The 20 Greatest Director-Composer Teams in Cinema History

7. Federico Fellini and Nino Rota

Nino Rota may be best known for his iconic score to The Godfather, but his real legacy is in the scores for over 100 films that for some of the greatest Italian directors, such as Luchino Visconti and Mario Monicelli, as well as a diverse career in concert music.

His greatest partnership was arguably the greatest Italian director of them all, Federico Fellini. For over 25 years, the two teamed up for over twenty films, many of which are critically acclaimed. There are many distinct characteristics of Fellini’s films as they usually blend traditional, often autobiographical, Italian heritage with more surreal, dreamlike qualities.

For instance, revolutionary films like 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita feature realistic scenarios but have minimal, wandering plots with imaginative episodes that creates an uncertain atmosphere around the film.

Rota’s scores similarly blend classic Italian themes with more non-traditional elements conveying a sense of both old and new. The scores also feature many waltz-like dances to match the floaty movement of the characters, whom Fellini actually had act to music. Rota would transform with Fellini to convey more serious emotions, like in La Strada, or more whimsical fare such as in Casanova and many of his other later works.

Although Rota worked with many other directors and teams, and Fellini experimented with some other composers, the bond between Rota and Fellini is impenetrable, leaving much to be discovered.


6. Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

Although Alfred hitchcock certainly deserves his title as the “Master of Suspense” for his tensely edited thrillers, much of the acclaim should be shared with his frequent composing teammate Bernard Herrmann. The British director had a very long career, starting in the 1920s with silent films, gradually picking up the public’s eye as his films became more polished and exciting.

By the 1940s he was one of the most talked about directors of film, turning out an endless slew of great films like Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious and many more. The next decade, somehow, Hitchcock had not slowed down and his films were as suspenseful as ever and in 1955 he teamed up for the first time with Bernard Herrman.

Hermann was at this point an already experienced film composer, having worked with directing greats like Orson Welles, Robert Wise and Nicholas Ray, as well as his own concert works. The two teamed up for only seven films out of their large filmographies but they turned out as the career highpoint of both involved.

Among those seven films were such classics as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest; many of whose scores frequently rank among the best ever. Their partnership also created the iconic, screechy shower scene in Psycho, which is arguably the most famous scene in any movie ever.


5. Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone

At this point in the list, all of the scores and composers are as iconic as the films themselves. For instance, nobody can think of Sergio Leone’s masterpiece The Good, the Bad and the Ugly without hearing Ennio Morricone’s whistling theme in their head. The two have become mutually conjoined and inseparable in their legacy.

This pair has come to define the “Spaghetti Western” in public eye, creating a lasting impression despite only working on five films together in the genre. This limited number of collaborations between the two is not due to a feud like most of the other teams on this list, but simply because Leone only ever made a handful of films.

Morricone, on the other hand, has one of the largest filmographies of a composer in film history, working on over 500 movies in all sorts of genres and writing a sizable non-film discography as well. Some of his notable scores for directors other than Leone include The Mission, Days of Heaven, The Untouchables as well as his partnership with Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore.

His work for Leone’s western films is probably his most distinct, combining classic western motifs with more ethnic sounds and instruments, creating unique melodies that can be, at different times, intense and epic or meditative and soulful. He also wrote the soundtrack for Leone’s crime epic Once Upon a Time in America which featured a more traditional soundtrack of Italian themes.


4. Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev

Two of the greatest artistic minds of Soviet Russia teaming up together naturally yielded brilliant results. Unfortunately, their partnership was limited to only three films due to the technical limitations of the time (silent films) and the strain of working under political censorship.

Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most innovative and important early filmmakers, successfully switching from silent to sound films and, to students of film, is best known for his editing and use of montage in the “Odessa Steps Sequence” from his film Battleship Potemkin.

While not as well known, his other feature are similarly visionary and inventive, including a unique foray into Mexico. His last three films, which are the featured collaborations of the pair, are perhaps his most well crafted and polished, and benefit from sound as well.

Sergei Prokofiev was one of the most important composers of the 20th century, producing countless masterpieces in almost every field of music possible, including symphonies, ballets, operas and of course film scores, which are considered just as excellent as his other works.

