You listen to a piece of music; a song or a symphony and by some miracle of neuro-chemistry it is encoded into your memory.
It may lie dormant there forever more.
Or, it may be a recurring theme in your mind – a faithful companion as you navigate life’s crooked highway.
There is no predicting when a certain piece of music will leave the draughty halls of memory and voila! suddenly be right there playing at the forefront of your mind.
Sometimes the trigger is a person you suddenly think of decades after you last met.
Sometimes the trigger is a return to a place you once lived in when you were young and carefree or young and anguished.
Sometimes you have to accept that the recurrence of this piece of music in your life is like so much else – a mystery.
Why I should have woken up last night with, ‘The Third Man Theme’ dancing through my consciousness is beyond my understanding.
But, there indubitably, it was.
So, nothing for it but to patrol the shelves in my music library (adorned with a framed photograph of Bernard Herrmann) labelled, ‘Movie Soundtracks’ and seek out The Third Man and match my drowsy remembrance with the real thing.
The valves warm up, the stylus caresses the vinyl and
I think the dance listening to this tune inspired me to perform must have a long Germanic tongue twisting name but whatever it’s called it sure sets the limbs a twirl and gets the blood singing at 6 o’clock in the morning!
The Homeric Anton Karas and his magic Zither.Embed from Getty Images
Now, obviously having played the record four or five times without in anyway exhausting it’s charm and effervescent brilliance there was nothing to do but to ascend the spiral staircase to the Film Library and make my way to the, ‘Film Noir’ shelves (adorned with a framed photograph of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer) and pull out my Blu Ray copy of Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece and settle down to breakfast in war torn Vienna with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard.
Of course, scanning the credits (and I’m the kind of person who always scans the credits) I was reminded that a very important contribution to the film’s moral complexity and fluidity of tone and character was supplied by novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene.Embed from Getty Images
Graham Greene had a cinematic imagination and a compulsion to test how real men and women wrestled agonisingly with the moral and philosophical dilemmas of living through the personal, social and cultural catastrophe of War.
What made some people behave heroically while others plumbed depths of depravity?
Was survival the supreme value in such times?
What hope is there for love and loyalty and friendship amid the falling bombs, the machine gun fire and the starvation?
Greene had been a film critic and knew that there was only one British Film Director with the eye and the empathy to bring such a story to haunting life on the screen – Carol Reed.
Reed had been a Film Maker since the mid 1930s and he had diligently learned his trade.
The two films preceding, ‘The Third Man’ – ‘Odd Man Out’ and, ‘The Fallen Idol’ were both highly atmospheric and technically impeccable productions.
Reed knew how to make the camera tell the story, how to frame actors and action, how to plant suggestion in the mind of the audience, how to build and release tension, how to reveal and obscure character and how to thread humour and surprise through a narrative.
He knew that music, underscoring or prefiguring image, made a film burn itself into the imagination of an audience.
Reed knew that you had to conjure up some scenes which would stay forever in the dreams of the audience and that the key to those scenes was rarely plot but lighting, dialogue, scenery and atmosphere.
Some people, and I’m in that company, will tell you that 90% of ensuring success for a film is casting.
So, your film is set in Post War Vienna where the buildings lie in ruins and where every shade of human virtue and vice is present in public or in the shadows.
You need a, larger than life ‘Villain’ who has enigmatic charm as well as a sulphurous lack of scruples.
Someone who knows exactly what he’s doing and who is always able to convince himself (and most of the audience) that whatever he chooses to do is entirely reasonable in all the circumstances.
These are not normal times – you cant expect me to be bound by those rules we followed before (if we ever did) can you?
You need an actor who has presence, who fills the screen, seducing your attention.
You need an actor who can be a Con Man who believes his own Con.
You need an actor who can deliver oracular dialogue while expertly balancing deadly seriousness with black humour.
