Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Don Cherry – "The Third Man Theme" (1950)

You never knew that you could be
Enchanted by a melody
The years will never drive it out

The years will never drive the most famous piece of zither music ever recorded out of my brain.  It’s embedded there forever.

Of course, I’m speaking of the theme to the 1949 movie, The Third Man, which was composed and recorded by Anton Karas.

Here’s the original trailer for The Third Man, which prominently features Karas's theme:

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Karas was an obscure Viennese zither player who was discovered by the film’s director, Carol Reed, quite by accident. 

From Karas’s Los Angeles Times obituary:

Karas, an unheralded musician in a Vienna wine tavern, was discovered by British director Carol Reed, who came here just after World War II to direct Orson Welles in “The Third Man.”

Reed, desperately searching for a theme tune for his villain Harry Lime, chanced on the tavern in Vienna's Grinzing wine-growing district.

Struck by the simple zither melodies, Reed asked a stunned Karas if he would compose the music for the film.  Karas protested, saying he had never actually written music.

Anton Karas playing the zither
As Karas later told the story, the director insisted and invited Karas to England.

The Austrian became homesick and asked to be allowed to return.  Reed told him he could – as soon as he had written the music.  

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The Third Man, which has a 99% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is considered by many to be the greatest British film ever.  A half million copies of the movie’s theme song – known as ‘The Third Man Theme” in the U.S. and “The Harry Lime Theme” in the UK – were sold within weeks of its release.  It topped the Billboard “Best Sellers in Stores” chart for 11 weeks in 1950.

Anton Karas became an international star.  He performed for members of the British, Dutch, Swedish, and Japanese royal families as well as for Pope Pius XII.

The popularity of the movie’s theme also caused a dramatic upsurge in the sale of zithers.  (I’m guessing that most of them were never played.)

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I learned to play “The Third Man Theme” on the piano when I was a teenager – long before I saw the movie.  I still have the sheet music:

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American historian Walter Lord, whose most popular books were A Night to Remember (about the sinking of the Titanic) and Day of Infamy (about the attack on Pearl Harbor), wrote lyrics for “The Third Man Theme” the year after the movie was released.

Here’s a 1950 recording of “The Third Man Theme” with Lord’s lyrics by Don Cherry, who is accompanied by the Victor Young Orchestra:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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