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?