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The Third Man music
 

The story behind Anton Karas' famous zither score.

Main image of The Third Man music

After the London Films logo (designed around a photograph of Big Ben), the first image of The Third Man is a tight close-up of the midsection of a zither, whose strings vibrate as they're plucked and play the music that is, if anything, more famous than the film itself.

The decision to commission a zither score from the Viennese musician Anton Karas was one of the best director Carol Reed made. It gave the film a completely distinctive sound. The music could so easily have been conventional and orchestral, perhaps incorporating the waltzes that are associated with 'the old Vienna' but would in all likelihood have been inappropriate in a film set in post-war Vienna, marred by the effects of massive Allied bombing raids, a ghost of its elegant fin-de-si├Ęcle self.

Reed first heard Karas play at a welcome party in Vienna in October 1948. He adored the sound of this forty-stringed middle European cousin to the guitar, and several days after the party he contacted Karas. When they met Reed made a rough recording of his playing. Back in England several weeks later Reed tried the music out as he began to scrutinise and edit footage. It became more and more an integral part of his sense of the film and finally he decided that the whole score should be provided by the zitherist.

Karas was brought to London in May 1949 and for three months he worked with rough cuts, improvising and fine-tuning until he and Reed were satisfied. Karas returned to Vienna. But when The Third Man was released in September, review after review picked out the haunting sound of the zither as crucial to the film's success. A record of "The Harry Lime Theme" was pressed: it sold half a million copies in three months.

Co-financer of the film, David O. Selznick, in London at the time, wrote on 25 November about -

THE SENSATION CAUSED BY KARAS'S ZITHER MUSIC IN "THIRD MAN." IT IS RAGE OF ENGLAND ... ENTIRELY UNRELATED NEWSPAPER ARTICLES AND EDITORIALS, EVEN ON POLITICS, CONTINUALLY REFER TO IT. INEVITABLY, THIS SUCCESS WILL BE REPEATED AMERICA IF WE ARE PREPARED FOR IT. WE SHOULD BE ABLE TO MAKE FORTUNE OUT OF THIS MUSIC.

The craze did spread to America. Selznick wrote to director King Vidor on 22 May 1952 that: "It may astonish you ... to learn that our share of the royalties to date has been very close to $100,000."

Karas received no share of the early revenue from his music (though later a royalty was allocated to him), but he did benefit from long sell-out tours in Europe and America in 1949 and 1950, during which he played to the King and Queen of England as well as the Pope. With the proceeds he bought a bar in Vienna, named after the film that made him, briefly, such a star.

Why is the music so successful? Most obviously it's "catchy", hummable; it stays in the mind. It also conveys a sense of exoticism, of provincial middle Europe, whose folk music had inspired composers like Bela Bartok earlier in the century. In addition the music is remarkably versatile: if for the most part it sounds wistful, sad, full of regret, it also suggests at times suspense, danger, pursuit.

Reviewers emphasised the versatility of the music when writing about the film. Richard Winnington wrote in The News Chronicle (3 September 1949) that the zither is used "in different stresses against the mood and against the action [and] it sharpens both to an extraordinary degree". William Whitebait in the New Statesman (10 September 1949) raved about Karas's playing:

What sort of music it is, whether jaunty or sad, fierce or provoking, it would be hard to reckon ... that little tune or another little tune sprung from the first, goes nipping away, indefinably. ... At moments the plucked chords will instil a plangent horror. The unseen zither-player ... is made to employ his instrument much as the Homeric bard did his lyre.

Because the music is so unusual and evocative it can be difficult to describe. The brilliant American critic Manny Farber, for example, writing in The Nation (1 April 1950) resorted to a weird, striking image: the music "hits one's consciousness like a cloudburst of needles". However it's described, the zither score of The Third Man is a unique piece of film music, which manages to create a vivid world all of its own. Sometimes it accentuates the dramatic action, at others it acts like a kind of ironic commentary, alleviating tension.

Perhaps it was because of this second aspect that the music disappears in the penultimate scene, when Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is chased and killed in the Vienna sewers. This scene is one of the film's most visually striking - with torchlights strafing the sewer-walls and huge shadows looming. It also has dramatic sound-effects: distorted shouts and echoes of voices ringing through the underground space. In the case of this scene the zither would probably have been too much of a distraction.

Rob White

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