I first heard Apollo 440’s remix of Ennio Morricone’s classic “Man with a Harmonica” over the end credits of a great Sopranos episode, “Whoever Did This,” when we begin to see Tony’s veneer of humanity begin to crack.
The original song is the theme to one of the best westerns ever made, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I was thinking about it after reading Wayne Dundee’s excellent review of the film. It is Leone at the top of his form, and Harmonica is one of the great characters of cinema, and perhaps Charles Bronson’s greatest role. Frank, the evil sonofabitch played by Peter Fonda, may be one of Fonda’s best as well. It’s certainly the one that plays against type.
The film is over two hours long, but worth every second. Each time you hear this theme play, Leone teases us with a blurry memory of a young boy faced with pure evil. Seeing who this young man becomes, and how he finally puts an end to a lifetime of pain, is one of the great catharses in western storytelling.
And this song is stuck in my head this week. The mournful tone evokes an inner sadness at the red-claw brutality of life on this Earth, and our endless struggle to rise above it. It speaks of the sadness of a young boy who feels responsible for his older brother’s agonizing death, and his long road to vengeance.
All with a harmonica and a lungful of air.