The Third Man theme

February 4, 2010

I’m sure many of you have heard this tune, not knowing what it was. I figured it out after watching THE THIRD MAN (1949) directed by Carol Reed, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

What is amusing to me is how Reed chose to use Anton Karas, the Viennese zither player, to score the entire film. The program notes on YouTube say:

Release dates, September 2, 1949 UK 2 January 1950 USA
The distinctive musical score was composed and played on the zither by Anton Karas. A single, “The Third Man Theme”, released in 1950 (Decca in UK, London Records in USA) became a best-seller, and later an LP was released.
Before the production came to Vienna, Karas was an unknown wine bar performer. Reed and Howard fell in love with Karas’ zither after hearing him play inside a cafĂ©. Karas agreed to record some of his own compositions on a reel-to-reel tape machine that Reed set up in the bedroom of his hotel; one of these was later to become the Harry Lime Theme and become a popular hit. The exposure made Karas an international star after the movie was released.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’?”
And I would say that never an introduction to the sadness reality was presented so well.

While musics plays, various documentary-style shots of post-war, divided, fragmented and occupied Vienna (a ‘frontier’ city dividing East and West – and governed by four Allied forces) are surveyed, an anonymous voice-over delivers a first-person prologue. Director Carol Reed in the original UK version. Joseph Cotten delivers prologue in US version.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Leonid February 7, 2010 at 4:43 am

Roger, thank you for the excellent post!

It’s interesting that in the Bourne trilogy (Bourne identity and others) the composer, some British guy, I think, used an “ethnic” soundtrack in many of the action scenes.

It worked very well I think. In an interview he said that the solution did not come immediately. The director, Paul Greengrass, rejected a symphonic action sound, that had been suggested to him initially, and several other approaches.

It’s interesting that this very “symphonic action” type of sound did not work very well, I think, in Casino Royale (007). Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the score was too heavy, too massive. The Bourne score was more subtle, and it worked better, I think.

And who knows, maybe a shepherd’s flute (speaking metaphorically) reaches the heart of the viewer/listener directly, while Scheonbreg’s music needs to pass several decoding blocks, so to speak, within the listener’s brain. People just don’t have the time for that.

Roger, I would like to add, if I may, to your collection of ethnic music:

“Pandeirada” by Neboa is a liverly, dynamic folk piece, probably worth listening to more than once.

All the best,


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