July 7, 2015

It Happened on July 7th

Anton Karas Born, 1906

Anton Karas at the zither.
If you've ever seen the stunning 1949 thriller The Third Man -- and if you haven't, you really should -- you were probably entranced by the musical score. The melancholy jangling of the music seems to perfectly complement the images of post-war Vienna, and intensifies the "film noir-ish" atmosphere of this stunning film.

The music was written and performed by Anton Karas, a Viennese zither player discovered by director Carol Reed while he was searching Vienna for "authentic" Austrian music. He was looking for something that didn't reflect the gaiety of the traditional waltzes, which would have been entirely inappropriate for his film. At a production party he heard Karas play and realized that he'd found his music. He asked Karas to come to his hotel room and record for a particular section of the movie. Later, he realized that he simply had to have Karas create the entire score.

Karas had been born in Vienna, the son of a factory worker. Although he loved music and longed to become a band leader, his family simply couldn't afford that kind of musical education for their son. He was, however, allowed to learn to play an instrument -- an old zither, which he had found in his grandmother's attic.

The Wiener Riesenrad is one of the Vienna
locations featured prominently in the film.
At the age of 14 Karas began an apprenticeship at a tool and die factory, and took music classes in the evening. After he finished his apprenticeship he began to work in a car factory, but became unemployed in 1925 -- when he was 19 years old. This freed him to follow his true vocation, and soon he was performing at a heuriger, a particular type of wine bar common in Austria. Operating a heuriger requires a special license: it can only be operated by a wine-grower serving only his own product, and only his most recent year. The word heuriger means "this year's." Music provided at a heuriger would normally be provided by live musicians, playing on request for tips.

Once Reed decided he wanted Karas for his movie score, Karas was flown to London where he lived with Reed, working up to 14 hours a day for 12 weeks. More than once, he asked to return to Vienna, but Reed wouldn't let him leave. Karas later said that Reed had "kept him like a slave." When he had finished recording the score, a fire in the cutting room destroyed it, along with about half of the other film material. Karas had to re-record the entire score.

The movie was a phenomenal success, partly due to Karas's contribution. He found himself an international star when his The Third Man Theme was released as a single and immediately became a best-seller. Karas toured the world and performed for such notables as the British Royal family, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, and Pope Pius XII.

In Austria the film was not much appreciated in some circles, since it focused on Vienna in its demolished, post-war state. The public, however, adored Karas's contribution, and he became a star in his own country. He disliked the publicity and glamour and in 1954, he retired from touring and opened his own heuriger, which became a popular place with the Hollywood crowd. After 12 years, he retired from that, also. In his remaining years he only performed at special events.

Here's Anton Karas performing The Third Man Theme:

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