You need Orson Welles.Embed from Getty Images
Now, your, ‘Hero’ is not going to be a charismatic match for Orson Welles (who could be!).
No, you’re going to need an actor who in perilous times is more than tempted by the charms of an old friend.
An actor who struggles to know what’s the right thing to do in all the circumstances.
An actor who is weary and reluctant to act until he’s forced by events to act.
An event like falling in love.
An event like seeing, being unable not to see once seen, how terrible the results of a sulphurous lack of scruples can be for the innocent who didn’t know enough to get out of the way.
You need a Hero who is troubled and who will remain troubled whatever course of action he chooses in the end.
The sound of the bullet dies in the air but it will echo in your soul forever more.
The woman walks past you and keeps on walking and all you can do is draw on your cigarette and start your own lonely walk into the future,
You need Joseph Cotton.Embed from Getty Images
Every Film Noir has to have a role for an actress who can believably drive or accompany a seemingly rational man as he commits terrible acts which will lead almost inevitably to self destruction.
The camera has to love her.
The ghost of electricity has to howl in the bones of her face.
You’d do anything for her.
You’ll never really know her and though that drives you mad it spurs you on too.
She can lead you to the gallows or walk away from you without a backward glance but you know, you know, she’ll never leave your dreams.
This film is set in Austria after a World War so you’re going to need an enigmatic European beauty.
You’re going to need Alida Valli.
Assemble all those elements – the script, the location, the cast and the music – and all you have to do now is ensure all the elements cohere perfectly into a work which once seen can never be forgotten.
Begin at the beginning with a title sequence which introduces the mysterious theme tune and the expectant audience, breathless in the dark, is yours – Roll ‘em Carol!
The Third Man was an enormous box office and critical success and was immediately recognised as a haunting work of art.
And, everyone recognised that Anton Karas’ music was absolutely integral to the triumph of the film as a whole.
Carol Reed had showed astonishing perception in realising that the musician he chanced upon when out for a night carousing in Vienna had a sound that would enchant tne world.
And, it was surely this enchantment that The Band saught to invoke when they recorded their own version for their homage to the music of their youth with the Album, ‘Moondog Matinee’.
There’s something of the ‘There’s no one watching let’s play what we like’ sound of The Basement Tapes recreated here.
Kick your shoes off, set your rocker rockin’ and light up your biggest grin!
The Third Man Theme has a hypnotic quality that calls out a cross the decades.
Certainly it called out to Folk Maestro Martin Carthy who tends to not be recognised enough for his distinctively brilliant guitar playing.
Remedied right here Martin!
To ensure you end up with a great film you’ve got to have a great ending.
The audience leaves the cinema with the ending burned into their minds and looking at the film as a whole in the light of the ending.
Great Films have great endings.
Think of, ‘Le Quatre Cent Coups’, ‘Ikiru’ or, The Searchers’.
Think, above all of the devastating final scene of The Third Man.
For Ramon – a true man of Film and a true Friend.
Sign me up for that “Third Man” fan club I’m sure you’re about to launch. Of course I qualify: I’m the only person I know (and probably that you do), who actually owns a German concert zither and A. Darr’s 1888 booklet on how to play it, “Method for Zither”, reissued by Carl Fischer Inc. in 1950 — the year after “The Third Man” came out.
Not only do we share an admiration for the film, its music, its script, its cast, and every other darn thing about it, but, as you rightly point out, that ending! Probably the best in the history of movies. As you may know, Graham Greene graciously acknowledged that Carol Reed overrode his (Greene’s) more pedestrian sequence with that indisputable masterpiece you show a clip from.
Here’s to good movies: ’46 to ’54 or so: what a time that was.
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Always delighted to have your comments here Terry.
Such a great film.
Yes from a golden era.
It’s an amazing film… and that music – you’re right, it’s absolutely integral to the success of the story:))
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Amazingly evocative isn’t it. Carol Reed really knew how to pull all the elements together to make a great film. Thom