Cinema-goers sensed how he melded thinking and feeling, that he played with sounds that spoke to his romantic nature and was able to conjure up, in music, heroic figures who resonated with audiences around the world, however different they might be. It was the music he wrote for “A Fistful of Dollars” that turned the unknown Clint Eastwood from a faux-western cowboy into a hero worthy of Homer— honourable, fearless and with a kind hidden heart—and the opening chords of Johann Sebastian Bach’s first song of St Matthew’s Passion, “Come, ye daughters, share my mourning” just before the rat-a-tat-tat drumbeat of French soldiers pouring out of their trucks, that helped transform Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers” from a story about a nasty colonial spat into a tragic historical epic.
As with the ghostly harmonica in “Once Upon a Time in the West” and the soaring theme the Jesuit Father Gabriel plays on the oboe as he tries to bring God to the Amazon in Roland Joffé’s “The Mission”, many of his compositions outlived the films they were written for. Visiting journalists sometimes failed to realise he was having them on when he gently insisted that people go to the cinema to watch films, not to hear them. Deep down he knew that music could make a film unforgettable.
That was why Sergio Leone so often had him compose the music before shooting started, rather than the reverse, which is the way films are usually made, or even insisted the actors listen to the soundtrack to get them into character. He had just one piece of advice when approached by John Zorn, then a budding cinema composer: “Forget the film. Think of the record.” Millions would agree.