Film Noir In Sound

Karas’ haunting zither was the soul of The Third Man

Camilo C. Antonio
Dec 01, 2009

On Nov. 23, musicians and film lovers joined to celebrate the anniversary of a remarkable event: Exactly 60 years ago,  The Third Man premiered. It has since become a cult movie about Vienna just after World War II. It starred Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles, and it took an instrument and a musician to unknown heights.

In fact, at the celebration last month, it was not Carol Reed, the film’s director, nor Graham Greene, who scripted it, nor Orson Welles, the actual third man and wunderkind of film on whom the spotlight fell. Rather, it shifted to the creator of its soundtrack, Anton Karas, in an event staged by zither virtuoso Cornelia Mayer and historian and author Brigitte Timmermann, who mobilized energies to make an apt Premiere Event.

Greene’s screenplay tells the story of dime novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) who arrives in Vienna to find that his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) had been killed in an accident under mysterious circumstances. But things are not what they seem: Lime is accused by British Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) of being a black market racketeer, dealing in watered-down penicillin. Martins’ investigation leads to Lime’s girl Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) and an assortment of questionable friends, to conflicting testimony, deception and betrayal, and cloudy reflections of a shifting reality that remains elusive.

While wildly successful in both Britain and America, in Austria, local critics were underwhelmed and the film ran for only a few weeks. "In Britain it’s a thriller about friendship and betrayal," wrote The Guardian critic William Cook after his 2006 visit to The Third Man Museum. "In Vienna it’s a tragedy about Austria’s troubled relationship with its past."

Anton Karas’s music is inseparable from the The Third Man. An Austrian zither player whom Reed had reportedly spotted in a Viennese Heurigen wine tavern towards the end of a shooting in the Vienna Woods, and then cajoled into composing the music for the film he was directing in 1948, Karas produced and performed a score that perfectly captures a mood and an era.

"It’s emblematic film music, really and rather unsettling," confided Susan Katzmann, a British resident of Vienna outside the concert, echoing the feelings of many that night.

Franz Karl Prüller agreed. Just back from travels between Prague and Bucharest where he manages social development projects, he cherished the sense of underworld goings-on with a spine-tingling "Ohrwurm," a tune you can’t get out of your ear.

"The melody is what counts," Prüller went on. "The Harry Lime theme conjured up a world of Wiener Strizzi and Gauner – the small criminals and gangsters caught between East-West tension amidst the low life of people struggling in war-ravaged Vienna."

Indeed, Reed’s classic film noir direction was imbued with a spirit of secrecy and suspicion, with everyone distrustful of everyone else. Karas’s music captures that "aura of the genre," Timmermann confirms, which she uses for her "Walking Tour – In the Footsteps of…" that includes the original sewer film location. Her main clientele are tourists.

"Strangely, I sense an indigenous lackadaisical attitude, a lack of interest in the film," she said. "We didn’t get much institutional or media support for this event."

Popular memories are often all too short. In a his recent weekend column, "Band Aid for Seasonal Spirit", a cultural round up that appeared in the Financial Times (21/22 November), critic Peter Aspden mentions the Harry Lime Theme as having landed at the top of the charts of the 1940s. It is "a clever distinctive melody that nevertheless carried the menace of the film in which it sounded, The Third Man, a grim examination of human toxicity."

But the FT arts columnist did not mention Karas. Paradoxically then, it is fitting that Karas became the focus of the celebration in the, Liebhartstaler Bockkeller, in Vienna’s Ottakring district next to vineyards close to where Karas had earned his living until Reed brought him and his instrument to the cinematic world.

Cornelia Mayer took on the challenge of bringing Karas’s music to life as well as demonstrating the zither’s long and rich tradition, ranging from Alpine folk music to concert pieces, encouraged by the Empress Elizabeth, herself, an enthusiastic zither player.

Timmermann, author of the definitive book on the film, The Third Man’s Vienna (published in 2003 in German; in English in 2005), was happy about the venue, where a crowd of over 100 packed the Baroque salon: a classic Viennese space of tall gilded mirrors over a lush parquet floor, crowned with a painted ceiling of floral bouquets spilling over their sensual gold frames – a room reminiscent of Harry Lime’s grand apartment in the Palais Pallavicini, at Josefsplatz 5.

