Anton Karas and the theme from The Third Man

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.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Yeah, the music was a huge part of the film’s appeal to me. “jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark” captures the main theme well, but the soundtrack had non-jaunty, contemplative, mournful, and desperate moments. As close to perfect as a film can get, IMO. As with many great stories, the unspoken is at least as important as the spoken. As Ebert writes;

    Holly will never understand what Anna did to survive the war, and Anna has absolutely no desire to tell him.

    Another film whose music I think perfectly and hauntingly complements the story is Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

  2. DonDueed says

    A totally different kind of film (wry dark comedy) that used a similar approach in its sound track is the original (French) The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe. In that case the music was played on the panflute.

  3. Mano Singham says

    I was just reading some of the reviews of this film on Netflix and came across this:

    Over-rated film because of its then-novel cinematography but has been surpassed by so many, better films. The story is agonizing dullness; paper-thin stock characters whom you never have a reason to root for or be interested in who then have endless conversations instead of plot, tension, or drama. Suffers from all the problems of a novelist not understanding that film storytelling requires something different, and a weak director not understanding that a film requires a story, not simply sloppy camera angles.

    It is interesting how tastes can differ so widely.

  4. says

    I love that movie! I actually have an old LP of Karas playing.
    The mating of the music to the action is wonderful: think of that bit where Welles is first revealed in all his slightly pudgy yet whimsical evilness when the cat rubs against an ‘anonymous’ shoe, and someone turns on their light, and we see him as the zither goes crazy.
    Most film makers only produce a cuckoo clock — and some of them take almost as long as Switzerland! 🙂

  5. rq says

    Rob Grigjanis
    That movie freaked me right the fuck out, in large part due to the soundtrack. Loved it. The book is excellent, too.
    I read a review about it (the movie) once, where the reviewer had accidentally mixed up theatres -- he’d meant to go see Texas Chainsaw Massacre but wandered into Picnic at Hanging Rock by accident, and spent the entire movie in horrified suspense, expecting a chainsaw murderer to show up out of nowhere.

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