The greatest 4 minutes in movie history?

Lee van Cleef

Not 100% relevant to this post, but Lee van Cleef. LEE VAN CLEEF!

Everyone knows the secret to making a successful Western is to have an Italian director. Sergio Leone is the most famous example, but he is far from alone. Ferdinando Baldi, Lucio Fulci, Enzo Castellari, Tonino Valeri, Sergio Corbucci and a bunch more all made several contributions to what became known as Spaghetti Westerns, which is somehow racist and endearing all at once. These were the movies that brought us some of the all-time bad ass motherfuckers in movie history: Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name, Charles Bronson as Harmonica, James Coburn as Sean Mallory, Lee van Cleef as everything he ever did. Some of these movies are pretty shitty, but many of them are awesome, and the common thread between most of the awesome ones is Ennio Morricone.

I don’t need to rehash Morricone’s career here. Suffice it to say, he’s the best film composer of all-time, and I don’t owe John Williams any apologies for saying that. He wrote The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and then 20 years later wrote The Mission, which is about as diverse as you can get writing music for films. The list of cool shit in movies involving Ennio Morricone is entirely too long to go through, but one scene above all says everything you need to know.

Il Mercenario, like 99% of Spaghetti Westerns, takes place during the Mexican Revolution. Franco Nero, bad ass in several movies including this one, plays the incredibly Polish Sergei Kowalski, the mercenary of the title who trained a revolutionary named Paco who is now laying low as a rodeo clown. While moving from town to town robbing the army, they are tracked by Curly (yet another bad ass: Jack Palance) and his men. Ultimately, Paco resists the seductive allure of teaming up with Kowalski and making a lot of money, claiming his destiny is in Mexico. But whatever, that’s at the end. The best part of the movie, and maybe any movie, is when Curly and his crew catch up with Paco after a circus performance. Unbeknownst to them, Kowalski is also there, and he sees to it that a proper duel will take place between Paco and Curly. The result? Pure fucking awesome.

A few things to note:

  • It’s in Italian, and this clip has no subtitles, but it doesn’t remotely matter. This could have been acted using characters from Sesame Street and it would still be bad ass
  • I feel like I should wear boots more regularly. I would sound intimidating just walking around Walmart.
  • There has never been any music written that included a whistle solo that wasn’t awesome: Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay, Patience, Don’t Worry Be Happy, Winds of Change, Walk Like an Egyptian…I mean that’s a hell of a track record. And while there’s some pretty good whistling in those songs, this movie and Kowalski’s “theme” is the Emperor Concerto of whistling
  • Franco Nero looks rad sporting a mustache that clearly all Polish and Russian characters in movies should be required to sport from this point forward
  • Seriously, this whistle solo is fucking amazing
  • The trumpet is one of those instruments that has a huge degree of versatility in its sound. With that power comes great responsibility. The guy playing trumpet on this soundtrack would obviously sound terrible if he tried to bring that mess to the Mahler 5 opener. But if he were playing the trumpet solos in the Rodrigo Fantasia para un Gentilhombre? I’m listening…
  • This is shot so beautifully. The overhead shot of Curly and Paco taking their paces as the choir comes in is fucking epic
  • When the trumpet comes back playing his obbligato, the tension is overwhelming
  • What’s not to love about Curly’s pseudo-orgasm smile after the second bell?
  • The sequence right before Kowalski rings the bell for the third time is killer: Paco turning his head, Kowalski’s eyes, and the shot of Paco through Curly’s legs panning out to Curly’s shotgun. Holy shit.
  • Paco’s clown nose stays on the entire time, which is important somehow
  • Curly has one of the great deaths in movie history. Thinks he got his man, smug look of satisfaction on his face, tosses the gun away, realizes something is hurting in his chest, discovers that he’s been shot in the heart, starts bleeding through the corsage on his sweet looking tuxedo, puts his hand to his head like he’s trying to remember if he left the oven on, then keels over dead. Awesome.
  • Ennio Morricone is God.
It’s amazing the impact that music can have on a movie. One of my favorite films is The Wicker Man, a British flick with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward about a policeman investigating a kidnapping on an island of Pagans. The music in the movie is mostly charming drinking tunes and weird humming with Britt Ekland banging her hand against a wall while dancing naked as Woodward tries to keep his hands off his genitals in the next room. But the music serves its purpose of giving the island a bit of an off-kilter vibe, so that when the end comes, it’s completely terrifying. When they remade it a few years back with Nic Cage, the music was doom-and-gloom strings the entire time, creating this sense of impending dread waiting to be fulfilled. The music killed that movie (well, really everyone involved in all levels of production, directing, and acting, and possibly even craft services killed it, but the music was the worst offender) by undercutting the impact of the grand finale. Music has that power.
Nobody used that power for more good than Ennio Morricone. The Arena scene from Il Mercenario would still have been pretty sweet with no music with the presences of Franco Nero and Jack Palance. Ennio Morricone takes it from sweet to off-the-charts cool. I defy you to watch this video and not immediately have a duel with your spouse, children, neighbors, and anyone else within earshot. See you in 10 paces.
UPDATE: Il Mercenario is on Netflix Instant Stream. Go!
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3 thoughts on “The greatest 4 minutes in movie history?

  1. Morricone is staggeringly kewl. In fact just mentioning his name in a room full of John Williams fans will instantly make you the bad boy troublemaker of the crowd. Bernard Herrmann hits me a bit more strongly in toto, but the Man WNN tryptych is one of those works of music which will never get deleted off my iPod. Morricone did some really freaky thing sion the 70s. He played in a free-jazz noise band for awhile too..”Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza”. Crazy stuff.
    His Gothic Drama (Drammi Gotici) is also freakin cool..

  2. Pretty sure some of this soundtrack was in Kill Bill vol. 2 also. He has always been one of my absolute favorite film composers. The stand off at the end of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is beyond an epic moment but without the music would be pretty long and dull. The first stuff of his I heard was The Mission. So gorgeous! Can’t wait to check this stuff out.

  3. Great post, Erik. Funnily, we just had a “Once Upon a Time in the West” party last night. Amazing films, and the most emotionally engaging scores in movie history. Who knew Henry Fonda could be so damn scary.

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