6. The Third Man
score by Anton Karas
Anton Karas’s alternately jaunty, distant, jarring, and haunting zither score is one of the singular breakthroughs of The Third Man, already a landmark film in and of itself. Discovered in a Vienna restaurant during production, Karas didn’t speak English but was nonetheless flown to London, where he mimed his way to creating perhaps the most remarkable score ever written, played on his zither, an unknown Mediterranean street instrument. More than the wry introduction, the layered and sharply ironic dialogue, even the unnerving, gorgeous cinematography of a decimated Vienna, Karas’s score creates an immediate sense of place even as, the breezy main theme set against a narrative of war crimes, murder, and paranoia, it alienates the audience and imbues the film with a deep, deep sense of fatal irony. The Third Man is the first truly postmodern film, hyper aware of cinema conventions and expectations, and Karas’s zither is its key technique, allowing the audience to comment on and invest in the narrative, even as it conceals the darkness lingering just under the demolished streets. Its devil-may-care, disaffected tones, evoking perfectly the carelessness of Allied victors, serves as the seminal score for the ultimate filmic tract on the moral fault-lines of Western civilization, split open by all-encompassing war.