Thursday, 23 February 2017

CrimeWaves: part 4

Title: The untouchables
Year: 1987
Composer: Ennio Morricone

Morricone’s next Oscar nomination came straight after the last one in 1988 in the 60th Academy Awards. The film is by Brian De Palma, and is about a group of police working to stop Al Capone’s crimes in 1930s Chicago. The award went to The last emperor but the film’s star Sean Connery managed to grab one from the best supporting role. Morricone’s score was released at the time of the film’s release in a 40-minute album presentation and later expanded by La-La Land Records. I only own the original album, so let’s hear if it was worthy of a nomination.

As with many albums Maestro Morricone produced, the tracks are in a completely scrambled order usually presenting the thematic material first and ending the album with a long suspenseful cue. This is also true with The untouchables which begins with the End title. This triumphant piece represents the heroics of the police and Morricone has said in the interviews that he really didn’t want to compose this piece the director insisted and ended up offering numerous alternatives which were ultimately rejected. And even though it is one of the album’s highpoints, I can see Maestro’s side too. The piece sounds a bit like a TV news theme and thus is a bit distracting from the overall feel of the score which is more reflective and paranoid. The melody is very typical of Maestro’s more symphonic writing he utilized in the late 80s and 90s and can remind the listener of many other melodies from that time. The trademark faster, rhythmic figures which appear over the melody and were later used e.g. in The legend of 1900 are a great way of creating a sense of movement and buildup. The theme is reprised a few times during the album, first in Victorious after a comical, jazzy tuba prelude which then rises into a hopeful rendition of the melody with a very ‘academic’ sounding conclusion. The untouchables builds straight into the theme with another exuberant rendition that rather clumsily turns into suspense strings in the middle.

Otherwise the album consists of tracks describing the different locales and moods, each one offering a new melody without much thematic repetition. It has been a while when I’ve seen the film and I haven’t heard the expanded album so I really don’t recall whether the themes gain a lot of variation within the film. Al Capone is a very ‘Italian’ sounding cue similar to something Morricone already created for his other mafia-related films. This time it is joined by a drum set and cheesy James Bond -like brass which just exaggerates the mob boss’ grandeur. Other crime aspects are presented in The strength of the righteous which is the main title piece. The track has quirky sensibilities provided by its ingenious Morriconean instrumentation: jagged piano and string rhythms, clever low woodwind writing and a descending harmonica solo borrowed from his score to Il poliziotto della brigata criminale. This unusual cue has crime flick written all over and I just love the creativity Maestro put into it. This thematic thread is turned into a chase sequence in On the rooftops with more chaotic string rhythms.

There is luckily some time for nostalgic sadness too. Death theme is a first example of this, a melody only Morricone can create with so much sentimental sadness to it. It’s like a short elegy for strings and solo saxophone, and even though it clearly isn’t his greatest melody it’s still a delight to listen to. The theme is reprised later in Four friends with almost the same arrangement but this time being played with a flute. Noteworthy is also that a part of the melody became one of the themes in Morricone’s all-time masterpieces Cinema Paradiso a few years later. Another elegant romance cue, Ness and his family has a more hopeful tone with a flute and viola solo and some unexpected harmonic devices.

A bulk of the score is dedicated to the suspense writing Morricone usually excels at. Waiting at the border is the first exercise in this, creating a tense track of building suspense through a steady pulsating bassline, drum rhythm interruptions and a chromatic melody played by the strings. It’s nothing new to the composer but still effective at its own right. Spine-chilling suspense starts The man with the matches with quotes from the main title’s harmonica but unfortunately it later turns into more uninspired, wandering string writing. False alarm has string clusters which are uncomfortable but unoriginal. The ending cue is another cue only Morricone could create. It scores the film’s most famous scene and begins with an innocent musicbox lullaby which repeats endlessly while the disturbing atmosphere slowly creeps in preparing the listener for the approaching bloodshed. At times the strings might sound almost serene but there’s tension in the atonal cluster chords which become more prominent before engulfing the whole cue into a dramatic nightmare with piano stabs reminding us of the gangsters’ presence.

For me The untouchables sounds a bit like Morricone on autopilot. There certainly are positives here like the brilliant main title cue but overall I feel that he has scored similar films with better success. The 40-minute presentation is plenty enough and has enough highlights to keep you entertained.

Rating: ****

1. The untouchables (End title) (03:13) *****
2. Al Capone (02:56) ****
3. Waiting at the border (03:46) ****
4. Death theme (02:43) *****
5. On the rooftops (02:36) ****
6. Victorious (02:10) *****
7. The man with the matches (02:47) ***
8. The strength of the righteous (Main title) (02:27) *****
9. Ness and his family (02:46) *****
10. False alarm (01:13) **
11. The untouchables (03:05) ****
12. Four friends (02:52) *****
13. Machine gun lullaby (07:02) ****

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