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Whither the Zither?

[whitespace] 'This tune takes a lot out of your fingers,' said instrumentalist Anton Karas

By Richard von Busack

THE FIRST IMAGE in The Third Man is a zither plucked by invisible fingers: a visual parallel to the way Holly Martins himself is played like a musical instrument. This traditional Tyrolean folk instrument was by no means popular in Vienna after the war. Current visitors to Austria get to hear an awful lot of it, in honor of the best movie ever made in Vienna. Assistant director Guy Hamilton claims that one British producer commented, "Love the picture. Please take off the banjo."

Director Carol Reed discovered soloist Anton Karas playing, ignored, in a Viennese restaurant. Karas was brought back to London to record and overdub "The Third Man Theme." The tune was an international hit by the time The Third Man was released in America. "His zither will put you in a dither," claimed the American film posters and trailers for the movie. (Whatever happened to that kind of showmanship?)

For the hell of it, the musically inclined might want to mentally compare the "James Bond Theme" with "The Third Man Theme." They're cousins, certainly. A few sharps and flats here and there, a few changed intervals, a twangy electric guitar substituted for the twangy zither. Chilly strings have been part of any spy soundtrack since: especially John Barry's theme for The Ipcress File, with a quavery Hungarian hammer-zither called a cymbalom.

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From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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