By Zachary Fairbrother for Boston Compass (#123)
May 26, 2020
Anton Karas’ iconic zither music to the movie “The Third Man” happened by a twist of fate. While director Carol Reed and actor Orson Wells were drinking at a café in Vienna after a long day of shooting the film, they overheard Anton in the background playing for tips. Instantly, Reed knew that was the music he wanted in his film. Carol approached Anton after the show but he spoke no English and none of Reed’s party spoke German, so staff and patrons helped translate Reed’s offer. At first, Anton declined because it meant having to travel to England--but he eventually agreed and recorded 40 mins of music over six weeks. The composition that became the most famous was “Harry Lime’s Theme,” a song he had written but not performed in 15 years. He said of the song: "when you play in a café, nobody stops to listen… This tune takes a lot out of your fingers. I prefer playing 'Wien, Wien', the sort of thing one can play all night while eating sausages at the same time." The music was a huge success--after the release of the film, it sold more than a half a million copies within the first two weeks. Many versions of the song have charted, resulting in around 40 million in sales. For a period, Karas had a successful touring career but ultimately his soundtrack was a one hit wonder. Disliking the limelight, he retired in 1966 saying that he preferred to play to locals who understood him, his language and music.