The first project of the pair is the Teutonic war epic Alexander Nevsky, which is one of the only films in history to actually have some of footage filmed to fit the music composed for it. The intensity of the music, particularly for the iconic “Battle on the Ice”, is as important to the film as the camera footage. Their other project is the biographical trilogy Ivan the Terrible.

Although the final entry in the series was unfortunately unfinished due to Eisenstein’s early death, the first two films are arguably the director’s finest and most dynamic works and are accompanied by sweeping, epic scores by Prokofiev. All of the soundtracks for their collaborations were transcribed to concert suites and are played regularly.


3. Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand

Jacques Demy was one of the most visually inventive French directors of his time, unfairly overshadowed by New Wave directors like Godard and Truffaut. His films are notable for many artistic factors, such as color, saturation, choreography as well as strong emotional impact.

The most defining characteristic of Demy’s films, however, is that they are almost all a strange jazzy hybrid of film/opera/musical featuring original music by Demy’s collaborator and jazz musician Michel Legrand. Demy and Legrand teamed up seven times, off and on, for over twenty years, and although some of their later efforts were less successful, together they gave cinema some of the greatest and most beautiful musical films.

Legrand had a diverse musical career with a large output off recordings, including jazz records and many great soundtracks. Of these film scores, by far the most impressive are his original for-the-screen musicals, a daring effort almost never attempted except for some animated films. Their biggest hit was the melodramatic opera The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which music was constant and every line was sung.

The lively songs and the soaring love theme perfectly accompany the sharp colors and striking design of Demy’s camerawork. Some of their other delightful musicals include Lola, The Young Girls of Rochefort and the fairy tale The Donkey Skin.


2. Michael Curtiz and Erich Wolfgang Korngold

This team is comprised of two of the great early innovators in Hollywood. Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian American, was an incredibly busy filmmaker, responsible for directing over 150 movies in Europe and America. His films were also very revolutionary, popularizing genre trends and styles such as the swashbuckler.

The most famous film of Curtiz, although not directed by Korngold, is Casablanca, which is considered one of the greatest American movies of all time. The five films that the two did create together while not the deepest or thematically important of Curtiz’s work, but they stand out for their technical and visual splendor and their exciting stories.

Korngold is one of the earliest greats of film soundtrack, responsible for many of the trends in film scores today and is referenced frequently by modern composers as a great source of influence. For instance, the great John Williams borrowed heavily from Korngold’s King’s Row score for his Star Wars music. Korngold’s scores for Curtiz are among his finest compositions, even greater than many of his concert compositions.

Their swashbuckling films starring Errol Flynn, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood and The Seahawk, feature some of the most exciting and heroic music ever written, matching the epic imagery and dynamic action shown on screen. They also teamed up for less action oriented, but just as interesting fare, in The Sea Wolf and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.


1. Steven Spielberg and John Williams

Easily the most famous, popular and acclaimed team on this list, director Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams have worked together on over 25 feature films, many of which were blockbuster hits.

Spielberg, of course, is one of the most award-winning and highest grossing filmmaker of all time, winning three Best Directing Awards and nominated for six more.

His films range from fun, adventure flicks like the Indiana Jones series to futuristic science fiction movies like Minority Report, as well as much more serious, dark films like Schindler’s List. Although he has had some missteps along the way, his reliability and innate appeal keep him in the public eye, even after 40 years.

John Williams’s scores for Spielberg’s films, however, are not to be underrated as the instant recognizability of his themes and music are a major part of the branding and memorability of the movies, often determining their lasting status. For example, the theme music of Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Jaws are instantly matchable to their respective movie and are often remembered more than the plots themselves.

Not all of his scores are that flashy, though, and some of the more effective music is more understated like for Munich or Empire of the Sun where the two focused more on creating slow tension and atmosphere instead of dynamic moments. Their collaboration, which yielded more money and awards than any other team in film history will go down in history as one of the greatest artistic partnerships of all time.

Honorable Mentions: Hiroshi Teshigahara & Toru Takemitsu, Giuseppe Tornatore & Ennio Morricone, Yasujiro Ozu and Takanobu Saito, Billy Wilder & Miklos Rozsa.

Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.