Giuseppe Vari’s 1964 Peplum Rome Against Rome is on YouTube and beneath this copy's faded sepia haze and murky gloom is something that looks accidentally magnificent, a deranged Bavaesque fusion of Roman legend, Gothic horror and psychedelic Sci-fi:
You can’t claim too much for it, but this has the best of those elements that I talked about in my essay ‘The Art of the Italian Peplum’ - cynical, energetic commercial imperatives allowing something paradoxically liberated and fantastically creative. In a desperate attempt to stand out at the dead end of the cycle it resorts to extravagant, spooky spectacle: the idea of a phantom rebel Roman army being resurrected to fight an Imperial contingent is brilliant, and even if the execution is shonky it is still odd and effective. The female leads, as ever, stand out: Susy Anderson as the cynical, scheming, deadly Tulli, seductive wife of a corrupt colonial governor, and Ida Galli, who exudes ethereal beauty as the slave girl Rhama whose mind is controlled by mystical warrior priest Aderbad. It does all the Peplum things I love and singled out for praise in the essay, returning (in the words of Robert Graves) “hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, remarkable muscular strength” to the ancient classics:
Fagen: Maestro, the picture I have of Italian filmmaking comes mainly from Fellini films like 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita. When you were scoring spaghetti westerns in the '60's, was the scene really swinging?
Morricone: La Dolce Vita focused on a small group of people who got up at 11 P.M. and lived at night. While I, then as now, got up at five in the morning to compose and was asleep by nine in the evening.
Fagen: Your music has always had a life here in America apart from the films. In the past few years, though, your influence has surfaced in a lot of rock music and in the works of "avant-garde" composers. Why is this music from 25-year old Italian westerns the talk of the town?
Morricone: I don't know. You tell me.
Morricone: But I have a hypothesis. When I begin a theme in a certain key, say, D minor, I never depart from this original key. If it begins in D minor, it ends in D minor. This harmonic simplicity is available to everyone.
Fagen: But isn't it true that the Leone films, with their elevation of mythic structures, their comic book visual style and extreme irony, are now perceived as signaling an aesthetic transmutation by a generation of artists and filmmakers? And isn't it also true that your music for those films reflected and abetted Leone's vision by drawing on the same eerie catalog of genres - Hollywood western, Japanese samurai, American pop, and Italian Opera? That your scores functioned both "inside" the film as a narrative voice and "outside" the film as the commentary of a winking jester? Put it all together and doesn't it spell "postmodern", in the sense that there has been a grotesque encroachment of the devices of art and, in fact, an establishment of a new narrative plane founded on the devices themselves? Isn't that what's attracting lower Manhattan?
Morricone: [ shrugs ]
Fagen: What about your use of unusual solo instruments? You've hired Zamfir, master of the pan-flute. You've featured whistlers and the human voice. Do you hear a specific color when you watch a scene?
Morricone: When I write a passage, I find out who's available. If the violinist I want is out of town, I'll use, say, a great flute player who is on a day layover in Rome. Sometimes its even simpler. In The Mission, the character in the film plays the oboe, so...
Fagen: After scoring so many films, it must be hard to come up with fresh ideas.
Morricone: I saw The Untouchables on Monday, I thought of the main theme in the cab back to the hotel and played it for De Palma on Tuesday.
Fagen: You've worked with many directors, each who must present a different set of problems for the composer. I have a list here. What was it like working for Bertolucci?
Morricone: He is my old friend, bellisimo!
Fagen: John Boorman?
Fagen: Terence Malick?
Morricone: A man with bad luck but bello, bellisimo!
Fagen: Roman Polanski?
Fagen: Brian De Palma?
Fagen: Your scores for Leone in particular had a very sly humor. Will you be composing for any comic or semicomic films in the near future?
Morricone: If they offer. I can only choose from the films that are offered me.
Fagen: Maestro, are there days when you wish you were still playing the trumpet?
Morricone: The trumpet was exhausting. I have always wanted to compose.