In writing about the film Gaslight, I mentioned that actor Joseph Cotten also appeared in The Third Man (1949). Anyone who has seen that film will undoubtedly recall the mesmerizing theme and the soundtrack. In his retrospective look at great films, critic Roger Ebert’s rave review begins:
Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”? The score was performed on a zither by Anton Karas, who was playing in a Vienna beerhouse one night when Reed heard him. The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.
Karas was an unknown at the time when Reed commissioned him to write and play the entire soundtrack but the theme rocketed to the top of the charts in 1950 and made him famous.
Most memorable films scores (Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, Rocky, Gone With the Wind to name a few) have lush orchestration. This score was unusual in that it featured just a single instrument. I loved the music but to be quite honest, I had no idea what a zither was or how it managed to produce such a full sound until I recently came across this clip of Karas playing the theme on it. The sound quality is not great but watching him perform is fascinating.
Ebert’s essay, written in 1996, mentions that a remake of this film was being planned. Mercifully, that does not seem to have happened.
Here’s a new trailer, made specially to commemorate its enhanced restoration, to encourage the rare person who has not seen this great film already to do so.