Great Songs in Film #8: The Third Man Theme; Written and Performed by Anton Karas for the soundtrack to the film The Third Man (1949).



Anton Karas’s “Third Man Theme” – an instrumental played on Greek Zither that opens Carol Reed’s 1949 film masterpiece The Third Man — has always mystified me.

The tune is absolutely hypnotic, and it works with the film almost perfectly, but how in the world was someone imaginative enough — perhaps Carol Reed himself — to think that music on a Greek folk-instrument would work in a post-war, Vienna-based, spy thriller?

I’d love to know the actual film history here, but what I have always imagined is that – with the annihilation of so much of Europe and the crumbling of national boundaries — cities like Vienna and Rome and Paris became magnets for all sorts of travellers from diverse ethnic and national identities.

Yes, there was rebuilding to do, but – as The Third Man shows so powerfully – there was also a lot of money to be made in smuggling and the underground economy.

It has always  seemed to me  that Greek music in Vienna signaled this ethnic crazy quilt that – at least for a while – characterized the wanderering and the seeking of so many of the lost souls of post-war Europe. The theme seemed to imply that this was a time of confusion and opportunism in which anybody could show up anywhere. The way, for example, that the mysterious Harry Lime just “shows up.”

Why not a Greek Zither in a Vienna spy film by an iconic British director?

Whoopee! Criterion Collection Now Available for Viewing on Netflix.


Netflix has added much of the Criterion catalogue to the films they make available for instant viewing/streaming. This means that, if you are a Netflix member, much of the 20th century film canon (with an admittedly Western European bias)  is there for you to enjoy.

I would never argue that this is the best way to appreciate a great film. A DVD played on a decent sized monitor will almost always trump your laptop. (In an era when,sadly,  seeing a film on a large screen is almost too much to ask for!)  But if you’d like to check off some classics you somehow missed, this is worth checking out.

I just quickly glanced at the Netflix “instant-viewing” list and saw G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief,  Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, and an incredible treat that I first saw thanks to my colleague Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, Henri-George Clouzot’s Le Corbeau.

I almost forgot to mention that this collection includes Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, a haunting meditation on  rootlessness and loss with a beautiful, spare screenplay by playwright Sam Shepard.

And many more.