal or contractual reasons. Again, the Digitmovies edition is the way to go for this one.
What can you say about Piero Umiliani. Best known in the west as the composer of a song called ‘Mahna Mahna’ for a sexploitation movie which was appropriated and made even more famous by The Muppets, Umiliani is a jazzy score composer specialising in big beats and grooves to die for. His score for Mario Bava’s Agatha Christie giallo FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (aka 5 bambole per la luna d’agosto) is an absolute masterpiece. I think it was Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog who, in his giant tome on Mario Bava, said this movie was like watching one giant pop video and he’s really dead on with that. Except I’ve never seen a pop video with music as sweet and catchy as this. It leaves atonality locked behind in a dark room somewhere and concentrates solely on light, jazzy melodies… yeah, this is “bright and sunny” giallo music and, if you don’t think that can work, take a look at the movie and buy this score. I can guarantee that either of those actions will result in ginormous amounts of unexpected toe tapping. The expanded edition from Cinevox in the cardboard packaging is the one to get as it also includes the Italian vocal rock end credits version of the main song not usually heard outside of the context of the movie.
And then we have Nora Orlandi… and one of the greatest giallo scores. There’s a section in KILL BILL VOL.2 which uses some intense, brooding music which sounds like it comes from a spaghetti western. It doesn’t. It comes from Orlandi’s score for Sergio Martino’s standout movie THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS WARDH (aka BLADE OF THE RIPPER aka Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh)… and it’s just an amazing score to an unbelievably entertaining giallo. Like Rustichelli’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE score for Bava, it’s not particularly a poster gal score for the giallo genre as a whole in that it doesn’t really appropriate either of the styles of scoring these movies that were set up by Ennio Morricone or Goblin… but it is very effective on-screen support when it’s doing its own thing and, more importantly for the context of this humble article, it’s an extremely entertaining and moresome listen. My ears couldn’t survive without the Quartet expanded reissue of Hexachord’s equally stunning original release and, like pretty much all of the scores I’ve listed here… you miss this at your peril.
And that’s about it. I hope you’ve liked this little journey into some of the more standout giallo scores of the 60s and 70s. If you like the scores mentioned here, you’ll find the genre is a very rich seam to tap for sheer musical brilliance (for some of these movies, their only saving grace was their amazing soundtracks) and you’ll find a lot more great listens where these came from. I hope you listen to at least one or two of these albums if you are unfamiliar with them and, if you do, I’m sure you’ll find them more than interesting. Thanks for reading.
NUTS4R2’s movie reviews, where he often mentions the score of the movie he is reviewing, can be found here.