The evening, courtesy of the Wiener Volksliedwerk, had an interesting format. In the 1st part, Cornelia Mayer managed to tease the audience, many swaying their heads to her virtuoso interpretations of such classical pieces as the lilting "Sezessionpolka," and the bravura waltz "Chanteclair"; and then humming to the Heurigenlied "Wien bleibt Wien." Introductory notes were given by Peter Gieler, General-Secretary of the Anglo-Austrian Society in the UK who had flown in for the occasion.

In the second half, historian Brigitte Timmermann commented on the role of the music in individual scenes while memorable film-stills were projected on a large screen alongside a smaller one which showed Mayer’s fingers flying over the zither’s strings as though within the dark atmospheric tunes lay the clue to Holly Martin’s search for Harry Lime through Vienna’s cafes, ruins and cul-de-sacs.

In The Third Man, the music, like the city of Vienna itself, is a true character in the film, stirring what can be best described as a kind of psycho-acoustic reaction in the audience.  A number of Austrians in the audience had come out of curiosity about a film they had first seen in the 80s when they were in their teens.

"I remember the film as being rather dark and really dank, most certainly because of the music," said Nadja Zerunian, a creative designer, here on a visit from New York.

Johannes Witt-Dörring, an executive oil engineer visiting from Sydney, shared this textured description. "It is the zither music that had the most lasting impression on me, haunting and evocative of danger – a creeping music that led into Vienna’s inner life, even down to its sewers. That atmosphere of the mysterious, is what I really loved about the film."

Karas’s grandson, Werner Chudik, was also on hand and had brought along a specially-built table that his grandfather had used to entertain the guests from around the world at his own Heuriger, until it closed in 1975. The table, outfitted with a resonating box to enable the desired acoustic qualities, gave Mayer a special opportunity to achieve the "original" characteristic sound that Reed had been able to elicit from Karas for the movie.

Chudik confirmed an episode about Reed asking Karas to experiment with playing the zither under a kitchen table by which he obtained that needed creepiness that was eventually recorded and used in the film.

The story goes that Reed was about to give up on Karas, who, after a three-week stay under contract in London, could not produce the desired composition. The defining moment came when Reed, taking Karas to catch a flight back to Vienna, suggested that they pass by the Recording Studio at Shepperton. Fortunately, Karas caved in to the Director’s request: right then and there, the searched-for tune was born, not as a written composition, but more directly from Karas’s improvisation on his zither.

Like the accordion, and the fiddlers and clarinettists of the central European folk tradition – from Heurigen ‘Schrammelmusik’ to Klezmer ensembles and Gypsy bands – much of the music was improvised. Perhaps Karas was simply more at home playing in real time, directly from his heart. Later on, Karas did compose "Zither Dither," in the wake of the zither fever that went raging through Britain shortly after the film’s premiere in 1949.

Timmermann’s book is filled with anecdotes, including one about Vienna Philharmonic members and others making caustic comments about Karas always plucking the same primitive and sentimental tunes. Many Austrians seemed to have successfully passed on this negative bias like a mimetic code, notwithstanding the film’s success as an export article. Karas may not have minded all that much; he was appointed an Austrian Ambassador in his own right, and played before Royalty (British, Dutch) and in the Vatican, where Pope Pius XII gave him an audience beyond the usual time.

Nevertheless, Timmermann laments, "Really, it is a shame that not too many Austrians care about the jewel of a film they’d helped to create – a time-capsule and a potentially significant tourist magnate." Other Austrians agreed.

"Perhaps this is again a matter of our bloody identity," surmised Witt-Dörring, "that almighty Verdrängung by which we block out undesirables, starting with our historical memories."

But, will The Third Man really have the same fate as The Sound of Music, being relegated to the dustbin of Austrian history and as just another one of those embarrassing cultural clichées – so remote and so what?

Designer Zerunian doesn’t think so. "Anton Karas’s ingenious music still works for me like the Doctor Zhivago soundtrack through a snow-blown landscape," she confides, "a meditative stream as I go through cobblestones soaked in mist and rain."

It’s a feeling anyone knows who loves the film, for whom the scenes replay in the mind’s eye as you walk through the familiar locations around Vienna’s 1st District. I too sense the Harry Lime Theme’s repetitive sequences mutating endlessly in my own mind, as I sip my Prosecco at Limes Bar-Restaurant by the Josefsbrunnen on the Hohe Markt, and as I walk by the gothic church of Maria am Gestade.