by Bill Farrar
Bruno Nicolai is a forgotten man of Italian cinematic history. A long-time collaborator and right hand man for Ennio Morricone, he helped put his stamp on some of the most iconic soundtracks in the history of film. But as Morricone’s stature has grown over the years, Bruno has faded into relative obscurity mostly due to the fact that he worked in Italian genre films with no real crossover appeal beyond cult movie aficionados and soundtrack obsessives. But those who know his work know soundtracks that can be lush, beautiful, driving, suspenseful, discordant and jarring. Bruno Nicolai was his own man.
Like just about every collaborative effort in the history of film, Nicolai and Morricone’s relationship soured to the point where not only did they stop collaborating, but in the end Ennio didn’t even show up to Nicola’s funeral. Rumours surrounding the split centered around money and credit for who did what on certain soundtracks. You can hunt down online forum threads dedicated to this if you are curious but you’ll never get to the bottom of it. That is how it goes.
After the split, Nicolai continued to have a long career spanning the entirety of Italian genre film from sexy comedies, gritty police thrillers, spaghetti westerns, gialli (Italian horror films, the singular of which is giallo), and Caligula.
(On the credits of Caligua, Bruno was credited as Paul Clementine. So that pretty much sums up what he thought of the film. Mind you this is coming from a guy who scored four (FOUR!) Jess Franco movies.)
Here are some of Nicolai's best soundtracks to look out for.
While Morricone’s reputation grew overseas Nicolai's languished. He got the reputation among fans as The Guy You Got When When You Couldn’t Get Morricone. Nicolai's score for the second of the Sabata trilogy is the one of the main reasons people tended to think that way...and yeah, all the things we associate with a Morricone score are there: the vocal stylings, the flutes, and Alessandro Alessandroni’s iconic whistling. But you have to remember Bruno was in the studio when these elements were being thrown together in the first place. He can claim some ownership of them.
Also you have to think of the spaghetti western soundtrack as a genre unto itself with a set of conventions to uphold and unique boundaries to be pushed. The Adios, Sabata soundtrack does that all and is a damn fun listen in its own right.
As mentioned before Nicolai collaborated with Jess Franco no less than four times (!!!). Each time he added his own personal flair of lush orchestration to Franco’s own personal brand of industrial euro sleaze.
Justine combined his trademark symphonic with sitars and other trappings of that whole "flower children/hippie thing" the kids were into those days. As a general rule, anytime an Italian in his 40’s is asked to interpret 60’s youth culture the results are usually goofy and/or spectacular and this is no exception. The Justine soundtrack slides back and forth from orchestral swells to era-appropriate psychedelic-ish atmospherics. Really worth a listen.
Défense de savoir (1973)
Nicolai hits the 70’s crime drama ground running on this soundtrack. Tense chords, sweeping strings, black coffee, hard justice.
Throughout his career Nicolai expressed no preference for genre, but in my opinion giallo is where he really stands out. The Case of the Scorpion's Tail is the spiritual opposite of Adios, Sabata in just about every way. Harsh and jazzy discord ooze out of every pore giving tense shots of unexpected energy throughout the score. A perfect compliment to the giallo.
In 1972 Bruno Nicolai lent his talents to Sergio Martino’s Rosemary’s Baby via the giallo All The Colors Of The Dark, opting for a for a much more laid back and atmospheric approach. His ambient psychedelics cum pop music make this movie alone worth the watch.
Finally we have The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. Probably the most conventional giallo of all the soundtracks, complete with child singing and heavy bass line chase scenes giving it the bougie euro feel that dominates the genre.